The Wily Political Strategy of Pope Francis

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“Resistance is now evident,” Pope Francis told an interviewer. “And that’s a good sign for me.”Photo: Mark Lennihan

When Pope Francis makes his first trip to the United States this month, he will act on a grand stage much as previous popes have done. There will be a private meeting with the president and public Masses in Washington, D.C.; New York; and Philadelphia. He will address the United Nations. Two aspects of his trip, though, will be unprecedented: He will be the first pope to address Congress, and, equally significant, he will visit homeless people in D.C., underprivileged third-graders in East Harlem, and prisoners in a Philadelphia correctional facility, where he will minister to 100 inmates and their families.

Counterbalancing his meetings with world leaders is a classic Francis move and a potent embodiment of his global agenda. In the two and a half years since his election, Francis has earned a reputation for his simplicity and directness, but the pope from Argentina is also a master of political symbolism and an immensely shrewd politician. He knows that the eyes of all nations will be on the message “the Pope of the Poor” delivers to the world’s richest nation.

The pope’s religious message — that the Gospel should be joyful, merciful, and embrace everyone, especially the poor — is plain and direct. And yet the political strategies he uses to enact that vision are sophisticated and even wily. Inside the Church, he has set out to modernize the Vatican, rooting out corruption and careerism and placing the pastoral care of ordinary people before dogma and rules. Love and inclusion now come before judgment and condemnation. In the larger world, his mission is just as radical: to realign global policy to better aid the poor and excluded. That has included pushing nations to address the prickly issues of climate change and economic inequality.

As a political operator, Pope Francis can be diplomatic but also stubbornly defiant. And he knows how to balance these approaches one against the other for maximum practical effect. Take, for instance, his recent encyclical on the care of the environment, Laudato Si’, in which he rebuked the world’s politicians for weak leadership in combating global warming. The document was timed to influence three major U.N. summits — one on aid financing in Addis Ababa in July; the U.N. General Assembly to fix sustainable-development goals, at which he will speak on this visit; and the climate-change conference in Paris in December.

Even before the document was launched, skeptics began a campaign of “pre-buttals” designed to undermine the impact of the pope’s message. To counter them, the pope cited within the document several previous popes, bishops of more than 15 nations, Greek Orthodox theologians, and the findings of the 97 percent of scientists who have concluded that climate change is created largely by human activity. This is the voice of many, not just one man, was the pope’s message.

Francis is unafraid of confrontation. To launch the encyclical, he recruited a top global-warming expert, professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who once described the U.S. population as “climate illiterate.” He also invited the activist Naomi Klein, a self-proclaimed “secular Jewish feminist,” onto a Vatican platform to promote the document. The episode demonstrated Francis’s awareness of the importance of alliance-building. This pope, who pointedly gave several interviews early on to one of Italy’s leading atheist intellectuals, does not confine his networking to within the Church, especially when, as Klein put it, “many powerful Church insiders simply cannot be counted upon to champion Francis’s transformative climate message.”

Klein is right, but it’s not just his message on climate change that has faced resistance. Francis inherited a Roman hierarchy that was staunchly conservative. Almost immediately, he began overturning the old way of doing things, bypassing the usual channels and preferring the unofficial to the official: When Francis wanted to get a message to the Chinese government, instead of using a Vatican diplomat, he sent it via some Argentine missionaries who he knew had good contacts in China.

He exiled the more contumacious elements in the senior bureaucracy — known as the Roman Curia — like the U.S. cardinal Raymond Burke, whom Francis saw not just as a doctrinal hard-liner but also as an obstructive and even mischievous operator. Francis removed him from the body that appoints Catholic bishops. Burke responded by saying that under Francis, the Church seemed like a “ship without a rudder” that had also “lost its compass.” It was what the Church historian Eamon Duffy called “a dramatic departure from the protocol that inhibits cardinals from public criticism of living popes.” Francis then axed Burke from his post as head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court. Burke openly vowed to “resist” any liberalization of the Church and talked of “a real risk of schism” — not a view taken by most U.S. conservative bishops. “Burke is the leader of the Catholic equivalent of the tea party,” one insider dismissively told me.

