Changes in the Church: the reforms of Pope Francis

by frankbeswick

Pope Francis is the first pope to attempt significant reforms to the administration of the Catholic Church, and it is not proving easy.

Imagine that you were in your late seventies.You have arthritis,part of your lung has been missing since your teens, and you have worked hard all your life. You might be looking to retire to a quiet little bungalow somewhere, and then you get a job offer. The only problem is that the job is to stand in as Jesus Christ's representative on Earth. The hours are long, the job requires multiple skills, there is no salary, and while many people love you and hang on your words, there are those who seek to discredit you by delving into your personal history to find and exploit any fault in your background; and ISIS wants to kill you. You have been offered the job of pope.

picture courtesy of t0m15

First Thoughts

The most important thing to say about any pope is that as he is standing in for Jesus Christ he is inadequate, for he cannot measure up to Christ. The pope must bring his human talents to the job, and as these are limited, so he must always fall behind and below Jesus' standard. Inevitably there will be areas of greater and lesser success, and even failure in his mission of spiritually leading a church of a billion people or more. 

Before going further I must correct one common misconception. Those who  every time a pope is elected declare that doctrine change must be in his in-tray do not realize  that the pope cannot change Catholic doctrine. His role in relation to doctrine is to  be the voice of the church, speaking the shared faith that he holds in common with other Catholics

Let us look at the present pope's two predecessors, John Paul the Second and Benedict the Sixteenth. John Paul had  a Ph.D in philosophy and spoke 12 languages fluently. He had a powerful way with the crowds that attracted people to the church, and his personal diplomacy led to  the ending of the Communist system in Eastern Europe, but he had weaknesses. He struggled to gain support from the intellectuals, whom he alienated by his authoritarianism, and he was so horrified by child abuse that he was in denial of its extent. Furthermore, as he aged and lost his grip the Vatican bureaucracy became ossified, entrenched and self-serving, as bureaucracies do unless the leader gets a grip.  He also needed the advice of the future Benedict the Sixteenth on Theology.

Benedict was a different character. He was seriously slandered by the church's enemies, who accused him of turning a blind eye to abuse. The truth is opposite  to this claim, for Benedict presided over a purge of abusive clerics,most of  whom he laicized and banned from exercising the ministry. Benedict had held professorships of Theology at several leading universities and was a thoroughly able theological writer who produced books on religious matters. He  had the ability to relate to the intellectual world, which compensated for his predecessor's more populist style. But he was not an organisation person, so he struggled with the Vatican bureaucracy, so  when it became clear that the scale of the reform task was so great that it was beyond his failing health he had the courage to abdicate. Enter Francis! 

Who is Francis?

There is an Italian saying, "After a fat pope a thin one." The meaning of this is that a new pope compensates for the weaknesses of his predecessor. Well, Francis, like Benedict,possesses a Theology and graduate qualifications in psychology,literature and philosophy, but he lacks the theological expertise of his predecessor. Nor does he have the facility in languages of John Paul. His expertise is in leading institutions, and behind him he has the experience of being in charge of the Jesuit order in Argentina during the dictatorship, during which time he smuggled out people in danger of death out of  the country. He later headed a theological college that trained priests, and then became archbishop of Buenos Aires. During this period he reformed the training of clergy by eliminating unsuitable candidates. In this facility with institutions he compensates for Benedict's limitations, though it is said that he will consult his predecessor on theological matters. 

Francis has weighed into institutional reforms with gusto. I do not foresee that there will be much theological development during this papacy, for this is what the church does not need. What it needs is institutional reform, and this is what Francis will give it. 

One significant reform is the new council. To compensate for the dominating influence of the Curia, the Vatican civil service/bureaucracy, which has had a stranglehold on information and advice reaching the papacy,the present pope has established an eight person council to advise him. This council consists  of cardinals representing different areas of the world. North,Central and South America are represented, as are Asia, Europe, Africa and Australia. There is one representative of the Curia, who is European.  These eight people advise on change in the church, and the function of this group is to counter the deadening effect of the papal bureaucracy. 

Other institutional  changes have been made. For the first time women have been admitted to roles in the curia,  and the pope  has stated that the church needs the talents of women. But the more difficult  changes were with the Vatican bank. The bank had been regarded as a conduit for the criminal money, which was flowing through it because of its inadequate organisation. This is due to the simple fact that priests don't make the best financiers, as they are not   trained in financial matters and their skill set does not include handling large amounts of money. This reform, conducted in the teeth of bank  opposition, has attempted to turn a failing bank into an institution that brings credit rather than disrespect on the church. It involved getting some people out and other,reliable ones into post.

