Almost as soon as the identity of the new Pope was known, the feeling was that Francis would represent a break with the Catholic Church’s euro-centric past.
The first supreme Pontiff to be chosen from another continent was always likely to represent a tectonic shift of some kind, and Francis made it clear in his early public statements that he would be whipping up a wind of change to blow through the dusty corridors of the Vatican.
As Francis, in the job for less than two years, embarks on his second Asian tour, he has already found that wrestling with the Curia and other vested interests within the church hierarchy will be no easy matter. What are his major concerns and priorities for the period ahead?
Cleaning up the temple
The Vatican is long overdue for serious reform, as it has allegedly become a viper’s nest of careerism over calling, a pit of backstabbing and financial opacity, corruption and cronyism. The last time any serious attempt was made to address this was in 1978 under John Paul I, who died suddenly after only 33 days in the job. Four years later one of the bosses of the Vatican bank, Roberto Calvi, was found hanged under a bridge in London. He had reportedly been on the brink of being sacked before the pope’s untimely death, as John Paul I had made Vatican bank reform a priority.
Confronting sexual abuse
American Catholics in particular are desperate for Francis to ride to the rescue of their Church, crippled in recent years by revelations about sexual and child abuse, and hammered by victims for damages in US courts that have bankrupted some dioceses. It appears to be a global problem for the church, and one that is driving some faithful into the arms of other churches like the Evangelists , who have been eating into the Catholic congregation in places like Brazil at a worrying speed.
Creating a 21st century priesthood
In Italy, at least, fewer and fewer young men are coming forward to take holy orders, but one group is clamouring to be let in – women. Other Churches have decided to admit women, but the Vatican is still reticent. Should it allow priests to marry? Many say there would have been less sexual abuse in the past if priests had been allowed to live normal sexual as well as spiritual lives, and that this disconnection with half of the congregation does nothing to help make the Church relevant in the modern world.
The Unholy Triumvirate
Homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. These three topics have caused the church more grief over the years than almost everything else, and in Europe and the USA at least, opinion polls suggest the Church is out of step with most people’s views, which are broadly supportive of ending discrimination against homosexuals and allowing their union in marriage, allowing abortion, and ending the ban on contraception. There is some proof that intransigence on these issues at the top has been widely ignored anyway, and continued resistance has led to many leaving the Church altogether. “Modernise,” say the Church’s critics, or face inevitable decline into irrelevance.
This is a tricky one for the Church, as while confronting Catholic fundamentalists is one thing, taking too aggressive a line against other religions almost immediately brings accusations of crusading. But the Church is facing increased pressure in some parts of the world where Christian minorities are suffering persecution, or even eradication, and not to act or stay silent is at once a betrayal of the faith and a sign of weakness. One way to tackle the problem is to engage with the world’s other religions, and while Francis’s predecessor rebuilt bridges with the Jewish faith, it was more a case of burning them with Islam with some ill-judged comments Francis will struggle to erase.
Francis has said he fervently believes that the Church still has a vital role to play in the increasingly secular 21st century, and many would agree with that. But he has to arrest Catholicism’s decline in its heartlands, and push back against the more alluring charms of upstart, often American churches, poaching his flock in places like South America and Africa.