Will Francis make the necessary and radical changes needed to save the Catholic Church from its ongoing meltdown?
The late American writer and intellectual, Gore Vidal, often recounted a conversation he had with John F. Kennedy sometime in 1961 during the U.S. president’s first year in office.
“Jack,” he said in one version of the story, “You’re going to have to do something to break up this military-industrial complex. It’s got the Pentagon out of control.”
“And who will be your candidate for the next election?” JFK responded, pointing out that he’d have to spend the entire four years of his first term doing nothing else but dealing with this one issue and, thus, wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting re-elected.
Fortunately, Pope Francis doesn’t have to worry about re-election. But with the latest rash of sex abuse scandals in Latin America and an even more pernicious one involving a U.S. cardinal, he now faces a similar choice that confronted President Kennedy.
Will Francis take JFK’s approach of kicking the can down the road or will he step up to the challenge to take the bull by the horns?
If the pope decides to get to the root of the clergy sex abuse crisis and the hierarchy’s disastrously inadequate response to it, he will have to devote the rest of his pontificate almost exclusively to this gargantuan endeavor.
A radical solution and stiff opposition
To be sure, the 81-year-old Francis has come to this moment reluctantly. And in light of the recent shocking events and the huge task that now stands before him, it is easier to understand why he carefully avoided even mentioning the clergy sex abuse crisis in his first years as Bishop of Rome.
Had he done so, he would have risked bogging down his pontificate in efforts to heal what, until now, has been an incurable cancer.
He can no longer ignore what is clearly the biggest crisis to hit the Catholic Church at least since the Reformation. And it is one that has only just begun and will eventually spread to the Church in other parts of the world.
Up to this point in time, Francis and his predecessors have applied only stopgap measures largely designed to control the fallout of sexual abuse.
They and other Catholic officials have also boasted of implementing a succession of new safeguarding protocols, screening procedures and new disciplinary instruments aimed at preventing future abuse.
But they have refused (or have been unable) to put in place juridical mechanisms that hold bishops accountable for covering-up or ignoring allegations (and even proven cases) of clergy sex abuse.
Even if Francis were to achieve this last goal, holding the upper echelon of the Catholic hierarchy to account will be yet another Band-Aid solution if he does not lead his Church in taking an even more radical and carefully planned course of action.
But opting for such a root-and-branch solution will be extremely painful and will be met with fierce resistance from many cardinals, bishops and priests, as well as a goodly portion of the baptized faithful.
Is the pope, who will be 82 years old in December, up to the task? Does he have the stamina and, more importantly, the will to make profound changes that will sting like a potent medicine?
An August trip to Ireland
Perhaps the first indications of how Francis may answer these questions will come next month when he goes to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. The two-day visit, limited to the city of Dublin and a brief stop at the Marian shrine of Knock, could prove to be contentious.
Ireland, once a bastion of old-time Catholicism where the clergy had a rarely challenged authority over the people and civic society, is now a largely post-Catholic nation.
The Irish, racked by their own clergy sex abuse scandal this past decade, have recently voted in favor of same-sex marriage and abortion. Huge numbers of the population now say they are no longer Catholic.
It will be interesting to see their reaction to the Jesuit pope. Most of them, including those critical of the Church and its leaders, hold Francis in high esteem.
But they, like a significant number of Catholics and others around the world, have little regard for the Vatican’s official policy of barring women from ordained ministry and the most important decision-making positions or of labelling gay sex as “intrinsically evil” and the use of artificial contraception as a mortal sin.
And the pope has done little to change their minds on this.
The majority of people in Ireland also give Francis low marks in his handling of the sex abuse crisis. Will they use the papal visit as a platform to state their dismay more forcefully?
It depends on how the pope addresses the issue. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, wrote a letter to the Catholics of Ireland in 2010 in which he put the blame for the scandals and their cover-up solely on the shoulders of the Irish priests and bishops.
The former pope exonerated the papacy and the Vatican from any and all responsibility. Pope Francis needs to reverse that in forceful, penitential and convincing terms.
The Catholic faithful in Ireland, as elsewhere, are fed up with a Vatican-sponsored clerical caste of “celibate” men, discredited by sexual scandal and hypocrisy, that preaches to them about the proper nature and purpose of sex.
They will no longer accept a Church that treats women as second-class members. They expect Pope Francis to address these issues during the papal visit. But will he?
The root-and-branch reform of ministry
The trip to Ireland offers the pope an international forum for articulating a major overhaul of ministries in the Church. But it is probably doubtful that that he will seize this opportunity.
Were he to do so, however, he would have to candidly admit (as he has to some degree in the past) that the current seminary system is outdated and woefully inadequate.
The issue of mandatory celibacy, and evidence that significant numbers of clerics are unable to live it chastely, can no longer be ignored.
The fact that most thinking people agree that the majority of seminaries and priests are men of a homosexual orientation must be addressed openly and honestly.
Sexual activity among seminarians or priests – either with women or other men – can never be seen as permissible. But that does not mean conducting witch hunts to throw them out.
Rather, we need to create environments that allow future and current priests to speak candidly about their sexual orientation with the sole purpose of helping them become healthy psycho-sexual persons.
Cockamamie ideas like reparative therapy, sublimation or the reinforcement of a macho identity by involvement in sports, the military or other macho activities have to be denounced and rejected for what they are — idiotic and offensive.
This pope has shown increasing openness to the idea of ordaining married men of proven virtue to the priesthood in parts of the world where there is an acute shortage of priests.
The idea should be pursued with new vigor. The all-male, celibate priesthood has drastically limited the pool of candidates and fails to identify the charism of leadership the Holy Spirit bestows on all members within the People of God. Women — indeed, all lay people — need to be placed in prominent decision-making roles immediately.
That includes all Vatican offices, especially those that advise the pope on choosing bishops, appointing other key personnel and even the C9 privy council that is assisting him with reforming the Roman Curia and governing the Universal Church.
The necessary and final goal must be the complete elimination of the clericalist system (and mentality), which has long functioned as an old boys network of both mutual recrimination and reciprocated benefices.
This is going to be a long, hot summer for Pope Francis. And the forecast for the coming autumn and winter does not promise much relief from the current overheated atmosphere in the Church.
The pope has professed his conviction that the world risks destruction if its people and leaders do not take drastic steps to reverse global warming and other forms of environmental abuse.
Is it possible that he cannot see the clear evidence that the Catholic Church, too, is being threatened by an ecclesiastical meltdown?
And will he, like President Kennedy did in the face of the growing military-industrial complex, simply decide to shrink from the challenge? Or will he take the bold and controversial steps needed to completely eradicate the clericalist system that continues to harm the Church?
The future of Catholicism may depend on how Francis proceeds.