Can Pope Francis Fix the Catholic Church?

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The list of problems facing the Catholic Church is long. Among the scandals Pope Francis inherited nearly one year ago are the clergy sex abuse crisis, allegations of money laundering at the Vatican bank and the fallout from VatiLeaks, to name just a few. Given the challenges, where should reform even begin? Moreover, how much change can truly be expected? FRONTLINE put these questions to five experts. Here's what they said:

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True Reform Will Take Outside Expertise

John Thavis, author of The Vatican Diaries

True Reform Will Take Expertise From Outside the Church

John Thavis is the former Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service and author of The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis came out of the gate quickly following his surprise election nearly a year ago. He established a series of advisory commissions, launched a deep reform of the Roman Curia and insisted that the Catholic Church must shift its focus from identity-building to wider spiritual outreach — as he put it, healing wounds and aiding “those who are most distant, who are forgotten, who are most in need of understanding, comfort and help.”

Momentum is important for any reformer, and Francis goes into his second year with unprecedented support from Catholics around the globe. But to push his innovations to the finish line, the pope will need to navigate many obstacles.

“If Francis is serious about challenging the Vatican’s clerical culture, restructuring must be more than moving the chairs around. There’s no good reason why lay men and women should not head Vatican offices.”

He will also have to deal with a problem that is partly his own creation: impatience for change. Francis has raised expectations on many fronts, and the one-year mark is seen as a time to start delivering results.

In some ways, the institutional reforms the pope envisions at the Vatican may be the easiest to enact. Francis was elected with a mandate to bring order to the dysfunctional bureaucracy and clean up financial corruption in Vatican agencies, and his decision this week to establish a central panel to oversee Vatican finances was a giant step in the right direction.

The fate of the Vatican bank will be a bellwether. Some have suggested that outright suppression of the bank would send a strong signal about the church’s direction, but that option seems to be off the table. The bank needs to be reformulated so that many of the thousands of existing private accounts are closed and those that survive are closely regulated.

Unfortunately, Francis is discovering that when it comes to financial reforms, the pockets of resistance and infighting that plagued his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, have not disappeared. Just last week came revelations of tensions between Rene Bruelhart, the Swiss director of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority (AIF), and its recently resigned president, Italian Cardinal Attilio Nicora. The AIF board meanwhile complained that it was being kept in the dark about the agency’s own investigations inside the Vatican.

The pope has approved the hiring of external consulting firms for other Vatican restructuring efforts, a move that will presumably give him leverage when it comes time to consolidate or eliminate agencies. But there’s been pushback here, too. Roman Curia officials have been quietly criticizing what they say is over-reliance on outsiders who know little of the Vatican’s history and culture, and who come with a heavy price tag.

The big question is whether Curia reform will bring lay expertise to the highest levels of the Vatican. If Francis is serious about challenging the Vatican’s clerical culture, restructuring must be more than moving the chairs around. There’s no good reason why lay men and women should not head Vatican offices.

Of course, Pope Francis’ vision extends far beyond bureaucratic issues. His idea that the church should operate more as a “field hospital” and less as a gatekeeper will face a crucial test next October at the Synod of Bishops on the Family. One item on the agenda will be the current ban on sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, which has already sparked an unusually public debate in the Catholic hierarchy.

But surveys around the world have indicated a much broader problem: a tremendous gap between church teachings on marriage and sexuality and the practices and beliefs of ordinary Catholics. Will the synod be encouraged to freely discuss these issues and recommend changes, or will it be another exercise in rubber-stamping Rome’s past statements? Much will depend on whether Pope Francis is willing to shake up the synod’s methods and enhance its status, in a more collegial approach to church governance.

Over and above these internal debates, Francis wants the church to be a force of mercy and healing in society. As pope, he can lead the way with his own words and gestures. But in the long term, much will depend on the people he appoints as bishops. In many ways, today’s Catholic hierarchy, formed largely in a conservative mold under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, represents the biggest drag on Francis’ reform project.

