Pope Francis’ cunning long game – UPDATED

Damon Linker is one of the most astute commentators there is on church and society. He writes about “Pope Francis’ cunning long game” in The Week:

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. …

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.

That’s the great advantage of pursuing a strategy of stealth reform: The seed planted now with a minimum of conflict bears fruits in the future with even less.

It’s never been more obvious that this is precisely what Pope Francis has in mind.

OTOH, Andrew Sullivan offers a clarification on an essential point, suggesting that Pope Francis isn’t actually changing anything in this particular case. He writes (scroll down):

The idea that Francis’s love for a gay man as a gay man somehow rips apart the fabric of the church and implies that Francis is guilty of heresy is absurd. Francis is blessing an identity, not an act. But if the inclination always leads to an immoral act, isn’t the inclination itself sinful? The answer to that is no. Because being gay is not only or even mainly about sexual acts. It is also the only way some human beings can express exclusive love for another person. The reduction of gay people to what we do with our genitals is un-Christian.

… And that is all the Pope is saying to another human being. God made you the way you are, and loves you for it, and wants you to be happy as yourself. … It is so strange to me how so many nonbelievers can see in this Pope’s interaction with others the spirit of Jesus, and how so many of the most devout seem terrified by it.

I think Sullivan is probably right on this particular point. But Linker’s larger point would still hold: Francis is playing a “cunning long game” to change the Catholic church in significant ways. Read Linker’s whole column here.



  1. I think the article exhibits more of the author’s desire for theological reform than Pope Francis’. As Sullivan correctly observes, in the example given in the article, Pope Francis has in no way diverged from orthodox Church teaching. In fact, it could be argued that he has more accurately demonstrated the call to love, by affirming individuals who have historically been marginalized.

    I’ve never been a fan of attempting to read complex, ulterior motives into politician’s behaviors, and it doesn’t make much more sense to do it at the Vatican. I think we should assess his behavior for what it is, and not construct “4-dimensional chess” scenarios to promote individual agendas.

    1. I agree. Bergolio’s letter during the Argentine marriage debate, the totality of his official and informal statements as Pope suggests Sullivan’s interpretation is correct.

      But hypothetically, if the Pope were trying to use a “shadow magisterium”, such behind the scenes maneuvers almost always backfire. And even in our digital, cataloguing era, such shadow proclamation will be lost to the future.

  2. I agree, I think the author’s wishful thinking clouds this piece. One wonders, for example, how the recent comments of the Holy Father on the admission of homosexually oriented men to the seminary squares with the alleged “cunning game” of changing doctrine and the like.

    1. It’s unclear to me whether the Holy Father meant homosexually oriented or homosexually active. I honestly don’t know. But contradicting himself and saying different things on different days could fit well with a long-term cunning strategy.

  3. “Be cunning as serpents, but gentle as doves.” (Mt. 10:16b)

    I’ve thought this would have been a good choice for Francis’ motto on his coat of arms.

  4. I wonder what would happen if the statement changed the words toward men applying for the priesthood saying “practicing heterosexuals and those with “deep-seated” heterosexual tendencies and those who support a heterosexually [active] culture should be barred,” if one would see the Pope’s words of support to an individual gay person in the same light.

    If, as Will M. says that the Pope’s divulged statement does not diverge from orthodox Church teaching, then there really is no game at all except in a very pastoral Pope’s challenge to all as to how we treat one another.

    Francis’ love for people on the margins or traditionally outside the box (if there really is a box) seems to be more personal than collective. It is when the Pope sees that person right in front of him that he makes these statements of deep pastoral care and then gets challenged by those with wider doctrinal visions. Francis does make these “saying different things on different days” (awr) interesting.

  5. I wonder who exactly the pope is speaking to with these gestures and words. I think his intended audience is key to guessing what he means.

    To say “we need to be more loving and welcoming of gay people” means different things when directed at different groups. If I say that to the German church, it seems to imply we should bless same-sex marriages. If I say that to the Latin-American church, it could mean that parents should keep loving their gay children and that gay people are still welcome in the Church. If I say it to parts of the African church, it could mean that we should simply not support laws that allow for the execution of gay people.

    I sometimes think that we assume the pope is talking to us when we read what he says. My guess he is talking to many different people in different contexts. But if I were forced to assume who his primary intended- or unintended subconscious- audience is, I’d assume its the Latin church within which he was formed and the curia with whom he deals daily. So when you tell the curia and the Latin church that God loves gay people and we should love them too, the message doesn’t seem so different from one we already hear in many American parishes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *