PETER WOODRUFF. Open letter to Pope Francis on “The Pope as a Game Changer”

Sep 6, 2018

Dear Pope Francis,

Greetings from Australia.  I am a priest who worked for many years in parishes in poor barrios of Lima, Peru.  I am now retired in Melbourne, Australia.

As you know, Pope John XXIII, despite the few years he was in the job (1958 to 1963), was a game changer.  He called the Second Vatican Council and, in the midst of the cold war, wrote a challenging letter to the world, titled Peace on Earth.  Pope Paul VI initially continued with his game plan but stumbled with his decision not to heed the advice of the commission he had formed to help write the 1968 letter on birth control to Catholics and all people of good will.  Then, Popes John Paul II (1978 to 2005) and Benedict XVI (2005 to 2013), chose to play a defensive game, which is more or less what our church leadership has been on about since the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563).

You have also been a game changer.  You have addressed the world, from the perspective of our Christian faith, on what is probably the major threat to life on our planet, namely, rapid, human induced climate change.  You have constantly urged us to become a church of service to life, especially that of the poor, marginalised and oppressed.  You have made a point of listening even when you are being told what you might not want to hear.  

But, are you now hesitating?  Clearly, you recognises the evolutionary nature of our world and all that inhabits it, including us humans.  You know that much in our church must change in order to remain true to the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.  Society, both local and global, evolves; so too must the church.  However, there are aspects of the church that, at present, only you as Pope can change.  

Only you as Pope can change the clerical nature of some of our basic church structures, such as the make-up of the body that elects the next Pope.  At present, all electors are both bishops and cardinals so all are male celibates.  The present rules about this excludes women, married men and clerics, who are not bishops.  You as Pope can change the rules that exclude these three groups from belonging to the group that elects the next Pope.

We are aware of a culture within the Catholic Church, commonly known as clericalism, which helps maintain the exclusively male make-up of the clergy.  While you have been a strong critic of clericalism you have merely recommended structures that might help clerics be accountable to the broader church membership whom they profess to serve.  However, you have not acted as a game changer of what maintains clericalism as a dominant aspect of the culture of the group that rules and ministers to Catholics worldwide.  You can talk until you are blue in the face but that will have little impact on entrenched clericalism.

Only the Pope can initiate global change of the structures of the Church.  We know that clericalism is a specific type of patriarchy that encourages priests to see themselves as spiritually superior to the rest of humanity and so allows us to become a class apart.  Thankfully, many priests and bishops choose not to set ourselves apart.  However, when a young man preparing to be a priest is taught that the priest is an ‘alter Christus’ (another Christ), he is effectively encouraged to believe that, as a priest, he will be spiritually superior to the rest of humanity.  He will be in a class apart and above.  Such teaching, when taken to its extreme, seems close to idolatry.  Besides, we know that all Christians receive the call to holiness on becoming members of the church at Baptism, the ritual of initiation into the church.  

Clericalism is also at the root of the globally coordinated practice of institutional cover-up. This devious practice is rooted in the determination to protect the reputation of the church leadership i.e. the clerics.  As long as the overriding focus of church leadership remains the reputation of the institution itself, the door will be open to the cover-up option becoming the default position.  In many of your episcopal appointments, you have taken steps to remedy this.

Recently, you wrote a Letter to the People of God in which you state in the first paragraph: “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”

Many of us hope you follow through on what only you as Pope can.  Only in that way will you continue to be a game changer.  There are changes that only you as Pope can mandate.  

May you continue to joyously walk with God’s People.


Peter Woodruff

Peter Woodruff worked as a missionary priest in Lima, Peru from 1968 to 2008.  He retired to Australia ten years ago, since when he has turned his hand to writing and editing.  He presently edits The Australian Journal of Mission Studies, an ecumenical journal.

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