Furthermore, the pope has  retired some senior curial officials who were either no longer up to  the job because of age or because he was dissatisfied with their performance. This has made him some enemies. These changes involved his making a thorough study of Vatican personel, all of which was in addition to the routine work of pope, which involve not only addressing Catholic visitors to the Vatican and diplomats from across the world, but also personally meeting every Catholic bishop in the world in an ad limina visit once every three years. 

But effecting these  reforms is in addition to a a little known aspect of the Vatican's work, which sucks up much of the pope's time: the Vatican's work to prevent war. Since 1945 Vatican diplomacy has been committed to preventing nuclear war and international conflict, and the pope is at the heart of all these diplomatic efforts. A little known and under-appreciated job, but a vital one of world wide significance. 


Changes to the way things are done.

There are ongoing reforms  that cannot be easily concluded. 

Firstly, there is the refocusing on the church as a church of mercy. As I pointed out earlier Catholic teaching cannot be changed by the pope, so those who want changes in divorce or abortion laws must realize that these laws cannot be altered, no matter how  much pressure there comes from the secular world. But the pope is concerned that while teaching cannot change, the application of it can, and he is seeking to be more merciful in the application of Catholic laws. One area is the treatment of divorced and remarried people. While the church is adamant that Sacramental marriages cannot be ended, and that those in subsequent unions cannot fully participate in Catholic life, Francis is keen tor restore such persons to the sacramental life of the church, so he has urged the bishops to consider communion for people who would otherwise be excluded from it.This project has proved controversial and it is ongoing, as not all bishops agree with him, and he is unwilling to attempt to override their will .

At the root of the problem is the issue of collegiality. There was a division among mediaeval Catholics as to how far the pope could rule without the support of his bishops. Some thought that the pope had the right to be an absolute monarch of the church, whereas others wanted him to rule in conjunction with a council or synod.  John Paul tended to the authoritarian side, whereas Francis is committed to conciliar solutions. This shows in their attitude to synods. John Paul chose the topics to be discussed and told the bishops what  conclusion they were allowed to reach, but Francis has opened the church to genuine discussion, and we are the better for it. This has not meant that we are a church in full agreement, as the discussions mentioned above show, but he is leading the church onwards.    

Francis has set an example in his personal lifestyle, having eschewed the large papal apartment for a room in the Vatican guest house, where he dines in the canteen with other visitors. This is part of an affirmation that the church is not to be part of  the world's establishment, but part of the challenge to  it.  

Where now?

Every papacy is an ongoing business. Currently the whole Christian church is facing a level of persecution unknown in previous centuries, and much of it is coming from fundamentalist Islam, although there are other sources, though even communism has softened on religion. Secularism produces the irritating niggle of political correctness, which attempts to use equality laws against Christians, but this is not the  worst problem. But while the church is growing in Africa and China, it is weakening in Europe, and there are problems in South America, traditionally a heartland of the church, though I am unconvinced that for many in that area Catholicism was more of a cultural matter.The papacy must lead the church through the pressures that always have and  always will pile upon it, and that is not an easy job. 

There can be no change of fundamental doctrines, but settling the longstanding issue of the role of women in the church is something that will need to be done. for women are crying out for their contribution to be recognized, and in justice it must be. The pope must take the lead on this matter. An early move might be opening the diaconate to women, for there were women deacons[deaconesses] in the early church, and what has been once can be so again.  

There is also the tricky issue of  Christian unity. The Great Schism between the Orthodox Church and the Catholics is nine hundred and fifty years old, and it is time to bring it to a halt. There are suggestions that Francis might be the one to finalize the move, but there are some on both sides who can produce or find obstacles. But both Francis and Benedict have made moves towards better relationships with Protestantism, particularly with the Lutherans, and while  I do not envisage final reconciliation in this papacy, progress is being made. 

In all these issues the papacy must work, knowing that the task will outlive the present papal incumbent. But I will leave you with this thought, that the church will only be free of problems when Christ comes again, until  then  expect problems.   

