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In 10 Years, Pope Francis Has Disrupted the Catholic Church – WSJ

Church teaching on issues once considered settled, such as homosexuality and contraception, is now hotly contested

Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican earlier this month.(Evanto Inetti/Zuma)

Franciss X. Rocca, WSJ

Energiesnet.com 03 14 2023

Pope Francis’ reign promised from its first moments a decade ago to be distinctive. 

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the new pope on March 13, 2013, he appeared on a loggia on the front of St. Peter’s Basilica without the red cape that was traditional for the occasion, then broke with custom further by bowing his head to the crowd in the square below, asking them to bless him. 

They were signs of a new informality and approachability that the Argentine pope has maintained ever since, often speaking off the cuff and departing from tradition in ways big and small. Ten years later, Pope Francis’ changes have gone far beyond a new style: He has thrown into question church teaching on controversial topics from divorce to homosexuality, distressing conservatives with his progressive bent, although not always satisfying liberal hopes. 

The pope urged a group of young Catholics early in his reign to “make a mess,” and has often deplored rigidity on moral questions as deadly to faith. But critics say he has also encouraged a polarization that some warn could threaten the church’s unity.

After 35 years of conservative retrenchment under St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, including on contentious matters of sexual and medical ethics, church leaders are now openly discussing rethinking teaching against contraception and gay relationships

The bishops of Germany voted on Friday to adopt a formal liturgy for the blessing of same-sex relationships, a move that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

That decision is part of a larger project in the German church to change teaching and practice in areas including the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and the role of laypeople in church governance. The undertaking has alarmed church conservatives, including in the U.S., who have warned that it could lead to a schism, or a permanent split in the church.

“There’s a sense that topics once regarded as taboo or out of the question are suddenly in play,” said John Allen, editor of the Catholic website Crux. This openness “has created widespread excitement and energy in Catholicism, but also aroused opposition both from a traditionalist right convinced things have gone too far, and an impatient left worried change isn’t moving fast or far enough.”

The pope has stopped short of endorsing some of the progressive goals that his more-liberal approach had raised hopes for. 

He has disappointed those who expected him to allow the ordination of married men as priests and of women as deacons, a lower rank of clergy. Both ideas were supported by a majority of bishops at a Vatican synod in 2019. But the pope didn’t rule out such changes in the future.

The German bishops’ vote on same-sex blessings last week came in defiance of a 2021 Vatican decree, approved by the pope, prohibiting such blessings on the grounds that God “cannot bless sin.” And Pope Francis expressed concerns that the German synod, which ended on Saturday after more than three years of meetings, would stray too far from the rest of the church.

But the German synod, whose progressive trajectory was clear from the start, would never have occurred without the pope’s blessing, said Robert Mickens, English editor of La Croix International, a Catholic publication. 

“Francis loves to open up doors—some might accuse him of opening Pandora’s box. He likes to begin a process and let other people take it forward,” Mr. Mickens said.

Pope Francis, like his two immediate predecessors, has had to deal with the long-running crisis over sexual abuse by priests

For several years, Pope Francis sounded a defensive note, emphasizing the church’s progress on fighting abuse. In one especially controversial case, he dismissed accusations against a Chilean bishop of covering up abuse. Widespread protests, including from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, the pope’s chief adviser on the matter, led to Pope Francis asking all of Chile’s bishops to submit their resignations. 

He later passed new rules for disciplining bishops who abuse or cover up abuse by priests. But under Pope Francis, the Vatican has been less zealous in defrocking priests found guilty of abuse than under his predecessor Pope Benedict. 

Protesters from the Catholic Women’s Association of Germany demonstrated on the sidelines of the German synod’s assembly this month.
Protesters from the Catholic Women’s Association of Germany demonstrated on the sidelines of the German synod’s assembly this month.(Arne Dedert/Zuma)

The pope, who was elected in the wake of scandals over corruption and incompetence in the Vatican, had a mandate from the cardinals who chose him to reform the Catholic Church’s worldwide headquarters in Rome. He continued efforts begun under Pope Benedict to prevent money-laundering at the scandal-plagued Vatican bank, which is seen as having cleaned up its act.

The pope himself has touted a continuing Vatican trial of 10 people, including a once-powerful cardinal, as evidence of greater transparency and accountability when it comes to the Vatican’s investments, which he has centralized and put under the oversight of a panel of outside experts.

Pope Francis’ style of governing has proved a mix of autocratic and democratic, sparking criticism and  bewildering even many of his supporters. 

Pope Francis is unafraid to rule directly, issuing decrees or official teaching documents, as when he instructed priests to be lenient on divorce or placed restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass—undoing a liberalization by his predecessor Pope Benedict.

But on some of the most important topics, Pope Francis has fostered change indirectly. He has given an unprecedented number of papal interviews and news conferences, making informal comments that have become much more widely known than his official pronouncements. The most famous example is his 2013 response to a question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?” 

The pope has institutionalized this indirect approach through his embrace of “synodality,” an idea of church governance that emphasizes the participation of all the church’s membership including laypeople. Pope Francis has called a global synod that will culminate in two meetings in Rome, this fall and next year, where topics will include the roles of women and LGBT people in the church. 

For his supporters, this initiative is a sign that Pope Francis seeks a church that listens to its members. To his critics, synodality is a recipe for cacophony and disintegration.

Pope Francis is likely to leave some of the most contentious topics to be resolved by his successor, who will also have to address the growing divisions in the church, said Sandro Magister, who writes about the Vatican for Italy’s L’Espresso magazine.

“To undo the unity of the church is a relatively easy and quick task, but to restore order is a gigantic task, that could take decades,” Mr. Magister said.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at francis.rocca@wsj.com

Appeared on the WSJ in the March 14, 2023, print edition as ‘Pope Oversees 10 Years of Change’.

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