For years, the solemn benediction given by the Pontiff of the Catholic Church to the City of Rome and the world on Christmas Day has been urbi et orbi, a blessing that conveys nothing less serious than the full absolution of his flock’s sins. (The phrase translates literally as: “to the city and to the world.”)
But when thousands of faithful Catholics gather on St. Peter's Square in Rome this Christmas, the current head of their church, Pope Francis, might be just as likely to wish them—along with the hundreds of millions tuning in via radio, TV, and the internet—a very down-to-earth buon pranzo, which literally means “enjoy your lunch.” Francis has issued this unconventional greeting on previous occasions, eliciting horror from Vatican officials of all ranks.
It’s just one of the many ways that Pope Francis has broken ranks with the conservative wing of the Catholic Church, especially on issues that involve the church‘s moral teachings, like divorce and sexual orientation. At a time of worldwide political upheaval, Francis has flouted Catholic pageantry and customs, and aligned himself with everyday people, disfavored groups, and the poor. It’s a stance that delivers a populist message unsettling to many in the Vatican.
This challenge departs sharply from papal traditions. For centuries, papal rituals and customs have made the Vatican look like the last bastion of absolute monarchy. Starting with Pope John Paul II, the bishops of Rome have loosened some of these ties of protocol. Yet the steps Pope Francis has taken since ascending St. Peter’s Cathedral have broken those constraints wide open. On his election, the Argentinian-born pope refused to wear the sumptuous papal vestments, telling the cleric in charge of the liturgy that he could wear that outdated ornament himself if he were so intrigued by it. The current pontiff never moved into the papal palace, and refuses to drive in a fancy car.
On his first papal visit—to Lampedusa, a refugee island in the Mediterranean Sea—Pope Francis criticized capitalism and globalization as demons of our times that treat humans like leftovers. He performed a foot-washing ritual that traditionally takes place on the Thursday before Easter on female and Muslim prisoners, raising eyebrows among conservatives. In his sermons, Francis uses simple rhetoric that caters to the common woman and man, whom he emulates.
While liberals have welcomed this Pope's approach to his office, church conservatives are outraged. Some see Francis as an antichrist bent on nothing less than the destruction of a church order that they perceive as sacred and God-given. When Francis issued a papal document that is widely interpreted as relaxing the punishments the church imposes on divorced Catholics, many church elders saw the beginning of the end of Catholicism as they knew it.
FRANCIS CAME INTO OFFICE AS THE SUCCESSOR to Joseph Ratzinger, who goes by the name Benedict XVI. In the Catholic conclave that followed the death of John Paul II in 2005, the German cardinal had been regarded as a safe bet. He had been a close ally of John Paul II, who had been mourned by hundreds of thousands, and whose funeral had been attended by queens and kings, heads of state, prime ministers, and other power brokers. Ratzinger knew the Vatican inside out, and was the clear choice of the establishment.
Tellingly, Pope Francis had never seen eye-to-eye with Ratzinger, the papal insider. After Benedict XVI abdicated from the throne of Saint Peter in 2013, the cardinals who supported the man then known as Bergoglio took advantage of a moment of turmoil within the church. The abdication of a sitting pontiff had not taken place in centuries. The legal questions of how the Catholic Church deals with an acting pope who serves alongside a retired one have yet to be answered. This uncertainty weakened traditionalists, who were losing a champion in Benedict, and created an opening for the more controversial Francis.
Unlike his predecessor, Francis does not identify with or have any interest in intellectuals. He’s been known to attack and criticize priests and bishops, accusing them of clericalism—that is, taking advantage of their privileges in the parishes and communities. This particularly irritates critics of Pope Francis, who as the church’s highest clergyman has himself shown no interest in minimizing his papal authority. At a time of populist insurgencies around the globe, Francis turns out to be something of a populist himself.
Vatican higher-ups are close to mutiny. They accuse Francis of pandering to the public on such issues as marriage and divorce, without thinking through the implications. The pope’s public pronouncements do not convert directly into doctrine; but Vatican leaders fret that churchgoers may not know the difference. They also reject his unconventional style as “unfit for the office,” criticizing him for not speaking well in foreign languages, and for making off-hand remarks about whether parents should smack kids who misbehave (“if their dignity is maintained”) and that Catholics need not breed “like rabbits.”
It’s still not clear where Francis is leading his church. So far, he has managed to draw critics from both left and right. Liberals are disappointed because his pronouncements have so far sparked no substantive changes. Conservatives are irate that their supreme pontiff may step onto the loggia of Saint Peter’s on Christmas Day and utter what they regard as yet another unprecedented or foolish statement. To them, Francis never will be more than a “buon pranzo” pope. But like many political leaders around the globe, Pope Francis appears determined to shake up the established order.