Pope Francis rocked the Church and surprised the world with a free-ranging interview published last Friday. But amid the widespread praise, and some criticism, there lurks a question: Can Francis make his vision a reality, writes David Gibson.
- Religion News Service
More than detailing a list of reforms or policy change he hopes to make — which may yet happen, after time and extensive deliberations — the pope was sketching out a pastoral vision for the church, and modeling a way for clergy to speak and relate to their flocks.
In order to replicate that model, Francis needs enough time to appoint bishops who share his views and who can in turn encourage and promote like-minded priests and seminarians. In many ways, the type of change Francis envisions will take a generation or more.
Already, some in this current, more conservative-minded generation of bishops have signaled their unhappiness with the pope. 'I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t, at least that I’m aware of, said much about unborn children, about abortion,' Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin said this month in an interview that reflected comments made earlier by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and others.
Francis’ latest remarks seemed clearly directed at those internal critics; he said flatly that 'I have never been a right-winger' and noted he has been 'reprimanded' for his new direction. A major challenge is that those conservative bishops will continue to have influence if they are not replaced or sidelined, or if the 76-year-old pope has a relatively short reign.
The cautionary tale that many progressive Catholics point to is that of Pope John Paul I, the 'smiling Pope' whose election in 1978 seemed to herald a new era of a pastoral papacy – and a church molded in the same spirit. But John Paul I died after just 33 days in office, opening the way to the election of John Paul II, an enormously popular figure yet one who began a sharp tack back toward doctrinal orthodoxy and conservatism.
That’s not to say the odds are against Francis. He turns 77 in December but seems to be in good health and appears at peace with the role that has been thrust upon him, in part by being pope the way he was a bishop and priest – as a pastor. Moreover, his predecessor, Benedict XVI, was 78 when he was elected and within eight years managed to name more than 60 percent of the American hierarchy before retiring last February. Since bishops must submit their resignations to the pope at age 75, and the hierarchy skews older, a pope can name a relatively large number of bishops in a fairly short time.
In addition, Francis’ remarks could embolden more progressive clergy who have had to keep their opinions to themselves. 'I think that there are a fair number of bishops here in the U.S. who have quietly gone along with the more trenchant, culture warrior approach … because they thought that going along was what was expected of them,' said Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for National Catholic Reporter.
'I suspect there are some bishops in the U.S. who will respond with great vigor to his call even while there are some bishops, like Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Thomas Tobin, who will continue to gripe that the Pope is not talking enough about abortion,' he added.
Discerning the Papal interview (Jesuit Post)