Does Pope Francis have a “long game” strategy?

We had a phrase in the Curia that described our approach to some questions and challenges: Cunctando regitur mundus.   This is a fundamental dimension of Romanitas: the world is ruled by delaying.

You outwait your opponents, rather than outwit them.  Think Cincinnatus and the Aequi.

There is an engaging piece at The Week about the Pope’s “cunning” long-game strategy.   Damon Linker, the writer, may be right and he may be wrong.  Either way it is a great read.

Pope Francis’ cunning long game

Pope Francis’ stealth reform of the Roman Catholic Church shows no sign of slowing down — and may even be accelerating.

Stealth is key here. If the pope had declared earlier this month that henceforth the Roman Catholic Church would authoritatively teach that homosexuals should be happy being gay, that God made them homosexual, and that God himself (along with the pope) loves them just the way they are, it would have been a massive story in the history of Catholicism — and one that quite likely would have precipitated a major schism, with conservative bishops and priests (mainly in North America and Africa) formally breaking from Rome.

But because word of the pope saying these things comes to us second hand, in a report of a private conversation between Francis and a gay man named Juan Carlos Cruz who is also a victim of the clerical sex abuse crisis in Chile, the utterance will go down as just the latest example of the pope making unorthodox statements in settings in which he has plausible deniability and in which he can claim he was speaking as a pastor rather than as an expositor of the church’s official dogmas and doctrines.

Most popes view themselves as caretakers of the church’s authoritative teachings on faith and morals. When it comes to homosexuality, they would therefore be inclined to reaffirm the position laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which clearly states that homosexual desires are “intrinsically disordered” because they are not oriented to the end of procreation. (The same is true of masturbation and other non-procreative sex acts.)

If Pope Francis were a straightforward reformer, he would seek to change church doctrine regardless of the potentially dire consequences for church unity. But Francis is well aware of the limits of his power and the danger of pushing too far too fast. So he has set out on a different, and distinctive, path.

[… examples…]

What unites all of these examples is a distinctive approach to church dogma and doctrine. Instead of acting as an expositor of these core teachings of the church, the pope selectively diverges from them in his actions and statements without deigning to change the teachings themselves. The implicit message is the same in every case: The pope himself thinks it’s possible to be a member of the church in good standing while failing to abide by all of the institution’s rules.


[I] think the pope’s strategy for a longer game displays greater psychological acuity — and Machiavellian cunning. Francis may be betting that once the church stops preaching those doctrines that conflict most severely with modern moral norms, the number of people who uphold and revere them will decline rapidly (within a generation or two). Once that has happened, officially changing the doctrine will be much easier and much less likely to provoke a schism (or at least a major one) than it is in the present.

He could be right.  It could be that Francis is doing this as part of a long-term plan.   Or maybe not.

I am convinced that Pope John Paul in fact did have a few long-term plans.  I think he knew somehow that he would have a long pontificate.  He set out to shift the world’s episcopate from being nearly-out-of-the-Church weird, to being middle-of-the-road to conservative… slowly.  He started out by appointing a couple of strange guys (presented by the Congregation – which he shifted around) and a good guy.  Eventually, it was a couple of good guys and a strange guy.   He never moved hard enough to provoke a schism, which, it seems to me, could very well have happened in these USA after the chaos of post-conciliar era and the pontifical of Paul VI.


Sure.  This is the blogosphere, after all.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Ben Kenobi says:

    Wow. Not the article I expected to see, nor the response from you that I’ve come to expect. Very disappointed, Fr. Z. What is going on here? It’s quite simple. This is a set piece. What they do is quite simple. Follow the dots.

    1, meet with Francis in a private meeting. This isn’t that hard to accomplish. Contact him and make the arrangements.

    2. After you’ve met with Francis, immediately go to the media and explain to them ‘this is what Francis told me’. It has the bonus of being completely unverifiable and Francis is bound by what was discussed to remain in private.

