Can Pope Francis Change the Church?

Can Pope Francis Change the Church?

He’s saying the right things. Will the US Conference of Catholic Bishops listen?


Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican September 25, 2013. (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

“A new pope will change nothing. Not a woman, not an African, not a Latin, not a nice guy. In fact, if anything is to change, the first thing that needs to happen is no pope, and certainly not an infallible one.”

So I said at the height of the hype that surrounded Pope Francis’s election. Church watchers noted that he was a humble man who cooked for himself, took public transport and lived in an ordinary apartment. But despite Francis’s example, no cardinal has followed his lead and moved out of his palace or given up his limo. He challenged the use of church property for profit, telling refugees at a pastoral meeting in a Jesuit center in Rome that “empty convents and monasteries should not be turned into hotels by the church to earn money.” Without doubt that’s what Jesus would do—but it’s unlikely that the pope’s words will lead the bishops to be so generous. US bishops are more likely to seek government funds to feed the poor and shelter the homeless than sell off their considerable real estate holdings. After all, about 54 percent of Catholic Charities’ funding comes from federal and state governments, not church coffers.

But let’s not quibble. Good things are happening. The pope has reined in the Vatican bank, moving it toward compliance with European standards of transparency. He’s the first pope to appoint a formal advisory council of cardinals and laud collegiality in decision-making. And he warmly received theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, an early proponent of liberation theology. (As far as progressive pope watchers are concerned, his only widely noted lapse seems to be his decision not to drop the investigation of the US Leadership Conference of Women Religious and board the nuns’ bus.)

But then Pope Francis went beyond making symbolic man-bites-dog news in a 12,000-word freewheeling, but clearly strategic, interview that appeared in Jesuit magazines around the world. The pope offered an astonishing window into how he sees the church hierarchy—that is, the bishops, who are by tradition feudal princes in their dioceses—and where that hierarchy is failing. He made clear that the bishops are not the church; the church is us—and it is a big tent. “This church…is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he said. “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis’s predecessors, put “rules” above people, seemingly ready to abandon all who disagreed with them in favor of an obedient set of true believers. This pope tells us wounds will be healed rather than inflicted. Each person’s dignity will be respected. The words had special meaning for Catholics, but they resonated with many Americans who intuitively grasped their political significance for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has played such a sorry role in the polarization that permeates our public life.

It’s this critique of the ugly underside of Catholic clerical politics that is rightly making news. Francis is scathing in his reprimand of the modus operandi of the US bishops. “We [the church] cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…. It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he told his interviewer. These words put in sharp relief the US bishops’ extremism on abortion, typified by Cardinal Bernard Law’s claim that abortion is the “primordial evil”; or that gay marriage is a nonnegotiable political no-no, but Paul Ryan’s budget deserves respect. Only in America are bishops this unrelentingly harsh—bullies when it comes to sex, women and reproduction.

This obsession is so deep, it’s likely not even the pope can get through. After all, these bishops were appointed by the last two popes precisely for their conservatism. That’s not to say that the pope’s words—and his attempt to move the American church away from the war on women—are not welcome. The culture war mentality has not only damaged the people who engage in it; it has deformed civic life. To have a leader of one of the worst-offending institutions reject it inspires hope. And hopefulness is what religion at its best is about. Imagine if the bishops preached from that which is best in humanity rather than that which is worst.

It would be better still if there were no pope, no infallibility and no bishops with fiefdoms, and if a democratic church emerged. In that church, same-sex marriage would be celebrated, contraception would be the prelude to responsible parenthood and abortion would be understood as a necessary right. It is no accident that many Christian denominations without pope have moved in that direction.

Katha Pollitt, in this week’s “Subject to Debate” column, looks at Francis’s papacy with a skeptical eye.

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