Pope Francis’ response to Archbishop Vigano’s testimony has, so far, been a sad silence which echoes his silence over the questions about marriage formally presented by some of his cardinals.

If this lack of leadership continues we may see the development of a lame duck papacy.

Unlike some who are angry about the present crisis in the church, I have not called for Pope Francis to resign. I don’t believe it would do the church any good to have three popes. That was a disaster before. It would be a disaster now–even though I realize the circumstances are very different.

Furthermore, I doubt very much if the pope would even think of resigning. From what we can discern of his character he’s a pretty determined person. When under fire he digs in his heels. He doesn’t give in. He also must realize that he has some very strong backers within the church and certainly within the secular establishment. He’s not going anywhere, and I for one, don’t think he should.

The problem is, however, that although he will stay, his authority will continue to disintegrate. He may be pope, but many of the faithful will simply ignore him. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the big global papal events that became so popular under John Paul II are quietly scaled down or even discontinued. Of course the shift will be toward a portrayal of the pope as a “warm, personal individual pastor” rather than the global rock star.

This weekend’s statement from Pope Francis about plastics in the sea and water pollution is an indication of the continued direction of the papacy. As Cardinal Cupich said, “the pope has greater concerns–climate change and immigration.” Those are, no doubt, worthy causes and something we should all be very concerned about, and it no doubt plays well with the secular, globalist establishment, but many of the Catholic faithful wonder why he doesn’t talk about the Lord Jesus Christ, the hope of heaven and the gift of salvation a bit more.

If the Francis papacy gets bogged down under the continued drag of sexual scandal, the effect on the church’s witness to the world will be very sad. If the response to those scandals continues to be listless at best and manipulative and shifty at worst, then the potentially powerful witness of the papacy will be weakened disastrously.

As many of the faithful drift away from paying attention to Pope Francis, the global and historic impact of the papacy will also be undermined. The headlines will still be there as the secular press continue to pump him up, but it the faithful will simply look away.

In other words, when Francis’ time is up his papacy will most likely end not in a bang, but a whimper.

When he was elected the noise was, “Give him five years and he will change the church.”

If I am right, Francis will most certainly have changed the church and the papacy. Things will never be the same.

But is that such a bad thing?

I am always one to see the silver lining.  Maybe a lame duck papacy is exactly what the church needs. Perhaps the pope doesn’t need to be the solver of all problems and the leader of all initiatives.

Perhaps what will happen as the present papacy splutters and stumbles into irrelevancy is the rise of what might be called Catholic congregationalism.

I don’t mean congregationalism in the Protestant sense because we believe in the solidarity of all believers. However, that solidarity will emerge from the grass roots in local evangelization and parish building efforts. Apostolates formed by the lay people to catechize, evangelize and minister to the needy will spring up independently of the diocesan structures. Because they are lay led the bishops will endorse them, but not have control over them. They will be local efforts, but they will also network through to other organizations, parishes and apostolates to balance subsidiarity with solidarity.

The best bishops will see these initiatives and empower and enable them. New religious orders will spring up and old ones will be renewed at the local level.

Therefore, if there is less focus on the pope and the international bureaucracy, this may very well be a godsend to the church.

Such a shift would also be more likely to offer checks and balances to the problem of clergy financial and sexual abuse. Instead of writing to the bishop about Father Feelie the concerned parents can call the police themselves. One good bishop has already said this, “If you have a concern call the police first and me second.”

Instead of letting Father Opulent get away with a Hollywood lifestyle, the parish finance councils might be given more muscle to decide how their money is spent.

Pope Francis is fond of pointing out that God is the “God of Surprises”.

God’s surprise in this case may be that the time is ripe to let the pope simply be a rock solid symbol of the faith–the old man in white who prays, keeps quiet, defends the faith, delegates down to the local level and appears at the window once a week to lead the Angelus and wave.