    3. After you’ve gone to the media, wait while they breathlessly repeat the lie and watch while the debate surrounds over the doctrine and not the actual question, “did Francis say anything of the sort”?

    I’ve seen this tactic used, many many times. It’s a go-to move. The reason for the full-court media press is that this was all arranged ahead of time, regardless as to what Francis actually said and how he said it.

    Damon Linker is trash. Seriously. It’s very frustrating to see this article here. [Why? I, at least, read all sort of views. What he said was interesting.] I am having many arguments with folks of a certain age that have given up on marriage and attack me for stating that marriage is worth fighting for. These are otherwise orthodox Catholics. Where’s the support for us, Father Z? We have your back in an increasingly hostile world that doesn’t care for us and is seeking to steamroll us.

    [Take a moment to sit quietly and just breathe in and out for awhile.]

  2. Unwilling says:

    The universe and all that occurs, or is done within it, is reality by the eternal creative Will. The only real value is to be obedient to God.

  3. Daddio says:

    Hmmm. I think all of us [What do you mean “all of us”?] should just turn down the panic machine and avoid the term “Machiavellian cunning” when referring to our Holy Father.
    There are a lot of lay Catholics (maybe a majority?) who are both apprehensive about some of the Pope’s statements, and equally put off by the loudmouth pundits who are constantly criticizing. We just want to raise our families and receive the sacraments without either worrying about what the Pope said that we will have to hear about around the water cooler, and being constantly barraged by fear-mongers.
    Maybe the Holy Father’s cunning plan is… to trust the Holy Spirit?
    Or at least, maybe that should be OUR plan?

  4. Sawyer says:

    The flaw in the speculation is that it considers the Church as merely a natural, human institution with an uniquely restrictive political apparatus for “policy” changes but no supernatural character nor necessary relation to immutable Truth.

    The reversal in doctrine that the author speculates might be Francis’ endgame cannot happen; it simply cannot happen if the Church is what Christ promised it would be and if the Holy Spirit is guiding and protecting her.

    If it ever were to happen, then the Church will have been a fraud for her whole existence, and everything about Catholicism would crumble. Either that or those who maintain that were are in the throes of an antipapacy will be shown to have been correct. I don’t agree with those who claim Francis is an antipope, by the way.

    But I am quite worried and nearly exasperated about how closely this pope is toying with and seemingly encouraging gradual movement toward revisions that come quite close to serious doctrinal errors that would make the Church contradict herself.

    Please, God, for the love of your Church, help her; come to her aid; save her. Veni Creator Spiritus…

  5. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    I am not certain whether Pope Francis has a long-game strategy for the Church, but I am convinced to the very core of my being that God does. Right now, I can’t understand it, and am concerned about the direction things seem to be going in, but I’m reminded of a recent time, following an unexpected highway detour. Midway through the detour, I was convinced that the Department of Transportation was sending me completely off course, and was considering breaking from the detoured route and using my own directional instinct (which are generally fairly good). Just then, the route turned left and I found myself, unexpectedly, right where I had wanted to be. Surely the Holy Spirit is even more reliable than the DOT.

  6. ChrisP says:

    The assumption underlying Linker’s thoughts is invalid, imo.

    Pope Francis is 82 next Dec. He doesn’t have time. He himself admits it.
    That means he has not enough time to change the shape of the electorate; thus has no control over who the next Pope will be (despite what he – and the Germanic wormtails – think they may be achieving).

    Evil does not tend to play a long battle game against the Faith. Satan got flung from Heaven like lightning; it took him a week to have Christ crucified. He’s malicious and proud enough to think he can do it again to the Church.

    Which of course will have the same outcome as the first time.

  7. Charles E Flynn says:

    @Fr. Timothy Ferguson,

    I suspect you ignored the diabolical voice of any GPS available to you, which may not have known about the detour.

