‘The world has fallen in love with Pope Francis, but we should be cautious’
As bishops gather in Rome for the synod, prominent Irish Catholics offer their views on the papacy
Pope Francis attends yesterday’s opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images
The prevailing mood among Catholics concerning the papacy of Pope Francis is one of uncertainty. Frequently, this is accompanied by anxiety – at the prospect of change where traditional Catholics are concerned, and at the prospect of no change when progressive elements are involved. The Irish Times sought out the views of some prominent Irish Catholics on this man “from the ends of the Earth”, as he has described himself.
“I am glad we don’t have another intellectual as pope. We have quite enough from the last two popes (and good material it is) for Church academics to work through for the next 20 years. Good to get a breather on that front.”
This was the reaction of a Jesuit academic friend on his election. I agreed. Pope Francis is something else. From the moment he stepped onto the balcony of St Peter’s after his election he caught the imagination of the world. He exuded something of the warmth, exuberance and humour of Latin America. He is media-savvy. He knows the power of gestures. The most compelling are spontaneous: greeting a familiar face in the crowd, or embracing a man’s head disfigured horribly by an unusual skin illness.
They are sermons without words. Yet his words also have had a huge impact. His “The Joy of the Gospel”, is a bestseller. Many, especially priests at the coalface, find it inspiring.
His off-the-cuff comments have had greatest impact. The most well-known is his remark: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?” The operative words are that the person “seeks God”, that is, endeavours to act in harmony with Church teaching, and perhaps failing. Those words comforted many who had felt, wrongly, that the Church was anti-gay.
He is working systematically to put order into the Vatican curia, above all its financial affairs, and to promote a renewal of the Church. His most spectacular decision to date was to call the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. Equally surprising is the way he directed its preparation, which has caused healthy controversy and a lively debate. What the non-academic pope is doing is conducting a worldwide, theological and pastoral seminar.
Baroness Nuala O’Loan
Francis is a gifted, gentle, intellectually able, humble man. The first thing that struck me when I saw him was that his shoes were quite battered, and that he had all the appearance of an elderly, burly farmer who had put the pope’s white robes on top of his normal clothing. He is very willing to give generously of himself. A natural leader, he lives what he teaches and believes, a powerful model of what it is to be a Catholic.
Francis speaks well of women and the role of women. He is bringing more women into roles within the Vatican and the pontifical bodies. Things are changing: the first female member of a Vatican congregation has been appointed, and other women are taking up more positions. However, this great synod on the family will have just 12 lay members and one married couple among the experts. Women’s voices will not be much heard in this great synod. What a missed opportunity.
What could Francis do? He could set targets for the number of women on pontifical commissions, councils, etc; change canon law to enable female engagement in decision-making; lead change to address the rapidly declining number of priests, religious, and young people who practise their faith; initiate a discussion on women deacons.
Pope Francis knows that the church cannot afford not to enable its women members. They are at its heart, they contribute so much.
Mark Patrick Hederman
His style is more pastoral than his predecessor and he would appear to belong more naturally among those in the church who recognise that the message of Jesus Christ is not an abstraction above and beyond the human beings who first received it, or those who interpreted and passed it on through the centuries. The message entered the historical process and, so doing, it must, to some extent, become subject to change.
As he says in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelisation . . . Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”
Marie Kane, a survivor of abuse as a child, told him last July: “I’ll never get my faith back. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the church.” The pope replied, “You don’t need to be in the church, you are part of the church, you don’t physically need to be in it, inside it you know, to be part of God’s family.’ The jury is still out on what this means or whether it accurately represents what Pope Francis said.”
The world has fallen in love with Pope Francis, which is a good thing, but we should be cautious of the constant claims that he intends to change church teaching. In particular the synod now being held in Rome is revealing deep divisions within the church, making it the greatest challenge for his pontificate thus far. The voices for change claim to speak for Pope Francis, which is absurd, and they press for change even if their proposals contradict the gospel.
Cardinal Kasper has made much of the disparity between what the church teaches on contraception, marriage, sexuality, etc and what Catholics on the ground accept. This has led him to the extraordinary conclusion that the church must change her perennial teaching to suit the whim of the mob. The reality is that for the past 40 years there has been near-total silence from the church in western Europe on these matters, coupled with a failure to tackle dissent. Little wonder that the Catholic in the pew is confused and poorly-informed on moral matters.
But this catastrophic failure in catechesis does not mean ordinary Catholics reject church teaching. The trials and failures of individuals should not be used as excuses to devalue or attempt to redefine the church’s irreformable teachings on sexual ethics. We should recall the words of Dean Inge at the beginning of the last century: “When the church marries the spirit of the age, she finds herself a widow in the next.”
I greeted the election of the first Jesuit pope with hope for a different papacy. Popes John Paul II and Benedict were authoritarian, prescriptive and closed down all theological dialogue. The insights of Vatican II on the church as ‘the people of God’ and the church as pilgrim in dialogue with the world were firmly buried alongside the notion that all bishops should make decisions in a collegial manner.
It is not clear whether Francis will follow through on these insights but he has changed the focus. He leads by example. It is evident in his emphasis on love and compassion. He lives his beliefs daily.
The relinquishment of monarchical trappings and pomp are welcome as is his own personal humility. Recently he married couples who had lived together. That is considered a sin by church authorities. In just over a year after his election, Francis has reformed the Vatican bank, appointed eight cardinals to advise him, spoken more strongly about clerical abuse than the previous two popes and taken action to investigate priests found guilty of shielding abusers.
He has spoken more gently about homosexuality and, very significantly, asked Cardinal Kasper to address cardinals. Kasper is the most outspoken cardinal on the need to reform church practice on reception of the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics.
The most disappointing aspect of Francis’s papacy to date is in relation to women. American religious sisters practising gospel values, serving the poor and marginalised, continue to be under Vatican investigation.