The real mission for Pope Francis

Catholicism, among the most tradition-bound religions, contains at its core a paradox that has become increasingly sharp. Despite Pope Francis’ first overseas trip — to Brazil, the world’s most populous Catholic country — it is difficult to tell where the church is headed.

The accession of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy adds to the puzzle. The chief Jesuit confessor at the papal court used to be called “the black pope,” owing to his simple black cassock (if not his sinister intent). Now, for the first time, a Jesuit has become pope — and has compounded the novelty by assuming the very un-Jesuit name of Francis.

As curious as such gestures are in an institution that thrives on imagery, they are symbolic frills. We already have plenty of pictures of Francis kissing babies; what he faces now around the world are strategic matters of genuine substance.

One such challenge, the Vatican Bank, is equivalent to cleaning up the Augean stables. It is enough to mention the words “Vatican” and “bank” in the same sentence to start a cascade of jokes about comic-opera ineptness and skullduggery.

To find a remedy, Francis has appointed a special papal financial commission. But the bank known as the Institute for Works of Religion, founded in 1942, does not have deep roots in Catholicism.

Though notoriously secretive, the operation is far removed from the church’s more sensitive, doctrinal core. Besides, the commission’s members have impeccable loyalist credentials, which is also true of the cardinals appointed by Francis to look into broader issues of reform.

At the same time, Francis has launched a series of initiatives aimed at pleasing just about everyone. He has expedited the canonization process for John XXIII, who inaugurated Vatican II almost a half-century ago, and John Paul II, the autocratic Pole who reined in many of Vatican II’s liberating impulses. He has also announced plenary indulgences — time off from “the pains of purgatory” — for those who followed his visit to the Catholic youth festival in Rio de Janeiro on the Internet.

Such measures are difficult to get worked up about — both for Catholics who do not take them seriously and for “the simple faithful.” They have feel-good value, but little else. The heart of the matter is that Francis’ actions have been in line with the “revolution from above” style of reform associated with Vatican II.

In particular, none of the changes promoted by Francis envision a reduction in papal power. The “primacy of the papacy” — a term Catholic theologians use when talking with their Protestant counterparts — remains sacrosanct.

The larger lesson is that this monarchical model of Catholicism, together with the hierarchy that attends it, has remained pretty much the same since the Counter-Reformation. What is new are the circumstances under which it is unfolding. Catholicism in its heyday combined a fairly decentralized administration, under the sway of stand-alone bishops, with a uniform set of beliefs.

Church administration now has become increasingly subject to uniform civil codes. At the same time, since Vatican II — and in tandem with the decline of close-knit ethnic enclaves — churchgoers no longer feel obliged to hew to the letter of canon law. “Relativism,” “cafeteria Catholicism” and the like are ubiquitous.

Papal authority stands on shaky ground, especially in the comparatively secular West. Francis can attract attention by opining about social justice outside the church, but it is difficult for any pope to influence the habits and theological views of Catholics themselves, who think and act as they please. He can scold — a tack that Francis has so far tried to avoid — but he cannot convince.

If the church’s first dilemma concerns the basis and effectiveness of papal authority, the second concerns sexuality.

The two are linked. Francis shies away from the retrograde rhetoric that his predecessors used in raising alarms about the role of women, and he has not gone out of his way to follow up on the Vatican’s “visitation” (read “Inquisition”) of uppity American nuns. But he has kept that last episode on the books.

Catholicism — or, more accurately, the celibate male mythos at the heart of the institutional church — rests on centuries of sexism. An antifeminist culture pervades the organization. Thoughtful theologians can distinguish among psycho-sexual issues; in practice, however, fear of a slippery slope to calamity prevails.

Pull one thread — the celibacy requirement for priests, for example — and the whole edifice comes crashing down. Consider what has happened to liberalizing Protestant denominations, which, for all their good intentions, have lost adherents.

One could argue that concessions on this front would simply acknowledge attitudinal and behavioral reality and allow the church to move on. One could also argue that the consequences of reform would not be as organizationally disastrous as feared — in the same way that cleaning up backwaters like the Vatican Bank would restore credibility to the church’s spiritual message.

But this is a conversation that Francis has yet to initiate, and that the people around him show little sign of understanding.

Peter McDonough has written two books on the Jesuits and others on democratization in Brazil and Spain. His most recent book is “The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church.” © 2013 Project Syndicate

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