  8. TonyO says:

    Pope Francis is 82 next Dec. He doesn’t have time. He himself admits it.
    That means he has not enough time to change the shape of the electorate;

    It may be true – or, more probable – that Francis has little time. But it is not certain. Pope Leo XIII was elected at the same age, and reigned for 25 years, till age 103.

    Francis has already elevated 61 cardinals – just over half of the upper limit of 120 elector cardinals (those over age 80 cease to be electors). If he reigns merely another 3 years he could pull in another 20 without even breaking a sweat. In addition, he already had “on board” a number of cardinals anyways – i.e. ones who had elected him. So, yes, Francis could be re-writing the college of cardinals in his image.

    And, if you look at the US, at least, this does seem to be exactly what he is doing. Pope JPII may have elevated some pretty good solid cardinals, but he also elevated a lot of horrid ones. It was almost like he was being intentionally “color-blind” in terms of whether the men proposed to him whom he accepted were sound and orthodox or not – like he was being “neutral” about it, as if he were supposed to “not pick sides” on these issues! (Which is a crazy way of selecting.) But Francis is doing nothing of the sort, his selections are very clearly trending toward his own goopy – loopy – sloppy – fruity sense of the faith. Cdl Cupich of Chicago, for example – who, other than being a great mouthpiece for progressive-liberal-quasi-Catholicism, had nothing going for him to recommend him as a prince of the Church.

  9. teomatteo says:

    My thought on the pope’s vision is pretty simple: he’ll move the Church closer to the Orthodox and the next pope and the next and say in 2065 we can sign a statement of reconciliation. God wants us united and this pope is get’n it done.

  10. roma247 says:

    And who should have the answer to our tears of confusion and frustration as we watch this painful disintegration, but our good Mother in Heaven, Mary?

    Look at her in the Pieta: she sorrowfully contemplates the lifeless body of her Son on her lap. Like any good mother, she asks: “why did my beloved son have to die in this way?”

    But though Christ’s human form would pass into the grave, He who is the source of all life could never be defeated by death. “Behold, I am with you always, even to the consummation of the world.”

    Likewise, we have our Lord’s promise that Christ’s mystical body, the Church, will last until the end of time. That doesn’t preclude the apparent death of its earthly form. Christ had to suffer and die that He might rise gloriously and destroy death–And likewise the Body of Christ here on Earth must suffer and ‘die to the world,’ that Christ might raise it up gloriously forever.

    And though he mourned and sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he took the weight of all our sins upon his back, in the end he was “led as a lamb to the slaughter, and He opened not his mouth.”

    We should pray earnestly that this cup might pass from us, but in the end, we need to be able to say “not my will, but Thine be done.”

    Whether Pope Francis is plotting Machiavellian schemes or is an innocent babe in the woods being manipulated by external forces, matters not–what matters is that (at least for now) God is allowing it. Trust God to put His house in order in His own good time.

    And pray that we may be all given great mercy on that day of wrath…

  11. Traductora says:

    Francis has already said that he plans to set things up in such a way that they cannot be reversed (in other words, there can be no Summorum Pontificum of the future). He’s also appointed most of the current voting age Cardinals, the great majority from rather obscure places that aren’t exactly at the center of the Catholic universe, and who, out of gratitude, will simply be rubber stamps for the guy who appointed them.

    So Francis is thinking ahead, but I don’t think he believes he needs a really “long view,” and he’s done so much damage now that he’s probably right. The latest “God made you gay” remarks are going to have a devastating effect.

    As for JPII, while I think he was personally holy, he was a terrible administrator and many of the sex and money scandals happened under his watch. And he had the Slavic love of emotion and the resulting imprecision in his statements (until Ratzinger got a firm grip on him towards the end) which, coupled with the complete ambiguity and irrationality of VII, really paved the way for Francis. I think BXVI tried to reverse this but he simply wasn’t strong enough.

