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John Allen.


From the beginning, the media narrative about Francis has been that he’s a liberal maverick, making it a natural assumption that his main opposition has to come from conservatives and traditionalists, and it has to be premised on faith and morals.

God knows there’s been enough such blowback, from the “dubia” cardinals to theologians accusing the pope of heresy and blogs hammering away day and night, to sustain the left v. right narrative. Moreover, although polls show Francis enjoys overwhelming approval at the Catholic grassroots, conservative anxiety about the papacy still represents a significant share of the Church and can’t just be dismissed.

Yet what became increasingly clear in 2017 is that measured against the kind of reform he was actually elected to achieve, Francis’s real problem isn’t with conservatives, it’s with a basically non-ideological “old guard.”

In March 2013, cardinals leaving the Sistine Chapel said they had great hopes Francis would prove a “reformer,” by which they meant, in the first place, cleaning up long-festering problems in the Vatican.

Much has been done along those lines, including, for instance, a new climate of respect for local churches and bishops. Francis has overhauled the system for ad limina visits, meaning the trips to Rome bishops from around the world are required to make, and those bishops report their concerns now are being heard and acted upon to a much greater degree than in the past.

Yet when it comes to ending the Vatican’s depressing history of financial scandal, ambitious reforms launched in 2013 largely stalled over the past twelve months. Meanwhile, real power of the purse has gravitated back to the Secretariat of State, the Vatican’s all-powerful overseer, in a flagrant reversal of course from just four years ago.

RELATED: It may be inside baseball, but Vatican financial reform still matters

As Crux and other media outlets reported throughout the year, those outcomes have been influenced by a handful of Vatican heavyweights who’ve managed to win Francis’s ear, such as:

  • Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, President of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, the Vatican’s main financial powerhouse.
  • Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, former head of the now-defunct Prefecture for Financial Affairs, who remains an important behind-the-scenes figure.
  • Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, President of the Government of the Vatican City State.
  • Perhaps above all, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the “substitute,” or number two official, in the Secretariat of State, and, according to many observers, the most powerful man in Francis’s papacy after the pope himself.

None, in any sense, are “opponents” of Francis in terms of his pastoral vision, or his doctrinal or moral leadership. All profile basically as “moderates,” without clearly defined stances on most questions in Church affairs.

Yet all are also Italian, all veteran Vatican personalities invested in the way things always have been done, and the seeming result of their labors so far has been what many Italian experts on the papacy dismissively call una riforma gattopardesca, a reference to a famous Italian novel whose key line is: “Everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”

In other words, the left v. right theatrics under Francis may be entertaining, but they’re arguably not where the action is. If you see it instead as change v. the status quo, then ideology is a less reliable guide to who’s on what side.