After a year in office, Pope Francis’s popularity shows no sign of waning. A weekly Italian fanzine called Il Mio Papa (‘My Pope’) has just been launched by Silvio Berlusconi’s publishing company, though Francis says he finds such adulation ‘offensive’. His response to a journalist’s question about gays – ‘who am I to judge?’ – has earned him cult status, including his appearance on the cover of LGBT magazine, The Advocate, as their 2013 Man of the Year.
Francis has transformed the style of the papacy, but to discern the substance of his theological vision one must trawl through a wide range of homilies and interviews, off-the-cuff remarks and more considered theological reflections such as his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (‘The Joy of the Gospels’). He speaks of wanting a ‘messy’ Church, a Church which takes risks, which expresses radical solidarity with the poor, and which avoids being ‘obsessed’ with issues such as same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion. He makes clear that his intention is not to change Church teaching, but to offer a pastoral response that is sensitive to the situations in which people find themselves. His experience in Argentina will undoubtedly stand him in good stead when it comes to dealing with the sometimes Machiavellian politics of the Vatican, but however politically astute he might be, it is clear that he is motivated by the conviction that the joy and freedom of Christ are the heart and soul of the Church’s mission, and this finds its most truthful expression in service to the poor. He has condemned the tyranny of the global economic system in language that is reminiscent of liberation theology.
So far, Francis has set in motion two far-reaching processes of change. He has appointed a team of eight cardinals to advise on the reform of the curia, which is the much-criticised bureaucracy that governs the Church. He has also created a new Vatican department under the leadership of heavyweight Australian Cardinal George Pell to take over control of Vatican finances – an area of the Church’s life that has been mired in scandal and charges of corruption.
However, important though these changes are, they are not the issues which impact most directly on the daily lives of Catholics. The recent circulation of a questionnaire in preparation for the forthcoming Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family might be the first real test of Francis’s ability to narrow the gap between the practices and beliefs of millions of ordinary Catholics and the teachings of the Church. Where results of the questionnaire have been made public, they add to the growing evidence that the vast majority of Catholics are at odds with the Church’s teachings on issues such as contraception, premarital sex and homosexuality. How might such issues become drivers of change in Francis’s Church?
My own view is that we are likely to see the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments and the adoption of a more inclusive approach to Catholics in same-sex relationships, but these shifts in pastoral practice are unlikely to be accompanied by any change in the Church’s teaching on the nature and indissolubility of marriage. It is possible that the ban on artificial contraception will be modified by placing greater emphasis on the conscience of married couples and on the need to be sensitive to different contexts. Such a move would dismay conservative Catholics who insist that papal teaching on such issues is not open to change, but it would be welcomed by the more than ninety percent of Catholics who already ignore the Church’s teaching on contraception.
Francis has expressed a desire to include women more fully in Church structures and institutions, though he has said that the question of women’s ordination is closed. However, his views on women can be disappointingly stereotypical, and we have yet to see evidence of any real intention to change the status quo. It is not true to say, as he has, that the Church lacks a theology of woman. It would be more true to say that it suffers from an excess of theology about women by men (the implicit assumption being that one is either human or woman), and the vast body of theology produced about women by women in the last half century has been either ignored or condemned by Rome. For Francis to engage in open dialogue with women theologians would be a sign of his determination to include women more fully. A small change in canon law would allow for the creation of women cardinals, and there is already significant theological justification for ordaining women as deacons. Greater attention to the role of women must also include recognising the impact of poverty on women. When eight hundred of the world’s poorest women die every day through causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth, any attempt to create ‘a poor Church of the poor’ must address questions of maternal mortality and women’s reproductive health. We have yet to see significant initiatives from Francis in any of these areas.
He has also disappointed many people by his failure to address the ongoing scandal of sex abuse in the Church. With new cases still being regularly reported, he shows little real appreciation of the extent of the problem or the ongoing challenge it poses to the credibility and reputation of the Church.
These are important criticisms, but they should not be allowed to obscure the genuine sense of hope and renewal that Francis has inspired. The Catholic Church looks different to those on the outside, and feels different to those on the inside. Francis has created an atmosphere in which the yoke of authority sits less heavily upon those who seek to juggle the often conflicting demands of modern culture and their Catholic faith. His work has only just begun. I for one hope he continues as he has begun – but with more engagement with women.
Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies and the Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at Roehampton University, established to promote academic excellence through scholarly collaboration in the study of the Catholic tradition and its influences and contexts. Her books include God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (2002) and New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2006). Tina is a regular contributor to The Tablet and to the online journal Open Democracy. Television and radio appearances include BBC1, BBC2, Sky News and Al Jazeera, Radio 4 (Start the Week, Beyond Belief, Something Understood,Sunday Worship, Woman's Hour, the Moral Maze).