The decade-long Francis papacy has been an exercise in caprice and the politics of personality, and it’s clearest in the Holy See’s foreign policy.
(Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)
My late father used to have a joke about Juan Peron, the Argentine strongman. A minister would come to Peron to propose a policy; Peron would enthuse, saying it represented the purest Peronismo. Another minister would come before the dictator and propose the opposite policy; the president would be effusive, praising it as an expression of the summit of his justicialist thinking. After the meeting, Peron’s secretary would point out the contradiction in the programs and ask how they could both be Peronismo. The president would smile and say, “Peronism is when they come to me to approve the policies.”
I have never been able to find the source for this little story—if you know it, please email me—but it has always stuck with me as a useful illustration for a certain kind of raw cynicism and Latin-inflected Realpolitik. I have found myself thinking about it again on the tenth anniversary of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio’s accession to the Chair of Peter, which passed this Monday. Commentators, particularly Francis’s American critics, suspect him of leftism; it is in this sense that the Economist referred to him as “the Peronist pope.” But the whiff of Peronismo in my own nostrils is that of my father’s joke.
How else do you explain the regularization of relations with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X followed by the broad restriction of the old Mass? How do you explain the subsequent confirmation of the traditionalist Fraternity of St. Peter’s mandate to celebrate the old Mass, following a personal meeting with the order’s superior general? How about the wide swings between decentralization of administration, through the ongoing process of “synodality,” and the imperial decrees micromanaging bishops’ rule in their own dioceses? “Franciscismo is when they come to me to approve the policies.”
While it’s not very nice, this sort of principle-free management of competing satrapies can be an effective short- to middle-term method of administration, so far as purely internal concerns go. (Although, after going to great lengths to encourage the national bishops’ synods, Francis appears to be surprised and dismayed that those synods are taking the opportunity to go their own way doctrinally—oops!) It tends to work less well in interactions with external entities.
Take Francis’s landmark initiative, the regularization of relations with the People’s Republic of China in 2018. The concordat that brought the Patriotic Catholic Church into communion with Rome and gave the Chinese state veto powers over episcopal appointments provoked protests on behalf of the underground Church, which was suppressed as part of the agreement. Joseph Cardinal Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong, gave particularly dire warnings about the consequences of the China deal.
In the wake of the Hong Kong protests, China has taken to persecuting several of the country’s prominent Catholics, including Zen, who was arrested and convicted on insurrection-related charges in 2022—hardly a desirable outcome for the new Ostpolitik as far as freedom for the Church goes. The China deal has come to be regarded as such a shambolic failure that it is widely thought that its main architect, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, sank whatever chances at the papacy he had.
With this standing as the major diplomatic achievement of the Franciscan era, it is little surprise that the occasion of the pope’s tenth anniversary was marked by Nicaragua’s closure of the Vatican embassy in Managua and the Nicaraguan embassy at the Vatican. President Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista who is reportedly considering a full diplomatic rupture with the Catholic Church, has also in the past week closed Catholic universities and banned the public Lenten practice of praying the Stations of the Cross.
Relations between the Church and Nicaragua have been on rocky ground since 2018, when Ortega crushed antigovernment street protests; some demonstrators found shelter and aid in church buildings. The retributive campaign has accelerated since last year, with the jailings of clergy, the expulsion of religious orders, and the closure of Catholic media outlets.
It appears the near-rupture in diplomatic relations was provoked by comments from Francis, who has continued to valorize the importance of dialogue in Nicaragua through proxies, in a recent interview—his preferred medium for making programmatic policy pronouncements. He compared Ortega’s regime to the “crude dictatorships” of the Soviets and the Nazis. Ah, well; it made for a good soundbite. Surely the severance of the Managua-Rome lines of communication can only improve the Church’s prospects in the face of persecution.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
The deterioration in Nicaragua is hardly an exceptional tribulation for this papacy’s foreign policy; in turn, this papacy’s foreign policy in itself captures the dominant dynamics of the Francis era: grand conciliatory gestures toward leftist governments, institutions, and persons, accompanied with jabs at the right, followed by the revelation that maybe those entities aren’t so friendly to the Vatican’s interests after all. But most of all, the personal caprice of the monarch. Francis clearly has ideological preferences and tics—a broadly left-liberal outlook, a distaste for Americans and conservatives, an ecological gloom—but, as with the other era-defining world leader of our times, it is about him, I guess, when you think about it.
Ad hoc decisions based on prejudice, cronyism, and knee-jerk reactions to personal appeals and perceived insults may work well enough in your own court, but it isn’t much of a way to run a diplomatic operation. It seems that Francis’s legacy, more even than the internal divisions heightened during his reign, will be the weakening of the Church’s position in the world.
In 1987, an incident shocked Argentina: An unknown person or group broke into Peron’s mausoleum and removed the dictator’s hands with an electric saw. Argentine authorities never found the corpse desecrators, but some commentators alleged that the Freemasons of Propaganda Due, an infamous Italian lodge active in secular and Vatican politics, were behind the matter. Nothing was ever proven. Yet, in a strange way, it does seem as if the hands of Peron are on display at Rome. Worse luck for us.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.