Back to the future: can the Catholic Church find its way?

In his first meeting with the media Pope Francis has said he will lead a church “that is poor and for the poor”. EPA/Radek Pietruszka

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the subsequent election of Pope Francis have provoked intense public interest and media attention across the globe. How could it be otherwise? The Catholic Church, over which papal authority looms large, is the world’s most powerful transnational organisation.

Catholicism’s long uninterrupted history and venerable traditions are no doubt important elements of its continuing influence, but so are its organisational infrastructure and global reach.

With a current membership of 1.2 billion adherents, the church can call on the energies and resources of more than 400,000 priests, some 40,000 deacons, 720,000 religious sisters, 220,000 parishes, and 136,000 primary and secondary schools teaching some 50 million students every year. Add to this the extraordinary wealth of the church which owns extensive holdings of land and buildings, art treasures and investments, conservatively valued at more than US$3,000 billion.

No other institution can begin to match the reach or depth of such organisational muscle. The church may not be able to make and unmake governments quite as easily as it used to, but its political leverage remains comprehensive and far-reaching.

A house divided

The Catholic Church rightly sees itself as having a religious or spiritual mission. The question is whether it is able to marshal its human and material resources in ways that are faithful to its mission in its current form. To say this is to raise yet another question: what is the relevance of the church to a highly turbulent world, deeply divided and uncertain of its future?

Around 100,000 people were expected to gather in Saint Peter’s Square for the first Angelus Prayer of Pope Francis, two days before Francis’s official inauguration mass. EPA/Claudio Peri

Much recent media commentary has unsurprisingly centred on sex abuse scandals and the sins of omission and commission on the part of priests and bishops. Rigid positions adopted by the church on priest celibacy, the ordination of women, homosexuality and the authoritarianism of a highly secretive Roman Curia are often cited among the most crucial problems the new Pontiff will have to address.

These and related issues are no doubt important, yet they do not go to the nub of the problem.

That the church should put its house in order and root out sexual abuse, secrecy and corruption is obvious enough. But keeping the house in reasonable repair is but a means to an end. The end itself is not the house but the people – the church’s mission, after all, is to serve the world.

Vatican II

This was precisely the intent and partial achievement of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II for short) in 1962. To reflect on the road travelled over the past fifty years is to gain an insight into what the next fifty years could look like.

Called by Pope John XXIII with the express purpose of renewing the Church and responding to the needs of a rapidly changing world, Vatican II met over four sessions between 1962 and 1965. When John XXIII died in June 1963, the council lost much of the charismatic impetus he had brought to the process of renewal, or aggiornamento as it came to be known.

Pope John’s successor Paul VI remained faithful to the enterprise and allowed the Council to complete its work. Though by the end of 1965, many of the more visionary formulations of earlier drafts were noticeably muted, the council’s sixteen documents (constitutions, decrees and declarations) had given the church a new lease of life.

But when it came to implementing the directions set out in these documents, Paul VI’s style was one of caution and compromise, motivated in part by fear of alienating conservative bishops and what was still an authority-driven curia.

The two popes that followed, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were even less disposed to implementing the Council’s reforms. They both claimed to be preserving the true spirit of the council, arguing that they were simply tempering enthusiasm based on misinterpretation of council documents. There was, however, no escaping the new realities of ecclesiastical politics.

The era of conservatism

Where Vatican II had enunciated a community model of the church, with bishops regaining the autonomy that Rome had steadfastly eroded over the preceding centuries, and the laity assuming a leading role in the fulfilment of the church’s mission, John Paul II reasserted papal supremacy and canonical rigidity.

Liberation theology was condemned and political involvement frowned upon, even though he was himself quite willing to enter the political fray when this coincided with his political preferences. His words and actions, especially during emotional visits to Poland, are widely credited with having played a decisive role in the success of the Polish solidarity movement and the fall of Communism.

With the death of John Paul II, the election of Joseph Ratzinger brought to the papacy a man who was even more sceptical of the enthusiasm generated by Vatican II. The defining document of Vatican II, The Church in the Modern world (Gaudium et Spes) was now viewed as having seriously skewed the balance between nature and grace “in favour of a naive confidence in nature and the world” at the expense of belief in the divine order and the idea of transcendence.

Writing just a few years after the close of Vatican II, Ratzinger made no secret of his misgivings:

Something of the Kennedy era pervaded the council, something of the naïve optimism of the concept of the great society. It was precisely the break in historical consciousness, the self-tormenting rejection of the past, that produced the concept of a zero hour in which everything would begin again and all those things that had formerly been done badly would now be done well.

Wittingly or otherwise Ratzinger’s reign accentuated the idiosyncrasies of the absolutist, secretive and sclerotic court that is the Vatican. Aside from the scandals, conspiracies and cover-ups, and an unusually long list of beatifications and canonisations, one of the most striking features of his reign was the greatly enhanced influence of several highly conservative, not to say doctrinaire or cult-like Catholic societies, notably the Neocatechumenate, the Legionaries of Christ, the traditionalists of the Society of St. Pius X, and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, not to mention the strategically placed Opus Dei.

A new hope

This, then, is the unfulfilled promise of the past fifty years, which is not to say that a great many Catholics – clergy and laity – have not continued to toil away, bringing comfort and relief to those in need. The question now is whether the church will regain something of the energising spirit of Vatican II, and adapt that spirit to the vastly altered circumstances of the 21st century.

Hopes of reforming the Catholic church lie with the newly elected Pope Francis. EPA/Valdrin Xhemaj

The task is a daunting one. Catholicism must first shed the assumption that it is an island of grace surrounded by a sea of evil. The undeniable evil to be found within calls for a more humble church, one that is deeply aware of its own limitations.

Noted Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has called for “a more honest and authentic faith”, one that is sympathetic and understanding towards people and positions different from its own.

This is another way of restating the core message of Vatican II, an invitation to Catholicism to set in motion a process of active reconciliation and respectful dialogue with other Christian communities, other religious traditions, notably Islam, and all men and women of good will, whether believers or not.

Such an approach should not be confused with acceptance of materialist greed, subservience to power, or complicity with oppression. On the contrary, the spiritual mission of the Church requires it to speak truth to power – the truth that comes from listening to the weak and the poor, the victims of war, discrimination, persecution and dispossession.

That the new Pope should have chosen as a role model Francis of Assisi who devoted his life to peace and to the poor is no doubt a good start. That he should have declared at his first encounter with thousands of journalists his wish for a church “that is poor and is for the poor” is doubly encouraging. Will this wish come true? If it does it will be nothing short of a miracle.