The new pope’s call for a church “of the poor and for the poor” will be successful if Catholic social teaching is better integrated in schools, in clerical formation programs and in people’s lives. That, too, will require a change of emphasis that cannot be achieved overnight.

Pope Francis also faces the task of healing wounds the church helped create: the lasting damage and mistrust caused by sexual abuse. Some have criticized the pope for saying relatively little to date about the sex abuse scandal, though he has named a commission to study the problem. The real challenge for Francis is to go beyond rhetoric and take the difficult but necessary step of holding bishops to account for their cover-ups and their mistakes.

In Francis, Catholics Have a Pontificate Fit for the Times

Thomas C. Fox is the publisher and former editor of the National Catholic Reporter.

Can Pope Francis restore his church’s shattered credibility? Tend the wounds of millions of disaffected Catholics, pillared by decades of clerical sex abuse and cover-up? Can he bury a church authority structure modeled after kings and their courts?

These are tall orders for a 77-year-old bishop who moved to Rome just one year ago to find himself suddenly heading a church of 1.2 billion followers.

“Francis is at once more conservative and more progressive than either of his predecessors. For the first time in a half-century, a pope is successfully bridging painful divides within the church.”

Change does not come easily in the Catholic Church, yet I for one am more than modestly optimistic Francis will succeed in ways few have yet to imagine. Consider these points:

One: He was elected by his fellow cardinals with a solid mandate for reform, starting with a Vatican bureaucracy that is widely perceived as inept and out of touch. He has appointed a council of eight cardinals from around the world to move this task forward. A roof leaks from the top down. Francis has wisely started his reform at the top.

Two: Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were conservatives who stressed church doctrines that have grown through the centuries. Francis is a radical traditionalist who stresses core Christian teachings found in the gospels, most importantly mercy and love. The result is to offer the world a more pastoral side of the faith. Why focus on human failings in the face of an all-merciful God, he tells the world. In this sense, Francis is at once more conservative and more progressive than either of his predecessors. For the first time in a half-century, a pope is successfully bridging painful divides within the church, divisions exacerbated after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Three: His pontificate comes as an exclamation point to that pastoral council, which attempted to modernize the church and more actively engage it with the world. Thus it bookends a period of reaction to the council, as Francis is the first pontiff to have studied theology during and after that radical modernization effort in Catholic history. In a historical sense, he is a product of that unprecedented reformist effort. It is often said it takes 50 years for the effects of a council to take hold. We are seeing this today in virtually every move and utterance by Francis.

Four: The reactive era to Vatican II began almost immediately after the bishops of the world left Rome and a resistant Vatican bureaucracy felt free to return to its resistive ways. The papacies of the last four decades — papacies of restoration — have coincided with the largest church scandal in modern history, perhaps ever: a pandemic pattern of clergy child sex abuse. The glaring lesson has been — for all with open eyes — that the Catholic Church cannot continue to wrap itself in a closed off clerical cast and the culture this clericalism has spawned, and survive. Radical change is required.

Five: Pope Benedict had hoped his papacy would rekindle the faith throughout Europe. As a theologian, he believed correct orthodoxy was the answer to the church’s woes. To achieve this strict orthodoxy he welcomed a smaller and purer church, at least as a new starting point. That church, however, never made the beachhead he envisioned. Instead, Catholic disaffection grew and churches emptied. Francis is taking the opposite path, saying the church should be home to all. This new engagement appears to have a greater chance of success in an increasingly diverse, multi-cultured, and multi-religious world.

Meanwhile, his worldview has prepared him well for hard days ahead. Francis is the first pope to come from the global south. He has internalized the cries of the poor who make up the majority of the human family. When he speaks of the need for justice, he does not deal with abstract notions. He has witnessed the oppressive nature of poverty firsthand.

Importantly, Francis also understands that in the modern digital age, antiquated top-down authority systems tend to dissolve. As such, he has rejected monarchy from day one of his pontificate.

