Sign Up

Did Pope Francis Get to His Post Too Late?

How the Catholic Church wasted important time on the urgent road to reinvention.

September 21, 2015

How the Catholic Church wasted important time on the urgent road to reinvention.

It is a telling indication of the transformative powers of Pope Francis that a stunning array of people from around the world, including many Protestants, are deeply impressed by this pope.

He is certainly a breath of fresh air, a man who seems determined to modernize the Catholic church.

And yet, for all the positive attention that the Jesuit priest from Argentina has created for the Catholic Church and the Catholic cause, his attractiveness raises a troublesome question for the church: Did he get to his post too late to see through the significant reforms he is advocating for or that he has announced?

There is an intense struggle over the future direction of the Church. Francis has plenty of adversaries in the top echelons of the Church, inside the Roman Curia and well beyond Rome. Many would like nothing more than to see him moving off the global stage.

A little too late?

Reform-minded Catholics who welcome Francis’s various initiatives to improve the governance structures of the church and key steps on the social front, including toward women, are understandably nervous.

They realize that, in that titanic — and, behind the scenes, often relentless — struggle, the Pope’s fragile health is not an asset.

With the benefit of hindsight, they wonder whether it would have been much better for the Catholic Church if Francis had taken over the papacy back in 2005.

In that papal election, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the runner-up to Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the arch-conservative from Germany, who subsequently became Pope Benedict XVI.

Even though the Argentine managed to take over the papacy eight years later, given his apparent exhaustion and weak health at times, there is already thoughtful speculation about who might succeed him.

What lies in the future

That isn’t much of a base to build upon, especially given the significance of the reforms Francis is pursuing.

For the future appeal of the church, it would have been much better if Francis had had, say, two decades in office to consolidate his reform path – instead of what in all likelihood will not be more than one decade (if that).

As things stand, Francis has the support of the crowds, but not of much of the Church’s hierarchy. Vatican insiders assume that, if there were another Conclave right now, Bergoglio would not be elected.

The clear and present danger is that when a successor for Francis will have to be found, the forces opposing him inside the church now will try hard to row back.

If and when that happens, the Church will lose a great deal of the rare commodity it now has – global appeal.

At a time when a formerly archconservative Catholic nation such as Ireland votes in favor of gay marriage rights, there are tremendous adjustments that the Catholic Church must undertake.

Perhaps the biggest reform that is required to keep the Church attractive (and properly staffed), the end of priestly celibacy, is too much for Pope Francis to handle, even if and when he was ready to consider it in earnest.

Staff shortages

However, the desolateness of the Catholic Church becomes readily apparent if one attends services in a country such as Germany. Even though the Church has plenty of money there, it is very hard for the Catholic leadership to fill the posts for priests.

Many are roving priests and, due to personnel shortages, have to “cover” several church congregations.

Too often, these posts are filled with Catholic priests from abroad – people who may very well be fine individuals, but can barely speak the country’s language.

Germany is far from the only country whose catastrophic staffing shortages manifest themselves in this or other manners.

Relying on such personnel choices in order to fill the posts that need to be filled further undermines the appeal – and relevance – of the Church.

This is not a statement made by outsiders, but is very much a common refrain heard from the Catholic faithful. And it is certainly not made for reasons of any “anti-foreigner” spirit.

The risk for the Catholic Church is that, while Francis was made Pope, he may have arrived in office too late to undertake the urgent reforms that are all necessary.

Unless the Catholic Church lucks out and ultimately selects a like-minded successor to Francis, his exemplary service will remain but a fortunate interlude, rather than a new beginning.

Given the ebb and flow that is characteristic of the Catholic Church at the highest levels, it is quite likely that the successor to Francis will be more conservative.

End of reforms?

In practical terms, that means that the pace of reforms will slow down. That may help the Church’s appeal and its growth regions, such as Africa.

But that won’t do anything to keep the Church relevant in the area where it historically grew strong – Europe. Nor will it make the Church any more attractive to most Catholics in the United States or elsewhere in the developed world.

That is why the selection of Francis to become pope, as hope creating as it was, may have carried with itself the seeds of tragedy.

The Catholic Church currently has a great reform moment. But, as it may turn out, that moment may simply not last long enough to create the change needed.

What happens if and when the ailing 78-year-old pope is no longer with us? In an ideal world, the Catholic Church would find another man just like him as his successor. But that is very unlikely, for a number of reasons.


Francis has adversaries in the top echelons of the Church, inside the Roman Curia and beyond Rome.

The selection of Francis to become pope may have carried with itself the seeds of tragedy.

Given how the Catholic Church functions, the successor to Francis might be more conservative.

Unless the Church selects a successor to Francis in his own mold, his service will remain a fortunate interlude.

The Catholic Church’s great reformer moment may not last long enough to create change needed.