Pope Francis: a theology for change

Pope Francis's fresh, informal style has been met with popular acclaim during his first year in office. But his planned reforms will be hard for many in the Catholic Church to accept, says Michael Walsh.

Michael Walsh
20 January 2014

In a remarkably short space of time Pope Francis has become at least as popular as his predecessor-but-one, John Paul II. He is about to declare John Paul a saint, alongside another vastly popular pontiff, John XXIII. It is an odd coupling, undoubtedly done for political reasons. John Paul II dominated both world and Church. Dictatorships fell at his passing while the Church became more centralised and dictatorial. John XXIII, on the other hand, called the bishops of the world together in the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to let them decide how the Church should be run. Alas he died before the Council ended, and his successor lacked John’s courage.

It is not difficult to guess which of these pontiffs Francis takes as his model. John Paul is still revered, but no visitor to St Peter’s basilica can fail to notice the crowd always present around the tomb of John XXIII. Francis, like John, is a deceptively simple soul. He washes the feet of women as well as men, of Muslims as well as Christians. He carries his own bags, makes his own phone calls, sometimes to very startled recipients. He even pays his own bills. By training he is a Jesuit, and when the Jesuit Superior General visited him, the Pope met the General at the door and helped him off with his coat. Then, when the visit was over, Francis walked with him back to the door and helped him put on his coat again. There was no being handed on from Monsignor to Monsignor (he has just announced he is cutting back on those honorific titles too) into the papal presence, past saluting Swiss Guards. And the Pope met the General in the hostel in the Vatican grounds he has made his home, rather than in the gilded splendour of the Apostolic Palace. This may be the papacy, but not as we have known it.

The change has been stunning, and there are many - especially prelates in the curia, the Vatican civil service - who remain stunned. He has just removed from oversight of the Vatican bank almost all the cardinals put there by Benedict XVI not very many months before the latter's shock resignation. He has warned against careerism, which must have sent shivers down the backs of minor curial officials who saw themselves with a job for life (including the ultimate reward of an archbishopric, if not a cardinal’s red hat.)  Most important of all, he has changed the complexion of the Congregation for Bishops, that body in the Vatican which recommends names for episcopal appointments throughout the world.

It is the Congregation of Bishops which, under the pope of the day, has most say in the way the Catholic Church will be run for a generation to come. Hitherto, appointments have been almost always “safe” if not simply reactionary, including some in Britain. Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, was recently appointed to serve on this Congregation, and now has been named a cardinal, one of the only two Europeans outside full-time curial officials who will receive the red hat in the February 2014 consistory. Westminster has been a "cardinatial" see since it was created in 1850, so it might have seemed odd had he been left out; but the archbishops of a good many hitherto cardinatial sees have been overlooked. Nichols was chosen because his dogmatic moderation and pastoral pragmatism clearly chimed in with Francis’s own approach.

Fairly early on in Francis’s pontificate, one prominent Jesuit commented to me that the Pope’s “magisterium”, or teaching, was to be found chiefly in what he does rather than in what he says. He has published one teaching document, or encyclical, Lumen fidei (“The Light of Faith”), but it has been widely acknowledged as largely if not entirely the work of Benedict XVI. There has also been a wide-ranging “Apostolic Exhortation”, Gaudium Evangelii (“The Joy of the Gospel”) the length of a short book in a highly readable style.  But though it touches on many topics from missionary activity to economics to relations with other Christian Churches and religious faiths, it does not discuss what is most evident from the changes which Francis has brought about within Catholicism: his theory of the Church, or, in the language of theologians, his ecclesiology.

The locus of power

Francis pays great deference to his predecessor while slowly replacing Benedict’s team with his own, but nowhere is the difference between the two more striking than in their ecclesiology. Benedict’s theology has dominated the Church since the early 1980s when Pope John Paul placed him at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - thus making him, as is so often said, the Church’s doctrinal watchdog. Benedict’s, and John Paul’s, thinking on the Church was that it was a monolith, the Pope at the top, assisted by the Vatican bureaucracy. In this top-down model there was little or no room for the involvement of the Catholic bishops in the governance of the Church - again, in theologians’ language, collegiality.

Not that it is as yet wholly visible, but there has been a major shift in the way Catholicism is run. The synod of bishops, the structure by which the Church’s prelates become involved in governance, has been strengthened. Francis has told the curia firmly that they are there to be the bishops’ servants not, as they often saw themselves, their masters. In preparation for the synod the Pope sent out a questionnaire to bishops, asking them to pass it on to the laity of the diocese: the English bishops did so with alacrity; the United States bishops dithered. The questionnaire, it has to be admitted, was unbelievably badly drawn up, but it was a start. He has chosen a small group of cardinals, one from each continent, to draw up proposals for the reform of the curia. Tinkering with it, he has indicated, will not do. He wants far more decision-making done at local level, rather than in Rome.

If the Pope gets his way - and, collegiality notwithstanding, popes usually do - the Catholic Church of 2024 will look very different from the Church of 2014. It is not something all Catholics view with equanimity. Watch out for schism.

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