Updated: 12/12/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/20/2016

Jesus of Nazareth, the three volumes, by Benedict the Sixteenth.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/20/2016

frankbeswick, Each pope faces challenges, which are the same in the sense of human behavioral and organizational continuities and different in terms of what arises with each epoch. I'm not sure how well known the papal role in containing international conflict and nuclear war is even though it affects us all.
This is a lovely way to keep in mind how each pope has a recognizable personality but the same full plate of tasks to complete and crises to anticipate.
Which book written by a pope do you particularly favor?

frankbeswick on 12/16/2015

Thanks. The peace mission began in 1945 when Pius the Twelfth gathered together the papal diplomatic service to tell them that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki their main task for the indefinite future was to prevent nuclear war from happening. This is part of a general strategy to work for peace and the prevention of war in general. It is said that when some British sailors were captured a few years ago by the Iranians and were in danger of heir lives the Vatican diplomats interceded for them, and as the Vatican had opposed Bush's plans to invade Iran and his invasion of Iraq the Vatican had a bit of leverage with the Iranians. The sailors were all released safe and sound.

jptanabe on 12/16/2015

Excellent analysis of the three recent Popes. I was surprised to read about the Vatican's job to prevent war, how wonderful!

frankbeswick on 12/16/2015

You are absolutely right about the dangers of clouding doctrine for personal gain. Such clouding is a serious form of untruth. You are also right that wisdom needs to be practised to become genuine. This fits in with the teachings of James, the Brother of the Lord, in the New Testament, that faith without works is dead.

WriterArtist on 12/15/2015

My inclination is towards Buddhist preachings because most of it is based on practical experiences. Though I have read many Hindu scriptures and practice Hinduism, they really talk about wisdom that cannot be achieved until practiced. The missing link is the practical angle -- "practice".

For example, I know greed is bad, so are other vile deeds but when anger overpowers me I feel incapable of handling it. Vipassana shows a way to imbibe the goodness of Saints. One can be free from impurities and there is a way to do it.

I believe Christianity similarly talks about being good. Preaching is not enough, one needs to practice it. Jesus was a great example of how he achieved it. One cannot be true Christian till he or she imbibes the qualities of Christ. All Popes have a tremendous task of guiding people through the doctrines without distorting the essence. If they are clouding it for the personal benefits, the core and crux of the doctrines will be lost in confusion.

frankbeswick on 12/15/2015

This was a thoughtful and wise comment. Your statement that real truth is not blind faith is very right, and this takes me to an important point about Catholicism: the Catholic church has always rejected blind faith, believing that reason and revelation should be allies. Thus the church has always endeavoured to ensure that reason, through the use of philosophy, is fully applied in theology. The church believes that good theology has a strong philosophical foundation. I believe that your own faith, Hinduism, takes a similar view, for Hinduism has strong intellectual traditions, which I respect and which to some extent I have studied as part of my determination to understand all the world's religions.

WriterArtist on 12/15/2015

There are certain things in the Doctrine that should not be distorted, the teachings should remain pure. What changes are required are the mindsets and bureaucracy of the system. All Popes will have shortcomings because they are human but on them lies a huge responsibility of showing truth as it is. The real truth is an eye opener, it is not blind faith and any kind of extortion and enforcement will give any fruits.

frankbeswick on 12/14/2015

You are correct. Doctrine is unchangeable. Doctrine can be developed, but this development is a matter of deepening our understanding of it, but truth is not a matter of negotiation or conformity to the pressures of the world. The fundamental values of Christianity are non-negotiable, whatever pressure the world throws at the Christian faith. This reminds me of an incident when an atheist, a pleasant and tolerant man whom I quite liked, said to me that Christianity was incompatible with modern values. My answer was that we hold God's values, and He is timeless. The man took my point that Christianity is not about conformity to the spirit of the age.

There are theological options in doctrine.For example, in the sixteenth century the pope declared that Duns Scotus' understanding of the incarnation was an option for Catholics alongside the one proposed by Aquinas, so that each could be reasonably held.

What I like about Francis and Benedict is that they are not people who say "Believe me because of my position." Each relies on the power of the words that he says to convince hearers.

blackspanielgallery on 12/14/2015

You are quite correct in that the Pope cannot change certain things. Doctrine is not something to be negotiated. The problem is many do not know what constitutes doctrine, and point to changes in fasting rules and the move away from Latin as what they perceive as Doctrine. There is a major difference in form and Doctrine.
It is obvious you have done great study to write this, and have a good understanding of what really can be changed and what is set. Simply put no Pope can overrule Jesus Christ.

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