I love Pope Francis, the man. The challenges that have faced him since becoming Pope six years ago have had 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, secularity and faith. It has required a pope of formidable stature to try to heal the wounds and overcome the divisions that opened up in the Catholic Church over the previous eight years of Benedict’s reign.
In Francis, there is real cause to hope that the decrees of the reforming Vatican Council II of John XXIII, might be rekindled. His humility, common touch and way with words as he has tried valiantly to lead “a poor church, for the poor”, heralded a softer tone on sexual issues, waged war on clerical sex abuse, taken a tougher line on Vatican cliques and decried “obsolete structures” within the Vatican.
Like the late, much lamented Cardinal Martini, he is a man who is more open, more ecumenical, more tolerant than any other of our recent top Church leaders. He has inspired those who seek change. And he has a clear vision for the future of the Church – a Church which is not backward-looking.
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 and, above all, to ‘artificial’ birth control, have led to a Vatican 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.
The Amazon Synod of Bishops which ends next week has provoked the fiercest clash yet between the Pontiff and his conservative critics. The council has been discussing the dearth of clergy in the Amazon as well as the fires affecting the region.
Walter Brandmuller, a German cardinal, has claimed that a document prepared ahead of the synod is “heretical” because of its respect for indigenous faiths and their veneration of nature.
“In the context of the call for harmony with nature, there is even talk about the dialogue with the spirits”, he complained in a scathing essay published four months ago. The 90-year-old cardinal claimed that references to “Mother Earth” echoed the Hitler Youth, who he said also evoked “a pantheistic idolatory of nature”.
The synod document also backs the ordaining of older married men in the Amazon as a one-off solution to a clergy shortage so severe that some remote parishes are visited by a priest only twice a year. Conservative detractors fear that it is the thin end of the wedge that will lead to the acceptance of married priests throughout the Church.
The Argentine Pope has been supported by liberal German prelates, but some of their compatriots in the College of Cardinals have become his enemies. Gerhard Muller, the 71-year-old German former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a hard-line traditionalist who was ousted for his conservative views by Francis two years ago, joined the fray last month.
Muller claimed that the working document treated the Catholic faith as if it were “European opinion”. He criticised the document’s focus on nature being God’s creation – a cornerstone of Pope Francis’s green agenda – and powerful advocacy of the urgent need to confront the extinction threat of climate change.
In an intemperate outburst, Cardinal Muller said: “Man is the centre of creation and Jesus became man. He did not become a plant. This identification of God with nature is a form of atheism, because God is independent of nature.”
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, all-embracing institution
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an influential American conservative cardinal, waded in by describing the document in a letter to cardinals as an “apostasy from the Catholic faith”.
Burke and Brandmuller are well known critics of Pope Francis and are championed by a small but well-funded section of the media.
The Pope shrugged off the attacks a fortnight ago, saying he was “honoured” to be in their crosshairs.
A biographer of the Pope, Austen Ivereigh, defended the proposals stressing, quite rightly, that the Church must have an Amazonian face, just as it must have an American, Italian or Maltese face. “There must be respect for local, existing relationships with God”.
As Pope Francis has said in a different context, “closed hearts that hide behind the Church’s teachings and blinkered viewpoints” are not welcome, adding that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter but its spirit.
For millions of Catholics, the great strength of the Church is its certainty, coherence and immutability.
They look to the Vicar of Christ on earth to preserve that stability. But what we see with the Argentinian Pope is a public style that is relaxed and adventurous.
We conclude from his off-the-cuff remarks that he is liberal by papal standards on sensitive issues of sexual morality. He regards hard-hearted conservative bishops as hypocrites. We assume from his approachable manner and preference for the modest title “Bishop of Rome”, that he wears the office of Supreme Pontiff lightly.
But this is not the case. Francis exercises power with a self-confidence worthy of St John Paul II, the Polish Pope whose holy war against communism contributed to the collapse of the Soviet bloc. He never hid the nature of his mission. Francis, by contrast, wants to move towards a more compassionate, less rule-bound Church.
Reforming any ancient institution is never easy. 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 difficult.
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 demo-cratic, modern and open, all-embracing institution.
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