In Brazil during his maiden papal voyage, Francis I has spelled out with breathtaking bluntness the ways in which he differs from his immediate predecessor. From the moment he stepped out on the balcony above St Peter’s back in March and greeted the crowd with the homely salutation “Buona sera!” it was clear that this Pope’s trademark was going to be straightforwardness. But considering that Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI is alive and well and living a few dozen metres away from him in Vatican City, the criticism in his latest speech was remarkably blunt. It was also extremely pertinent.
Speaking to Brazil’s bishops, Francis said, “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people… Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs… perhaps too cold… perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas… perhaps… a relic of the past.”
Benedict’s many critics within the Church and without could not have put their problems with his papacy more succinctly. His was a highbrow idea of the Church’s mission, the view of a prelate from the heart of Europe who had spent all his working life ruminating on abstruse questions of dogma. Initiatives such as restoring the Latin Mass did nothing at all to broaden the Church’s appeal, quite the reverse. But Benedict seemed content to let the Church wither in its purity.
By contrast Francis, who is regarded with respect bordering on awe for the courage he displayed confronting drug gangs in some of the most wretched corners of Buenos Aires, and who has watched in alarm as masses of Latin Americans cross over to Protestant and Pentecostal Churches, wants to concentrate on the essentials of church teaching, and to take the message out into the street. This approach takes its inspiration from Latin American liberation theology, stripped of the Marxist underpinnings that made it anathema to Pope John Paul II.
But Francis does not limit his ambitions to re-evangelising the Church: he aims to bring the same new broom to the Vatican itself. As the first native Italian-speaking Pope for 35 years – his parents were Italian – and one who is not tainted by being a Vatican insider, he has made it clear that he plans to take on the might of the Roman curia, which contemptuously shrugged off Benedict’s feeble attempts to reform it. He intends to do the same for the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank. If he makes headway with all of these formidable challenges, he will leave the Catholic Church in dramatically better shape than when he found it. We wish this energetic 76-year-old well in the enterprise.
Might he, in addition, turn his attention to the questions that make the Church seem locked into a view of human society that belongs to another age: its attitude to homosexuality, to women priests, to contraception, abortion, stem cell research – all those toxic issues that no pontiff until now has dared to confront?
There is no point in liberal Catholics getting their hopes up: so overwhelmingly dominant are the conservatives within the College of Cardinals that Father Bergoglio would never have emerged as Pope Francis if there were the slightest question hanging over his doctrinal orthodoxy. Yet even in this no-go area, his very different style is bringing change: he has fiercely criticised the refusal of priests to baptise the children of single mothers because they were born outside the sanctity of marriage, for example. “Those who clericalise the Church,” he declared, “are today’s hypocrites.” It is hard to imagine his predecessor saying anything of the sort.
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