Pope Francis’ Pastoral Leadership Upsets “extreme leftist group”: South African Bishop

Pope Francis at the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland. Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

Pope Francis stands out for adopting a pastoral style of leadership, which has left the Church polarized, the Bishop of Mthatha in South Africa has said. 

In his reflection to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ Pontificate, Bishop Sithembele Anton Sipuka speaks broadly about the Holy Father who he describes as “a Pope of communion and Synodality”, “a Pope of simplicity and accessibility” as well as “a Pope presiding over a polarized Church”.

In his description of “a polarized Church”, Bishop Sipuka identifies various groups of people, including those he says appreciate the leadership of Pope Francis.

The South African Catholic Bishop also identifies what he describes as “the extreme group on the left” who he says are “annoyed with the Pope” for not moving fast and making radical changes in the Church.

“Pope Francis’ call about prioritizing the identity of the Church and being pastoral has been met with varying reactions. These reactions range from a balanced sense of appreciation of what the Pope is doing to a sense of disappointment for not doing enough and to a sense of anger and disgust for allegedly changing the nature of the Church,” Bishop Sipuka says in his reflection published in the Monday, April 3 Newsletter.   


He explains, “In other words, some realize that the Pope is doing nothing new but implementing the Vatican II vision of the Church in which everybody feels part of the Church and in which all formations are given space to exercise roles proper to them in a harmonized manner that advances the mission of the Church. This group understands the Pope as not seeking to change any moral or dogmatic teaching of the Church but to apply them in a pastoral, contextual, and caring manner.” 

The “extreme group on the left”, he says, wants hurried changes such as allowing same-sex marriage, giving communion to the divorced, and allowing married men and women to be Priests.  

On the “far-right group”, he says, are people who think that the call for a communal and Synodal Church by Pope Francis is a trick to change the true nature of the Church by substituting her teachings and traditions for liberal views and secular ideologies. 

According to the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), the leftist reaction is more prevalent in Europe, while the far-right view “vociferously” prevails in America and “silently” exists in Africa.  

Bishop Sipuka’s sentiments echo the observation of Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, a Research Professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, who noted that while Pope Francis has introduced a paradigm shift in the Church, he does not seek to alter the Church teachings, especially pertaining to issues considered controversial.

More in Africa

“Pope Francis has changed the tone of messaging and leadership at the Vatican. He hasn't altered any teachings of the church regarding some of the topics that have been seen as controversial, including family, sexuality, gender theories, and celibacy; but rather, he has introduced a new ecclesial climate that is more open, inclusive, and one that orients itself as a humble, poor and merciful Church that listens,” Fr. Stan told ACI Africa on March 5, when he shared about how the Holy Father has shaped his work.

He added, “We now have a Church that is listening more and more to the voices from the peripheries of people who feel abandoned and regarded as sinners. We have a Church where those who are divorced and separated are welcome to find healing under a tent of comfort.”

According to the Nigerian Catholic Priest who also serves as the producer and host of African Catholic Voices, a podcast service of the Pan African Catholic Theology and Pastoral Network (PACTPAN), not everyone, including some Theologians, understands the theology of Pope Francis.

In the interview with ACI Africa, Fr. Stan explained why Pope Francis is sometimes misunderstood, noting that people who want “a Church with pre-packaged answers” and those who find it difficult to grasp what he described as the “aesthetics” of Pope Francis’ theology are most likely to misunderstand the Holy Father.

“Whoever doesn't understand the theological aesthetics of Pope Francis is likely to misunderstand him,” Fr. Stan said, and added, “Some people want a pure Church; a Church with pre-packaged answers. Catholics who are used to the idea of ‘what is the Church saying’ find it difficult to understand most messages of Pope Francis.”


He added, “Pope Francis is saying that we don't have answers to a lot of things that are happening in the world today and that we have to enter into mysteries guided by the Holy Spirit. When we do this, based on what we encounter, God will allow us to see the face of the poor man of Galilee. We need to accept that there are people who do not accept the same conclusion, and my work has been to give a theological explanation of this.”

Meanwhile, Bishop Sipuka has proposed “as the way forward in this polarization”, to remember that the people of God are people of faith, “not just a club gathered by similar ideas and coinciding personality temperaments.”

“We must remember that we are gathered not by our agreement but by common baptism, which invites us to look further than ourselves when differences occur,” Bishop Sipuka says in the reflection published April 3, and adds, “We must therefore seek together what the will of God is by looking at the tradition of the Church in a Spirit-guided (not political or ideological) way with the openness to modifying our ideas as we listen to each other.”

The SACBC President observes that journeying together in the Synodality that Pope Francis proposes calls for charity, humility, and patience.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.