The past summer has seen no shortage of controversy in Washington. Until the catastrophe in Houston, the news was all Donald Trump, all the time. And it’s been a busy summer on the Roman front too, with several protracted disagreements over core points in Pope Francis’s agenda. They’re obviously very different figures. But in all the coverage, some interesting—surprising—similarities between Trump and Francis have emerged.
Trump prefers unofficial channels and surrogates to his Cabinet secretaries and press office. From his perch on Twitter, Trump has chided Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, for unsatisfactory performance. Other Cabinet secretaries have been undercut on occasion by Trump’s statements. All the while an endless stream of leaks and quasi-leaks emanates from the White House. And one can read tea leaves as journalists and personalities write about it all, claiming to have inside information about what Trump thinks at any given time. It is clear that Trump does not trust in the machinery of administration. Even when people he appoints are at the controls, he prefers to work around official mechanisms whenever possible.
Francis, likewise, takes a dim view of the curial bureaucracy. In his 2014 Christmas greeting to the Curia, Francis outlined fifteen “curial diseases,” including thinking oneself indispensable, excessive planning, and gossiping. In 2016, Francis talked at length about curial reform and the steps to take along those lines. Meanwhile, unofficial and informal sources close to the pope have made controversial pronouncements.
In July, Father Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa wrote a lengthy article in the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica. It castigated the integralism reputedly shared by conservative Catholics and American Evangelicals and fundamentalists. Spadaro and Figueroa are both among the pope’s close collaborators, and their essay was likely meant as a shot across the bow of conservative American Catholics. Soon, the debate swerved in a very different direction when some columnists started talking about prominent conservative American Catholics who are converts. This ended up overshadowing any substantive discussion about Spadaro and Figueroa’s essay. It was a very Trumpian moment of descent into name calling.
Recently, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández wrote an essay about Amoris Laetitia—of which he is reputed to be the ghostwriter. It was published in Medellín, the theological journal of the South American bishops’ conference. Fernández defends the doctrinal content of the exhortation’s explosive eighth chapter on marriage and family, the part that makes controversial statements about divorce, remarriage, and the reception of communion. His piece brought little to the discussion—except for the argument that Francis’s letter to the Buenos Aires bishops about their norms for implementing the eighth chapter constituted a magisterial ratification of a liberal interpretation of the controversial eighth chapter. Fernández said that Francis’s letter was akin to a letter Pius IX wrote to the German bishops following the First Vatican Council, which was later cited in Lumen Gentium. Then, in what was perhaps a gesture of support for this interpretation, after Fernández’s essay was published Francis’s letter was posted on the Vatican website. No clear press release or official statement—just a sequence of winks and nods.
Francis himself has not said that he thinks conservative American Catholics are too chummy with Evangelicals. Neither has he said that his letter to the Buenos Aires bishops was intended to give magisterial authority to their interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. Nevertheless, the pronouncements of Spadaro and Figueroa and Fernández create certain impressions that then become fodder for journalistic speculation and lots of chatter in the blogosphere.
Again, this is very Trump. The president is happy to use unofficial or semi-official channels to send sometimes contradictory messages about the direction of his administration. The same goes for Francis and his pontificate.
The similarities go deeper. The standard view is that Francis was elected with a broad mandate to reform the Roman Curia. This view is reinforced by the claim many make that Benedict XVI abdicated when he realized that reform of the Curia was a bigger task than he could manage. So far, the project has been a bit of a bust. Francis has merged some pontifical councils and empowered and then disempowered the Secretariat for the Economy.
Trump has had a similar trajectory. He was elected in part to “drain the swamp.” And, like Francis, Trump has found the task of reforming institutions difficult. It’s no surprise, then, that Francis and Trump turn to punchy rhetoric and unofficial messengers to do an end run around the ordinary machinery of governance.
There is, on the surface, much to recommend this style. Unscripted effusions and statements by unofficial emissaries open to strident interpretations keeps the base happy. Once people look to other sources for quasi-official information, the stodgy, hidebound bureaucracy gets pushed to the margins. There’s also an appearance of reform. Once people look to other sources for quasi-official information, the stodgy, hidebound bureaucracy gets pushed to the margins. But—and this is the catch and the real risk of this approach—those stodgy, hidebound bureaucrats are still there. The bureaucratic machinery may be put on idle, but it remains ready to be thrown back into gear by the next guy. As characters from Frank Herbert’s Dune novels might say, the two men’s reforms are written in salt.
P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.