So completely tied to the gospels, Francis exhibits an uncanny sense of freedom that comes from great spiritual security. This gives him a solid compass and a will to go forward despite the obstacles. Francis has repeatedly told the faithful that the Spirit is full of surprises. He does not believe he has to control the future. Rather he sees himself as an instrument — a means and not an end.

Taken all together, Francis’ pontificate seems fit for the time.

Church Leadership Needs a “Spiritual Conversion”

Sister Simone Campbell is the executive Director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, and leader of NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus program.

Pope Francis faces many hurdles in reforming an institution as mired in scandal as are the Vatican and Roman Catholic Church in many parts of the world. In the United States we know this as the priest-pedophilia scandal that has damaged and shocked so many in our nation. It might be easier if this were just a corporate issue, but an institution that strives to present the deeper mysteries of living and dying appears to have a more difficult time accepting its own humanity and consequent failures. Pope Francis has his work ahead of him.

Many in the press want to focus on the structural issues of inclusion of women, shared decision-making, parish leadership. However, I believe that these issues will not be addressed unless the church leadership embraces in a renewed way the mission of Jesus in the Gospel.

“Leading a deep spiritual conversion of church leadership might be the most difficult task ahead … It has been easier for many bishops and church leaders to blame or point fingers at anyone but themselves.”

Pope Francis has embraced the fact that the institution of the church is not called to serve itself but rather those at the margins of society. He is leading by example away from arrogance and certitude into a more inclusive communal approach of being pilgrims together. He even permanently lives in a hotel in Rome. His willingness to embrace ambiguity and to live as one among the multitude is both refreshing and historic. While in a monarchy such as the Roman Catholic Church the single ruler can make a significant difference, there is much more that needs to be done.

It seems to me that Pope Francis’ leadership is grounded in his deep and nuanced spiritual life. As such, he is calling cardinals, archbishops and bishops to a similar renewal of their spiritual lives while challenging them to live among their people. If there were a significant spiritual conversion within our leadership, the trappings of power would fall away and it would not be necessary for the leaders either to hide behind pomp and circumstance or castigate others for perceived infractions of narrow perspectives.

Leading a deep spiritual conversion of church leadership might be the most difficult task ahead. The human condition is such that we human beings always resist conversion. It is much easier to see how another should be converted. Hence, it has been easier for many bishops and church leaders to blame or point fingers at anyone but themselves.

Pope Francis is challenging this human condition and calling all of us to open our hearts to the movement of the Spirit among us. This will of necessity include letting our hearts be broken by the sins of our past. In the United States I believe that this will require us to weep together at the sin of pedophilia and the harm done and denied. It is the cover-up that is perhaps our biggest sin because it closed the door to conversion of our church. Only by admitting and lamenting our sin can we be changed. Pope Francis is calling us to this cleansing act of lamentation, leading to forgiveness and new life. But we must weep first for the sins of our past — including the sin of covering up the failings of our leaders.

From this spiritual place, Pope Francis is also working to root out the corruption that has seeped into the financial dealings of the Vatican itself. Any organization with as much money as the Vatican is a magnet for abuse. And it appears that abuse is all too common. It takes a profound prayer life to face up to the sin of an organization you love. But it appears that the Pope is leading with steely nerve and quiet determination to root out the corruption that has sunk into the opaque dealings of Vatican finances.

Finally, I believe that, rooted in this same spiritual orientation, the church will eventually live up to the rhetoric that men and women are equally children of God. Women are neither Eve the temptress nor Mary the immaculate. Rather, we are creatures journeying together and bringing our insights and wisdom to all aspects of life, including the church and spiritual life.

With the canonization of Hildegard of Bingen in 2012, I took heart that church leaders were finally waking up to the gift of women to theology and spiritual leadership. While it took a thousand years to do this, I take it as a heartening sign that Hildegard’s theology of the feminine in God was recognized as such a key teaching in our church that she was declared a “Doctor of the Church.” We are moving slowly, but inexorably, in the direction of the inclusion of women’s insights into mainstream theological thought and leadership.

