A warm place for sinners


Something of the spirit of 1989 appears to be afoot in the Catholic Church since the election of Pope Francis last March. Walls are coming down, or appear likely to. Windows wrenched shut in Rome over recent decades are being prised open and a Church which had turned in on itself is again facing the city and the world, and with a smile on its face.

That said, Pope Francis remains a Catholic, as was the predecessor with which he is being increasingly compared, John XXIII. He is, as he said in that remarkable interview published on Thursday, “a son of the Church”. He adheres to all its teachings and doctrines, including those on abortion, same-sex marriage, the use of contraceptive methods, women priests, and mandatory celibacy. To expect otherwise would be foolish.

But he does so differently. He has warned against the Christian who is “a restorationist, a legalist”, those who would turn faith into ideology, those who “have a static and inward-directed view of things.” Instead he wants ministers who “can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”

Where he is most different from immediate predecessors however is in his attitude to Church governance. “I believe that consultation is very important. The consistories , the synods are, for example, important places to make real and active this consultation. We must, however, give them a less rigid form. I do not want token consultations, but real consultations,” he said.

And so next month he will meet the consultation group of eight cardinals he named last Spring. “This ‘outsider’ advisory group, is not only my decision, but it is the result of the will of the cardinals, as it was expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. And I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation,” he said.

Such words suggest he believes in the type of collegiality many had expected, but were denied, following the Second Vatican Council. In what is music to the ears of those Irish priests recently silenced by the Vatican, he said it was “amazing to see the denunciations for lack of orthodoxy that come to Rome. I think the cases should be investigated by the local bishops’ conferences, which can get valuable assistance from Rome. These cases, in fact, are much better dealt with locally.”

What Pope Francis wants is a Catholic Church that is a warmer place for sinners and those wrestling with conscience. A Church which is not just, what he described, as “a compendium of abstract truths”.