It was not just Burke whom the pope sacked. Dozens of Curia officials have been dispatched back to their home countries, having been politely thanked for their service. Prelates Francis trusts have been promoted, sometimes leapfrogging the curial pecking order.

Francis has appointed 39 cardinals. Not all were from the same point on the liberal-conservative spectrum, but all were pastors rather than culture-war ideologues. What was most striking about his appointments, though, was their geographical spread. Only 14 were from Europe, and none were from the United States. He appointed new cardinals from some of the poorest places on Earth — Burkina Faso, Haiti, Nicaragua, Côte d’Ivoire, Tonga, and Myanmar. As a result, for the first time in history, Europe now has fewer than half the world’s cardinals. The first pope from the global South is orchestrating a shift that could change Catholicism forever.

Notable among those who did not get a red hat was Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in whose city Francis will be saying the biggest public Mass of his visit. Chaput is widely regarded as the ideological leader of the Church’s U.S. conservatives. Within weeks of the pope’s installation in 2013, he groused publicly that “the right wing of the Church” had “not been really happy about his election.” He even published on his diocesan website excerpts of emails from Catholics critical of Francis. One complained that Francis was accusing priests “who are serious about moral issues of being small-minded.”

But Francis is more of a centrist than his liberal supporters often realize. He does not want to take the Church to the left but back to its traditional middle ground. He has not purged most of the conservatives and has even embraced hard-liners like the German cardinal Gerhard Müller, whom he left in his post as the Church’s chief doctrinal watchdog. Another arch­conservative, Cardinal George Pell, has been promoted to be the third-most-powerful figure in the Vatican as its finance supremo. Francis wants to include all shades of the political spectrum. This is in contrast to previous popes, who largely promoted men in their own conservative image.

Where there is opposition, Pope Francis seems unfazed by it. “Resistance is now evident,” he told an interviewer. “And that’s a good sign for me, getting the resistance out in the open … If there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn’t be normal.” Francis even nurtured debate at the 2014 Synod of Bishops. When a steering committee hand-picked by Francis tried to press a more inclusive line on the divorced and gays, there was outright opposition from conservatives. Some of them have continued to speak out in the run-up to the second Synod, which takes place in Rome in October. Francis has picked the same team to run the 2015 Synod. He himself takes a reconciliatory view toward the treatment of the remarried and gays, and some suspect Francis might impose his own views whatever the Synod decides. The pope’s friends describe him as a “chess player” whose “every step has been thought out.”

Keeping people guessing is part of Francis’s management technique, one insider told me. Perhaps his most celebrated departure from past tradition was his refusal to live in the papal palace, preferring instead two rooms in the Vatican guesthouse the Casa Santa Marta. The staffs of previous popes controlled who got to see the pontiff. By living in the Casa Santa Marta, this pope has access to a wide range of people. His private secretaries are just secretaries, not gatekeepers. Francis works with them in the mornings in the palace, which he refers to as “La Su” (“Up There”). But after plowing through official paperwork, he goes back to the Casa Santa Marta for lunch and then, after a short nap, works all afternoon “Down Here” in his small suite. Papal officials know little about what he does there. He makes phone calls, books his own appointments, and sees a range of individuals for private discussions. His secretaries often discover what he has done only days afterward. Sometimes they never find out.

No one knows all of what he’s doing,” says his press secretary, Father Federico Lombardi. “His personal secretary doesn’t even know. I have to call around: One person knows one part of his schedule, someone else knows another part.”

