‘Transitional’ pope could radically reform the church

Francis will not change core church teachings, but he may have new priorities

Sat, Mar 16, 2013, 06:00

Did Dr Who borrow one of its key memes from the papacy? For those unfamiliar with the flagship BBC programme, every so often the doctor “regenerates”. In other words, the role of doctor passes to a completely different actor, but there is a radical continuity in the character that is very important to the fans.

Dr Tim Stanley, who blogs with the Telegraph , got into some trouble when he tweeted, “The election of Pope Francis is a wonderful example of change without change.”

Some people interpreted this as a “snide liberal swipe”, according to Stanley. However, Stanley explained that he meant “the paradox as a compliment. Francis’s election will hopefully turn out to be an example of how to revitalise an institution without changing its core values”.

Of course, the resemblance between the papacy and Dr Who ends with the
idea of revitalisation of an institution without sacrificing central beliefs, but
the analogy may help to explain the astonishing fact that the pope is always a Catholic.

Changed priorities
This appears to be a source of shock to some mainstream media, which seem to cherish a dream that a pro-choice, condom-distributing candidate will somehow slip through the selection process.Oddly enough, this tends not to happen.

Any change will not be on the level of core church teachings and practices, but in approach and priorities. Yet even this level of change can be radical.

After all, Pope Francis is a man who has lived in a huge city with enormous social problems and low levels of religious practice.

The Latin American church also faces significant challenges, both from people who would like to banish religion from the public sphere, and from aggressively proselytising fundamentalist Christian movements. His response has been to try to live according to gospel values by maintaining a modest lifestyle among his people.

Striking things
In a 2007 interview with Stefania Falasca, he said a number of striking things. The first was that to be faithful is not, as the traditionalists or fundamentalists seem to believe, being faithful to the letter (of the law),

Instead, he said, if one is faithful, there is always change, blossoming, and
growth.

Second, he spoke about the need to go where people are, to serve them there. He encouraged his priests to “rent a little garage somewhere”, and if a layman is willing, “Let him be with those people a bit, do a little catechesis and even give Communion if they ask him.”

One parish priest protested that if they did that, the people would not come to church, to which the then Cardinal Bergoglio replied, “Are they coming to church right now?”

Faith in laypeople
He seems to have great faith in laypeople. In the same interview, he spoke of Japanese Christians, who underwent great persecution and were separated from contact with priests for 200 years, but managed to preserve valid baptisms, marriages and Christian funerals.

The grace of Baptism alone had sustained them. He was not advocating it as a model, but just praising a community that had continued to be faithful in extraordinary circumstances.

He must be very aware of his age, and that his time is limited, although he seems to be in fine fettle. (I think I recognise the characteristic walk of a sciatica sufferer, but sciatica to date has not killed anyone.) Being without a lung does not seem to trouble him particularly, either.

In his homily on Thursday, he spoke like a warm, energetic parish priest – a style perfect for a world where everyone has immediate access to his words.

Pope Francis may not have embraced liberation theology, but he certainly
has embraced the option for the poor, both in his own life and in his teaching.
He has said: “Human rights are not
only violated by terrorism, repression
or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.”

Speaking of structures, reform of the labyrinthine processes of the curia must be a priority. Again, there is so much that could be done without ever stepping outside the bounds of orthodoxy.

Tradition has it that heads of departments are cardinals, but imagine the impact if a laywoman were appointed as head of a Vatican agency.

Heads of departments
In January 2010, Pope Benedict appointed Flaminia Giovanelli as undersecretary (effectively a number three position) of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

She had worked there since 1974, and half of its staff are women. She is not the first woman to reach this level, but the heads of departments are always bishops and cardinals, just as Vatican diplomats are always ordained men. But this is a tradition, not a core teaching, and to change it would be a perfect example of revitalising an institution.

Some, such as the American commentator and traditionalist Catholic, Michael Brendan Dougherty, think that because of his age, Pope Francis will be merely a transitional figure.

It might be wise to remember that the last “transitional figure” we had was the saintly John XXIII, not only deeply beloved, but also the man who moved the church into the modern world. May Francis be a transitional figure of just this kind.