    So I think the question really is what God’s plan is. Perhaps this was all to purify us and make us return to the true Way by rejecting Francis. Perhaps it was to make us remember not to trust in princes nor the sons of men. I don’t know, but whatever Francis’ game is, I don’t think he’s going to be able to destroy the Church with it.

  12. dbf223 says:

    I think that this analysis, and some of the comments, are missing something important: the Church of the future isn’t going to be determined by anything any Pope can do from Rome. Issues related to Church demographics (mass attendance, baptisms, vocations, etc.) are in the process of reshaping the Church in ways that the Pope and the high-level bishops have little control over.

    If this Pope is confusing – says one thing to one group, hints another thing is a private meeting, lets journalists report his words however they like – does that change the personal faith held by the faithful? In the past it might have. In the days when the Church was a more respected and accepted social institution, perhaps this kind of thing worked on the people at large. Perhaps people just attended mass and simply accepted this kind of suggestion – something that ostensibly trickled down from the Pope and seemed to comport with the spirit of the world and of the age.

    What will be the Church of the future, though? We have heard much about the impending demographic collapse of the Church. Who will make up the Church when that happens? The people at the altars and the people in the pews will be those who are there in spite of all the social pressures that are causing people to leave the faith. These will be the families with children making sacrifices to raise their kids Catholic, the young priests who persevered through seminary in spite of questions from friends and family about why they would possibly want to be priests.

    I suppose I just don’t see the long-term impact of the wily games of journalists and other cunning men. There’s a lot of things I don’t like about this pontificate – most especially, the character and temperament of certain men he’s made bishops and cardinals in the USA. But that isn’t going to determine the spiritual life of my family or my parish. I know many good families in my area (and I hope I can say my family is among them). Their views on Church teaching aren’t going to change because of hearsay from Italian journalists. And in thirty years, will there be anyone left in the Church besides such people – those who are not just Catholic in name only, but striving to conform their lives to the Gospel?

  13. dbf223 says:

    Correction – Damon Linker isn’t an Italian journalist. I suppose I’m simply used to seeing this type of work come out of the Italian press.

  14. Antonin says:

    The simplest answer is usually the correct one – no the Pope does not have a long range strategy – his thinking is loose and uneven and his comments impulsive – by instinct he leans in a more permissive manner – and he is in position where those behaviours have an impact on doctrine and pastoral practice and that is what we are seeing.

    His mandate was to clean up the Curia, address financial issues, and enact certain ecclesiastical reforms called for since VII (increase role of Bishop conferences, collegiality, etc). Whether you agree with this mandate or not – that is what the majority of electors expected – I doubt they expected the uneveness we are seeing but such is the human life of the Church

  15. VP says:

    The Pope and those influencing (or directing) him know that creating doubt over an issue is sufficient to upset existing order. Pastors everywhere will have to tread yet another critical line between teaching and pastoral practice.

    Confusion and division will naturally follow. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s impractical to try to tear it down in a day. There is doubtless a long game going on.

  16. robtbrown says:

    Antonin says,

    His mandate was to clean up the Curia, address financial issues, and enact certain ecclesiastical reforms called for since VII (increase role of Bishop conferences, collegiality, etc). Whether you agree with this mandate or not – that is what the majority of electors expected –

    I don’t think there was any mandate to increase the role of Episcopal Conferences. Rather, it was to decrease the power of the Curia, which had not been responsive to the policies of the pope. Various collegialists among the hierarchy took advantage of the situation to work against not only the Curia but also Papal authority.

    Francis’ actions also indicate a desire to undermine the power of the Italian hierarchy, so that it would not be part of a cursus honorum to a Curial red hat.

    The irony is that now the two most influential Cardinals, Parolin and Becciu, are both Italian. So it seems that Francis has been playing whack-a-mole.

  17. JSzczuka says:

    The thing that bothered me (most) about this article/author was the short paragraph neat the end of it that reads: “Juan Carlos Cruz is gay, that’s how God made him, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Sounds to me as though the author is stating that as fact from his own point of view and that is definitely a problem.

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