Pope Francis gave a possible roadmap he is using to lead this reform when he wrote his exhortation Joy of the Gospel, issued in November 2013. In that rich and challenging document he says of peacemaking that time is bigger than space. He explains that he means that processes over time are more important than defending “turf.” He adds that unity always prevails over conflict (eventually) and that reality is more important than ideas or theories. Finally, he says that in building peace everyone must be included and their different sizes and shapes are essential to the whole.

In light of this, the peace that Pope Francis is trying to build in the church will take more time than I would hope and will be rooted in the stories of real people. When the 100 percent are included for their own contributions there will be a moment of unity in peace that is the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit.

There is work for all of us to do, not just Pope Francis. May we all repent, atone, weep and participate with him in renewing the earth in the Spirit who in community will set us free.

Vatican Must Empower, Not Silence, Survivors Like Me

The Rev. John Bambrick is pastor of the Saint Aloysius parish in Jackson, N.J. and a member of the steering committee for CatholicWhistleblowers.org, a support network for victims of clergy sex abuse.

When a survivor of clergy sexual abuse reports their horror to the church in search of compassion and healing, their soul can be left cold from the feeling that they’re the ones who are at fault. I should know, I am one of them.

I made my report on the eve of my ordination to the priesthood after a crisis of conscience. My whole life, I had wanted to be a priest, but I felt culpable about the evil secret my silence enrobed. Silence, I feared, made me a collaborator, and that same silence would no doubt fulfill what my perpetrator told me when I was just a teenager: “Some day you will be just like me and see how normal it is to have sex with boys.” The thought revolted me then and nauseates me to recall it now.

“My whole life, I had wanted to be a priest, but I felt culpable about the evil secret my silence enrobed.”

I presumed that by coming forward I’d be setting in motion a process consistent with the life of faith. Sadly, that’s not what happened. Not for me, and not for thousands of other victims. We were told we were liars; that we were mistaken; that we were out to destroy the church; and that we were hurting good priests. “Good Priests,” it enrages me still. The tragic irony was, church officials already knew the truth of our testimony.

There is a saying that “we are only as sick as our secrets.” Thankfully, it appears Pope Francis understands those secrets have to be brought to light. As Pope John XXIII said at the Second Vatican Council, it is time to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air.

Last year, I helped launch a support network for survivors of clergy sex abuse called CatholicWhistleblowers.org. One of our first steps was an open letter to Pope Francis outlining six steps to help the church move beyond the crisis:

1) Most importantly establish within the Holy See an international body composed of survivors of clergy sexual abuse, lay professionals and clergy who will be responsible for the facilitation in all dioceses of a dialogue between the church and victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse, so as to nurture understanding. No one understands victims/survivors better than victims/survivors. Do not pass us by but elect to show us mercy.

2) Revoke any oaths or pledges to secrecy by church leaders while requiring them to provide thorough public explanations of all incidents of clergy sexual abuse.

3) Require all those who shepherd the flock of the Lord to make accessible to public scrutiny all documents and files related to clergy sexual abuse.

4) Remove from ecclesial office all church leaders who facilitated the commission of clergy sexual abuse, obstructed justice regarding clergy sexual abuse, and/or destroyed information of any sort that could have served the cause of justice in clergy sexual abuse matters.

5) Require zero tolerance so as to remove from the ranks of the clergy and professed religious all those who in fact have committed sexual abuse of a child, an adolescent, or a vulnerable adult.

6) Compel all in church leadership to the doing of justice. The common good of the church and of the society must be taken into account, along with the equity between the parties that must include restitution and reparation.

These reforms can free the church from distrust while also restoring hope among its 1.2 billion followers. Saint Augustine once said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” Let us pray that Pope Francis has the same hope, anger and courage to fight for reform as the rest of us. If he does, then we will have the making of a revolution as worthy as the one that started with a baby in Bethlehem.

A Call for Executive Action in Rome

Nicholas P. Cafardi is dean emeritus and professor of canon law at Duquesne University. He is a former chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, and a co-author of the board’s Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.