One of the major internal tasks facing the pope has been the reform of the Vatican Bank, which had become a byword for scandal and dysfunction. To be his eyes and ears inside the bank, Francis appointed Monsignor Battista Ricca, a former papal diplomat who had run the Rome hostel where Francis stayed when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Francis liked Ricca and placed great confidence in him. Diehards inside the bank, who wanted to maintain the old traditions of privilege and secrecy that allowed them to pursue their own agenda, fought back. They decided that they needed to get rid of Ricca.

Just a month after his appointment, the Italian newsmagazine L’Espresso broke a story claiming that Ricca had had an affair with a male captain in the Swiss Army and had taken his lover with him when he was sent to Uruguay as a papal diplomat. It was widely assumed that Ricca would have to resign. But when Ricca did submit his resignation, Pope Francis refused to accept it. He saw the leaks behind the story as a deliberate attempt by conservatives to undermine his reform program for the Vatican Bank. It was when questioned about the affair that Francis uttered what has become perhaps the defining phrase of his papacy: “Who am I to judge?”

But that iconic line also highlights Pope Francis’s calculated ambiguity. He did not actually say whether he approved of gay priests. The secular world understood that he was signaling a change from the previous Church position, which did judge, decreeing gay sex “intrinsically disordered.” Conservatives glossed the phrase in the opposite direction.

Vatican insiders used a variety of metaphors to describe Francis’s approach: “He loves to set hares running,” one said. “He likes to fly a kite,” said another. “There is no innocence about it. But rather like a secular politician, he will say: ‘Let’s float the idea and see what happens,’ ” said a third. “He’s launching ideas. It suits him to have the ideas floated without being pinned down on the specific.” But the signal that “Who am I to judge?” sent to the wider world was unmistakable. After decades of popes who wanted to make assertions, Pope Francis wants the Church to start asking questions.

He did something similar this month when he announced that priests would be able to forgive women who have had an abortion. There were all manner of caveats to keep the conservatives from protesting — the woman had to be contrite, the power would initially only last for 12 months during the pope’s Year of Mercy — and it was craftily coupled with an olive branch to an ultratraditionalist group that has been in open rupture with Rome since 1988. But the public gesture toward greater compassion and clemency was clear and dramatic. Again, it didn’t change doctrine, but it was revolutionary in its semiotics.

On the global stage, Francis has shown something of the same elliptical subtlety. That was evidenced in his role in brokering last year’s talks between Washington and Havana, which ended five decades of stalemate between the world’s greatest power and the last remnant of Cold War communism. The pope noted that President Obama had said after his reelection that he wanted better relations with Cuba to be part of his legacy. Francis set the Church’s diplomatic emissaries working behind the scenes. By the time Obama visited the Vatican in March 2014, Francis was ready with a suggestion. Vatican diplomats would broker a series of secret meetings, in Canada. When the talks looked like they were breaking down, the pope personally wrote to the American and Cuban presidents urging them to trust one another.

A few days before Pope Francis arrives in the U.S., he will say Mass next to a portrait of Che Guevara in Revolution Square in Havana. This comes just two months after the pontiff accepted a hammer-and-sickle crucifix from the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales. All of which compounds for conservatives the idea that the pope is some kind of communist. “The Holy Father is not making things easy for us,” an American diplomat said privately in Rome recently.

Pope Francis will not be concerned. For him, going to Cuba immediately before he goes to the U.S. is a gesture of balance. He used the same premeditated evenhandedness on his visit to the Holy Land, where he boosted Palestinian aspirations by praying at the security wall that divides Bethlehem and then, the next day, kissed the hands of Holocaust survivors and prayed at a memorial to Israeli victims of suicide bombings. Pope Benedict XVI, a shy scholar, relied on words; his predecessor, John Paul II, invented the papal stadium world tour. This pope uses quiet gestures to leverage his moral authority.

Paul Vallely is the author of Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (Bloomsbury).

*This post has been updated to reflect a factual error. A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Francis was presenting a bible he received from Saint John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota to the Library of Congress. St. John’s University, not the pope, will present a St. John’s Bible to the Library of Congress.

*This article appears in the September 7, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.