The challenges facing Pope Francis have at their heart the growing gulf between traditionalism and liberalism in the Church and the widening gap in the world between rich and poor, north and south, secularism and faith. It requires a pope of formidable stature to heal the wounds and overcome the divisions that have opened up in the Catholic Church over the eight years of Benedict’s reign.
In Francis there is real cause to hope after his dazzling start that we are at the onset of a Vatican Spring. The litmus test for the liberal wing of the Church will be his regard for the decrees of the reforming Vatican Council II of John XXIII, especially in the way it called for “collegiality” (how power and responsibility were to be shared between the Pope and the College of Bishops), and its engagement with the secular world.
Since his election, this Argentinian cardinal has won plaudits for his humility, common touch and way with words as he has said repeatedly he wants to lead “a poor church, for the poor”. On his debut abroad in Brazil, the first Latin American pope injected a spring in the Church’s step in the largest Roman Catholic country. In public interviews he has underlined the new style that his papacy has brought, heralding a softer tone on sexual issues and a tougher line on Vatican cliques.
Pope Francis may now at last have begun a process that could lead to a global discussion about the pressing need for change
At a meeting of bishops, he has called for a new “missionary spirit” and decried “obsolete structures”, strictures which should strike a distinct chord with the hierarchy of the Maltese Church. Events since his enthronement have underlined Francis’ image as the “barefoot pope” who lives in a hostel, not the luxurious papal apartments, cares deeply for the poor and is endowed with a human warmth.
In an unprecedented move – which, mysteriously, appears to have by-passed the Maltese Bishops – the Vatican is undertaking a world-wide opinion poll of Catholics’ views on subjects such as unmarried couples, gay partnerships and contraception. The poll is the latest example of the pressure by the Pope to bring the Catholic hierarchy closer to its grassroots.
The 40 or so questions in the poll tackle some of the thorniest issues in Catholic doctrine. They ask whether divorced Catholics should feel marginalised; whether Catholics accept Church teachings on birth control; what pastoral care can be given to same-sex couples; and, importantly, how the Church should deal with children adopted by gay people.
The aim of the Vatican is to take a snapshot of opinion within the over one billion-strong Catholic Church for an extraordinary synod of bishops in Rome on “Pastoral Challenges of the Family” in 2014.
Reforming any ancient institution is never easy. But when the organisation requiring transformation believes that its practices and beliefs are ordained by the Almighty, then the task of arguing for change becomes profoundly more difficult. With the survey, Francis may now at last have begun a process that could lead to a global discussion about the pressing need for change.
In the developed world, the Church’s doctrines on sexual and personal morality are now completely at variance with how people actually live and think. The Church’s continued opposition to divorce – as we saw so vividly and disastrously for the Maltese Church – and, above all, to ‘artificial’ birth control, a doctrine that has led to the moral authority of the Pope being used, among other things, to try to stop the use of condoms as a way of controlling the spread of Aids, have led the Vatican to being out of touch with how millions of Catholics live and behave.
The result in America and Europe, including Malta, has been a marked division between what is taught to Catholics and what they actually do. In other parts of the world the results have been destructive in terms of disease and over-population.
Pope Francis has bravely set in train a great consultation in which ordinary Catholics throughout the globe will be asked their opinions on the Church’s teachings. Its objective, as its line of questioning reveals, is the admirable one of trying to discover how Catholics fill the gap between doctrine and deed, both practically and in terms of their consciences. With next year’s major synod on Family Life, the Pope appears to be determined to put the results of the survey to some use.
I hope that this increasingly exciting Pope propels to the top of the agenda the case for overdue reform of the Catholic Church started over 50 years ago by John XXIII, but brought to a grinding halt by Paul VI in his ill-judged encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968. The Catholic Church can choose to stand against social change in the name of a dogmatic interpretation of its principles. Or it can seek to adapt to changing modern social conventions.
The Church is more likely to flourish if proper account is taken of how human beings actually behave and how their preoccupations and life-needs change over time. Pope Francis has to hold together a vast centrifugal, fragmenting community spread across the globe. Catholics do not march in step, nor sing from the same hymn-sheet. On every continent there are problems, conflicts and disputes. In every European country, including Malta, Church attendance is haemorrhaging away.
In Francis there is real cause to hope that we could see the Catholic Church turning the corner towards a more democratic, modern and open institution.
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