ROBERT MICKENS. Francis is dragging the Church, kicking and screaming, into… the 20th century. The pope’s reforms are seen as too modest by some, but too radical by others

“The Church is 200 years behind the times.” (“La Chiesa è rimasta indietro di 200 anni”.)

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini famously said that in August 2012, just a couple of weeks before he died at age 85.

In what was labelled his last spiritual testament, the Jesuit scripture scholar and former Archbishop of Milan said the Catholic Church was tired and listless; its clergy dressed pompously and its places of worship cavernous and empty.

“The Church is 200 years behind the times,” he lamented. “Why doesn’t it rouse itself? Are we afraid? Afraid rather than courageous?”

Seven months after Martini made his cri de coeur, another Jesuit by the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio – he, too, an archbishop of a major diocese, but from the South American country of Argentina – was elected Bishop of Rome.

In the nearly seven years since he appeared before the world as history’s first pope named Francis, he has – in many ways – sought to bring the Church up to pace with the Catholic people of this age and the rapidly changing world.

How has he done so far?

Being dragged, kicking and screaming…

“The pope is dragging the Church, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century,” a friend likes to remind me.

My friend is a former Franciscan who is now a senior Anglican priest. He has a very dry, and sometimes ironic, sense of humour. So, yes, he’s well aware that we are already two decades into the 21st century.

So by his estimation, Pope Francis is half way there in closing the 200-year gap that Martini indicated.

And the sentiments of many Catholics – and others – seem to concur. Proof of this has been the various reactions to the pope’s new rescript to abolish the “pontifical secret” regarding clergy sex abuse.

While some commentators called it a “monumental” and “historic” development, others derided it as a public relations scheme and something that doesn’t really change much of anything.

What good is eliminating secrecy, one complained, if in places like Italy – where the pope is the head of the national Church – bishops and priests are still not required by ecclesiastical or civil legislation to report abuse to law enforcement authorities?

Prying things open or just smoke and mirrors?

Then there are the reactions to Francis’ efforts toward financial reform at the Vatican. Many in the old guard believe he has gone too far in trying to bring transparency to institutions that have long operated as if they were offshore banks. Others think the Argentine pope’s financial reforms are all smoke and mirrors.

And what about the pastoral reforms this pontificate has tried to introduce? For instance, he has asked the Church’s ministers to change the way they care for the divorced and remarried, people in other “irregular” marriage (or marriage-like) situations, as well as gays and lesbians.

He has also called for more incisive presence of women at all levels of the Church’s decision-making levels. And he’s opened up new studies on women deacons, including through a pontifical commission that he’s promised to re-commission.

Slowly moving forward

But have things really changed much for women in the Church? I’m not sure many of them think so, especially those who are young.

But there sure are a lot of clerics (and clericalist laypeople) who are bemoaning – and condemning – the fact that the pope has even opened up these issues to change.

Most everyone would have to agree that Francis is moving the Church forward, even very slowly. In some ways, he’s doing it in the manner that his late Jesuit confrere prescribed.

In his final interview Cardinal Martini recommended “three very strong instruments” for healing the Church from its exhaustion and overcoming the 200-year credibility gap.

Conversion is the first and most important instrument

“The church must recognize its errors and follow a radical path of change, beginning with the pope and the bishops. The pedophilia scandals compel us to take up a path of conversion,” he said.

“Questions about sexuality, and all the themes involving the body, are an example. These are important to everyone, sometimes perhaps too important,” Martini mused.

But he said they were a great challenge to the Church’s credibility.

“We have to ask ourselves if people still listen to the advice of the Church on sexual matters. Is the Church still an authoritative reference in this field, or simply a caricature in the media?” he wondered.

Engaging with the Word of God and learning discernment

The late cardinal said the second instrument for reforming the Church is Sacred Scripture.

“Vatican Council II gave the Bible back to Catholics… Only those who perceive this Word in their heart can be part of those who will help achieve renewal of the Church, and who will know how to respond to personal questions with the right choice,” Martini insisted.

“The Word of God is simple, and seeks to be a companion to a heart that listens. … Neither the clergy nor ecclesiastical law can take the place of the inner life of the human person,” he continued.