The world has been impressed with Pope Francis’ personal warmth, holiness, and general openness. He will need these traits, and a strong internal sense of steel, to deal with the problems confronting the universal church.

First among these challenges has to be the clergy child sexual abuse crisis. Francis has already made a good start by announcing the creation of a commission to reach out to victims. In dealing with the crisis, victims should come first.

But there is more he could do. Only the United States has clear canon law, particular to our nation, on how to handle abusers. These norms, which exclude abusive priests from ministry, need to be adopted everywhere, since the problem is worldwide. Just as the president can wield executive authority, Pope Francis could make the American norms universal with the stroke of a pen, since he is the sole legislator for the church. Likewise, if Francis can remove a bishop in Germany for over-decorating his mansion, he can and should remove bishops who have allowed sexually abusive priests to remain in ministry.

“Just as the president can wield executive authority, Pope Francis could make the American norms universal with the stroke of a pen, since he is the sole legislator for the church.”

Next there is the scandal of how the church treats its divorced members. When these folks remarry, they cannot receive the Eucharist, which is the life of the church, unless they have received a church annulment of their first marriage. Without that annulment, their second marriage is considered adulterous, and a bar to communion. Annulments are a rather complicated judicial process in which a tribunal of canon lawyers, mostly priests, must be convinced that the first marriage lacked a true sacramental character before a second marriage is possible. This practice has alienated Catholics who have divorced and remarried, their children, and sometimes even other family members. It is a very effective way of emptying the pews.

Nothing, no clear theology, no gospel teaching, nothing except hidebound tradition requires that a Catholic marriage can only be annulled through a complicated judicial process. If he wanted to, Francis could reconsider this judicial function of the church, and instead delegate authority over the annulment of first marriages to the proper pastor of the people involved. Take what the church has made a complicated judicial process and make it into a pastoral problem with a pastoral solution. Again, as sole legislator, Francis could reassign this legal responsibility to the pastor with a stroke of the pen. And note, this does not require a change in our theology, only a change in jurisdiction.

Finally, there is the financial mess at the Vatican. Pope Francis, with the appointment of new oversight commissions and the hiring of outside consultants, is obviously taking this issue seriously. It has caused untold scandal, most of all in Italy, where the Vatican Bank is known as an “off-shore bank in the heart of Rome.” Most Italians believe the allegations that the bank has been used to recycle mafia money, and just last year the Italian banking system refused to deal with it on the grounds that it could not be sure Vatican money transfers were not for the purpose of laundering illegal funds.

My recommendation would be to close the thing. It has caused more trouble than it’s worth, and there is no reason the Vatican needs its own bank to begin with. There are plenty of other institutions that could fulfill its functions, and while it’s true the bank makes a profit — about $117 million last year — could it not make a similar amount investing elsewhere?

If Pope Francis does not want to close the bank, then he should at least throw out customers who don’t belong there. Start with politically connected Italians who use the bank to hide funds from tax collectors, a step that is already underway. But don’t stop there. There is no reason why there should be any personal accounts at the bank, even for Vatican employees, former employees or for ambassadors who are accredited there, all of whom still qualify for accounts under current standards. There are plenty of other banks in Rome where these people could take their business. If the Vatican bank is to survive, then let it be true to its name — the Institute for the Works of Religion, where the only account-holders are religious orders or Vatican departments that are actually doing the work of religion around the world.

How likely are all these things to happen? Ours is a church not just of faith and love, but of hope. Let’s give Francis some time to let his internal steel show. And let us hope.

A Pontificate Fit for the Times

Thomas C. Fox, publisher and former editor of the National Catholic Reporter

A “Spiritual Conversion” Is Needed

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK

Vatican Must Empower Abuse Survivors

The Rev. John Bambrick, CatholicWhistleblowers.org

A Call for Executive Action in Rome

Nicholas P. Cafardi, dean emeritus and professor of canon law, Duquesne University

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