Throughout its roughly 1,700 year history as a formal institution, the Catholic Church has withstood crusades, a bloody reformation, the rise and fall of empires, the industrial and scientific revolutions, two world wars, and a hostile global communist movement. Yet while the church under the leadership of Pope John Paul II
contributed to the end of the Soviet Union, it has lost tremendous ground in the last two decades as a result of rapid social changes and internal scandals. Chief among these scandals has been the massive cover-ups of child abuse by priests within the Church. This has not only tarnished the image of the institution, it has also pushed its financial situation to the brink. Further, we do not even know when the scandal will reach its true depths as more people continue to come forward with stories of abuse.
Beyond that though, the Church faces more fundamental challenges. Young people in industrialized nations are turning away from the Church and religion in general, and even older congregates are at odds with some of the Church's most basic teachings. The pews are empty, the seminaries struggle to recruit new priests, and there is a widespread perception that the church's organizational model is outdated and even hypocritical. Famous images of Pope Benedict in his red Prada shoes and the countless displays of luxury and pomp in the Vatican have made it hard for the Church to proclaim its message of peace and aid to the poor and still be taken seriously.
Such is the situation that Pope Francis
has inherited; a corruption plagued, fractured, and seemingly irrelevant Church. It remains influential insofar as it still commands tremendous resources and strives to help the poor and downtrodden through its many charitable programs around the world. But this influence cannot last if the faithful no longer patronize the Church through their time, efforts, and of course, money. For that to be maintained and even expanded a rebranding must occur, the Church must reshape its image to attract more followers and earn more respect around the world. This is imperative not only in terms of Earthly affairs, but also in terms of the Church's very mission to spread the faith.
The early efforts of Pope Francis seem to be heading in the right direction. In his first weeks as head of the Church, Francis has eschewed many of the luxuries once conferred upon popes past. He forgoes fancy gold trim coverings in favor of simple white, wears a cross of wood instead of precious metal and jewels, has made little use of the infamous 'popemobie' in favor of an open car that allows him to physically interact with onlookers, and has generally tried to promote a more frugal and austere image for the Church around the world. Pope Francis has also spoken out on relations with other faiths and even non-faith by declaring that "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics'Even Atheists'.
Francis, born Pope Francis on 17 December 1936, is the 266th pope of the Catholic Church, elected on 13 March 2013. As such, he is both head of the Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City State. | Photo: Associated Press |
It seems that for Pope Francis, a ticket to redemption and heaven is not based on blind faith or adherence to a particular creed, but rather on internalizing the ideals of love, service, and respect. The theological implications of such a statement are not trivial, as it places the concrete actions of human beings above whatever religious label or lack thereof they may or may not wear. Such a focus is in stark contrast to the fundamentalism many imagine when they think of organized religion, that raging zealotry which regards those who do not toe the line and follow doctrine to the letter as 'heretics' or 'infidels' that will burn in hell. A rejection of that sort of fundamentalism creates the possibility of a much more inclusive church and an organization that can work more closely with other groups towards improving the condition of the weakest and poorest around us.
Pope Francis has also pledged to root out corruption within the Church and to cooperate fully with any investigations into abuse, turning away from the secrecy and protection of pedophiles that has characterized the Church in the past. However, those who expect this Pope to support the ordination of women, gay rights, and other more progressive goals will likely remain disappointed and frustrated as Francis is known as being socially conservative on many issues. That may be problematic for the young people the Church so desperately needs to attract and who by and large are much more likely to support gay marriage, contraception use, and other socially liberal policies. Still, there are indications that Pope Francis will at least be open to change on some of these issues. For example, he has been far from definite on the question of celibacy for priests and the use of contraception, especially when it comes to its use for the prevention of disease. While this may not be as far as many would like, especially given an AIDS epidemic that is still spreading, at least the Pope is prioritizing greater goods over doctrinal conformity.
Realistically, Pope Francis will probably be limited in how far he can transform the Church during his tenure. What he can do though, is lay the framework for larger changes in the structure and focus of the Church as a global institution. He can do that by going even further in his efforts to reach out to others and refocus the attention of the church from doctrine to deeds. Those within the Church should realize that the greatest inspiration lies in actions that serve as a testament to love and the teachings of Jesus Christ. When people see a Church that is willing to sacrifice its luxuries and wealth for the sake of humanity, it will be hard for them not to be at least curious about getting closer to it. Even for those who do not believe, a measure of respect and admiration will be warranted. There is a quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi which seems apt in this context, and the context of Francis' mission: 'preach the gospel wherever you go, and if necessary use words.'