Michael Kelly SJ. Pope Francis is a game-changer.

Sep 10, 2014

There’s no doubting that Pope Francis is a game changer and not just for the Catholic Church. The question remains whether he can pull off the changes he’s foreshowed and many Catholics want.

Three decades of people being made bishops more for reasons of their readiness to comply with directives from Head Office than for any evident leadership capacities means that Papa Bergoglio as the Italians call him has little to draw on in the way of resources and personnel to see the desired changes through. And five decades of resistance by the Vatican Curia to the changes mandated at Vatican II in the early 1960s means that the challenges start at GHQ.

But beyond the resistance and lack of resources to manage the change lies something deeper. It really comes down to a difference in what one thinks the Church is. And about that Pope Francis is quite clear.

An image of the Church that Pope Francis has made popular is that of its being a “field hospital”, something deployed to bring healing and care to battle scarred warriors.

He told the editor of editor of Civilta Cattolica, Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, last year in his interview for the Jesuit magazines worldwide that “I can clearly see that what the Church needs today is the ability to heal the wounds and warm the hearts of the faithful, it needs to be on their side. I see the Church as a field hospital after a battle.

“It’s pointless to ask a seriously injured patient whether his cholesterol or blood sugar levels are high! It’s his wounds that need to be healed. The rest we can talk about later. Now we must think about treating those wounds. And we need to start from the bottom.”

Such practical, pastoral wisdom is born of prayerful reflection on the experience of ministry, as anyone who has ever had any and chosen to reflect on it will attest.

But there’s also an essential and direct connection to the mission of the Church as expressed in the opening words of Vatican 2’s Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World – Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” (GS, 1)

The all too familiar and contrary understanding of the Church and its mission that has prevailed in the last three decades and was embodied in Cardinal George Pell’s Royal Commission appearances in Sydney and by video link in Melbourne last month. It is that of the fortress Church, the one locked behind its defenses and giving admission only to the pure, the elect and the approved.

It has had Church leaders speak in hushed but approving tones of the future of the Church being only to be found with the “faithful remnant”, the small number of the elect who tick all the boxes of orthodoxy and are energetic in pointing to their superiority as orthodox Catholics in contrast to the inferiority of others whom they blithely label “dissidents” or “cafeteria Catholics” or “Catholic lite”, and imply that the “non–Catholicity” of those they label thus on the basis of their measuring stick to calculate Catholicity.

What I have found most uncongenial about being a Catholic in the last three decades is the absence of the missionary curiosity and the disappearance of any appreciation that the Church has anything to gain from a sympathetic engagement with the world beyond the Church.

Catholicism has become self-referential – words used by Pope Francis to describe the situation of elitism and condescension most particularly evident in one of the frequent objects of his criticism: careerist clericalism.

Self-referential used of the Church easily translate to a more commonly used English term – self-absorbed. This also had practical impacts known to us all too well in Australia, vividly illustrated throughout much of the sorry and sad history of the Church in Australia in its handling of sex abuse cases.

It was all done behind closed doors for fear of scandal. Even more scandalous things were done to cover it up. Always, and all along, the Church’s authorities have given Joh Bjelke Petersen’s response to enquiries and calls to accountability – “don’t you worry your pretty little face about that.”

Such an approach survived even to the days surrounding the calling of the current Royal commission. Through the bishops’ conference, most of the Archbishops and Bishops of Australia had heard in the days before its announcement that a process was underway to establish the Royal Commission.

They wanted to be on the front foot and welcome its establishment by then Prime Minister Gillard. One stood out opposing any such gesture – Cardinal Pell. In the end, the majority prevailed and announced their welcome and Cardinal Pell had to play catch-up on the day following the announcement by the Prime Minister, offering full cooperation with the processes of the Royal Commission. (See here http://youtu.be/gmzR1X95Lxg)

Now we know that the Church’s authorities were judged by civil society to be incapable of managing its own mess. External intervention by lay and secular judicial authorities is doing for the Church what it cannot and has not done for itself.

While Pope Francis has not distinguished himself yet on the subject of sex abuse in the Church and, on a couple of occasions, has shown himself to be in need of being brought up to speed on the subject, I don’t think it will take too much of an imaginative leap for him to grasp the problem and authorize the relevant changes needed in the conduct of Church authorities on the issue.

It would be worthwhile to consider, though it is entirely a conjecture on my part, how Pope Francis might have responded to the announcement of the Royal Commission. Of all the things that might have happened, two definitely would.

He would commend rather than criticize the journalists present for their persistence in seeing justice done to the victims, recognizing, as he must, that it is only by the efforts of the Fourth Estate that the issue of child sex abuse has become visible in the Church and civil society.

And, as he declared on many occasions, he would acknowledge that he is a sinner and has made many mistakes, on this and other issues. A bit of encouragement and humility would go a long way in this issue.

Why do I say this? Because at a deeper level, what Pope Francis is saying is that the Church gets its bearings not from its own internal fixed points but from where its vocation is to be found – where Vatican II in general but Gaudium et Spes in particular suggested it would: in its service to a world that is hungry, thirsty, bruised and in need.

The attitude and disposition of a servant Church that is located in the midst of multi-religious, culturally varied, politically and economically diverse world is first of all focused by something that views from windows of the Papal apartment can hardly provide: pluralism. It is something rarely acknowledged let alone allowed as the starting point for the Church’s engagement with the world it serves.

Most Catholics in Europe, Australia and the US live in worlds that are secular, pluralistic and heterogeneous. In the wider world, Catholicism is dwarfed by the other great world religions where difference does not mean error so much as recognizing that different people can and do have divergent starting points.

Pope Francis acknowledged this when meeting with journalists shortly after his election: See  http://youtu.be/1hPxXZJtAh8

But the differences displayed in these two video clips is more than a difference in style. It’s also a difference in substance best described in the interview Pope Francis gave to the Jesuit magazines worldwide. Pope Francis expressed it this way to Antonio Spadaro of Civilta Cattolica about how the Church changes:

“Human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the Church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”

This and much more was all described in the key documents of the Second Vatican Council that has been on the back burner for the last fifty years. In 2013, something that finished in 1965 – Vatican II – is now centre stage again.


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