“All the external rules, laws and dogmas are there to clarify this internal voice and for the discernment of spirits,” Martini emphasized.

The sacraments: help for those in need

The third instrument of healing and reform, the late cardinal noted, are the Church’s sacraments.

“The sacraments are not an instrument of discipline, but a help for people in their journey and in the weaknesses of their life,” he said.

“Are we bringing the sacraments to the people who need new strength? I think of all the divorced and remarried couples… They need special protection… If the parents feel like they’re outside the Church, or don’t feel its support, the Church will lose the next generation,” he predicted.

“The question of whether the divorced can receive Communion ought to be turned around. How can the Church help people in complicated family situations with the power of the sacraments?” he wondered

A poor Church for the poor, led by outsiders

Cardinal Martini, who was one of global Catholicism’s most credible spiritual leaders during his 22 years as the archbishop of Europe’s largest diocese, was adamant that the Church needed to change.

“I advise the pope and the bishops to find twelve people who are complete outsiders for administrative positions,” he said.

He actually said people who are fuori dalle righe (literally, “outside the lines”) who are “close to the very poorest and are surrounded by young people who are trying new things.”

Pope Francis said from the start of his pontificate that he dreamed of a poor Church for the poor. He is a Vatican outsider – the first pope since Saint Pius X (1903-1914) – who never studied or worked in Rome. And he has begun to bring in other outsiders to take up administrative posts in the Roman Curia.

Those anxious for change, reform, renewal and the actualization of John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento (or up-dating) are probably not completely satisfied with the small steps forward that Francis has made so far.

But those who want no change and who cling to static structures and ways of doing (or not doing) things are actually distraught that the pope has taken even these modest steps.

That’s because they know that once things begin to move forward, there is no going back.

Robert Mickens is senior Rome correspondent for La Croix International. This article was first published on December 19, 2019.


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1 Response to ROBERT MICKENS. Francis is dragging the Church, kicking and screaming, into… the 20th century. The pope’s reforms are seen as too modest by some, but too radical by others

  1. Michael Furtado says:

    It’s fascinating to think of +Francis as Martini’s doppelganger: the latter slightly younger than the former, both of them Jesuits, and with Francis gaining the papacy through the help of conservatives who saw his accommodation of the Argentine Junta as a sign that he was their man. Church politics works in strange ways and, once elected, Francis has aroused the ire of the conservatives much more than he has lost favour with the radicals. Its interesting too that ‘Church correspondents’ or religious journalists of the stature of Mickens and the Hebblethwaites (both husband and wife) have, over the years, introduced to the faithful a kind of ecclesiastical policy literacy as a tool for a more nuanced and, in my view, better understanding of ecclesiology (or Church culture and structure) that is often missing from the deliberations of committed Christians, especially those of an evangelical proclivity. This false occlusion surely accounts for their implicit acceptance of the worldy status quo and the angelism or ‘Other Worldliness’, as opposed to the ‘This World’ missiology, that conservative Christians often manifest in their religious practices and prayer focus. (Not to digress, but e-journals, like this one, also play a valuable role in contesting this aberration). Back to +Francis: perchance, nearly a decade of European experience has given Francis a more modernist perspective on the role of women in a progressive Church, as well as of the just claims of the divorced and remarried, and also of those in committed same-sex relationships, to the sacraments. After all, the Eucharist, for Christians, is hardly the Bread of Angels (or Panis Angelicus) but the Sustenance of Sinners, which is where all of the Cosmos – the ragtag and bobtail of the Gospels – is assembled, waiting to be fed. I am led also to reflect that the elect rarely get it right in bringing a new consciousness of the real needs of people. Hopefully Francis will continue to demonstrate all the fervour of a convert of the kind that Earl Warren brought to his presidency of the US Supreme Court, where, contrary to conservative expectation, Chief Justice Warren’s rulings were critical in desegregating US schools. Call it what you will, but the Paraclete acts in strange ways, which, incidentally, are not just reserved for the activation of a Catholic conscience, as the reflections in these columns of retired Anglican Bishop George Browning on the plight of the Palestinians clearly – and highly commendably – also demonstrate.

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