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How Pope Francis will mend a broken church


'Broken Church' by Chris Johnston: cartoon depiction of Pope Francis sitting with a model church trying to repair itThe election of a new pope is always an exciting moment for the Church and the world. After weeks of uncertainty, it seems there is good reason to celebrate the election of Pope Francis I, and to congratulate and offer support to him in the immense task ahead.

The excitement of the election of a new pope always brings with it the expectation that he is a new Messiah and has the ability to fix what is broken with the Church. But a more realistic, and indeed preferable, aspiration is for him to acknowledge before all else the ways in which the Church is broken.

With Benedict's resignation acting as a circuit breaker, the world will be looking to Francis to fix the Church. But in reality his role will be to set the Church on the path to recovery, along the lines of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. This will begin with the admission that the life of the Church is out of control in the face of clergy sexual abuse and other systemic challenges.

It would seem that such a disposition of humility and honesty is a more effective and inclusive path than attempting to turn the Church upside down. Such a radical approach would further polarise an already divided Church, and we know from his past actions that Francis is more of a bridge builder than a revolutionary. 

He was far from liberation theology, which was seen to be the way to decisively switch the allegiance of the Catholic Church in Latin American from the ruling elites to the poor. He preferred to live with the dictatorships, to plead the cause of the poor, but make his statement by making radical changes to his own lifestyle. 

After his appointment as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis broke with tradition by choosing to live in a small apartment rather than the palatial bishop's residence. This shows his commitment to acting as a bridge between the Church of the poor and the Church of the Latin American elites in a way will hopefully be translated into a determination to walk in the shoes of sexual abuse victims, who have been humiliated by those bound up with the power and privilege of a Church that values the patronage of elites.  

Early commentaries on the new pope are emphasising his distaste for the clericalism that many believe has been a key factor in the Church's sexual abuse of minors. While he failed openly to challenge Argentina's dictatorship of the late 1970s, he was unequivocal in his condemnation of clerical privilege: 'These are today's hypocrites. Those who clericalise the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation.'

This is enough to give hope to the Catholic Church and its victims.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Pope Francis I, Catholic Church, conclave, clericalism, sexual abuse



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Existing comments

http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2013/03/one-lung-priesthood-and-summa.html Should the fact that Pope Francis has only one lung debar him from being Pope? Were canon lawyers consulted beforehand?


Michael, I hope your optimism proves correct. For me Pope Francis' request for people to "pray with him", not just "for him" was a welcomed indication of an inclusive attitude.

Maureen | 14 March 2013  

Thank you Michael, I felt the stirrings of hope as I read your article.

Patricia Taylor | 14 March 2013  

Thank God

john frawley | 14 March 2013  

Nathaniel was overly cynical to ask: can anything good come out of Nazareth/ However, I think I'll risk it and say can anything different - pastoral and responsive - come out of the college of cardinals? We've already been subjected to so much spin about the virtues of the new Pope that I'm not hopeful anything can change.

RobJ | 14 March 2013  

I thought the whole thing about the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit was just a joke. But now, I'm not so sure. Ray Cassin, in the other article here, shows how the clever ones had worked it all out and Brigoglio was never mentioned. But somehow these worldly men came up with someone who used to do his own cooking, who was a member of an order whose head was stood down by JP2, an order which educates the elite but included in that number two Castros and one James Joyce, who was conservative on Humanae Vitae but progressive Mater et Magistra. Too many contradictions there even for big data to explain. Or for cynics to be comfortable.

Frank | 14 March 2013  

Major Question, it's a safe bet not a few of those septuagenarian papal contenders have probably had prostatectomies.

JR | 14 March 2013  

MAJOR QUESTIONS OF OUR TIME: people usually didn't survive Thoracotomy in Levitus'time. I suggest that that particular Canon Law should go into the dustbin of history.

Bruce S | 14 March 2013  

Michael, right on!! I believe a reform "way" is to be found in admitting the problem, identifying with it and then working through a process much like the 12 steps program is the way to go. Thanks Michael and greetings from Canada.

Bob Shank | 14 March 2013  

Francis appears to have been outwardly quiescent during the Junta but apparently helped some of its victims in a personal capacity. Not all clergy can be Dietrich Bonhoeffers or Bayers Naudes. It's easier to speak out in a democracy, such as WW II Britain, where George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, spoke out against the saturation bombing of Germany. It didn't win him any favour. How will Francis go if he needs to stand up to a government when Catholics are discriminated against or persecuted? He seems a gentle, non-combative man in this aspect. Perhaps the Church does need a gentle touch which is sensitive to people's pain at matters like paedophilia. A lot of the Vatican's Medieval and Renaissance pomp and ceremony could be easily dispensed with for the better. Kissing rings etc. only accentuates the power imbalance that enabled bad clergy to overawe their victims. Christ and the original Francis had no time for overweening pomp and ceremony.

Edward F | 14 March 2013  

There is a difference between the task of fixing "what is broken in the church" and fixing "a broken church". The AA Twelve Steps program has some value when people have to address problems other than alcoholism, which AA regards as a physical, mental and spiritual problem. But AA only works if the person with the drinking problem has the desire to stop drinking. That desire can come about in different ways - loss of a job, a marriage, a limb, liver failure, imprisonment, etc. described in AA literature as a rock bottom. Something obvious happens that makes the alkies see that they are powerless over alcohol; that their lives have become unmanageable. I don;t believe the church is in such a parlous state. It is not broken but parts of it are. If we cannot agree that the church has reached rock bottom as an institution we are unlikely to undertake the radical approach of AA - total abstinence from the offending brew for life. Still I think AA's 4h step "Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves' is the way to go. Maybe Pope Francis will promote the Examination of Conscience as a spiritual exercise for the College of Cardinals, and in due course the Synod Bishops. Benedict XVI before resigning examined his conscience and had the courage to follow it. These two great men, Francis and Benedict, could by their actions return Conscience to the centre of catholic spirituality and practice.

Uncle Pat | 15 March 2013  

Surviving in South American politics for so long suggests man who knows how to survive in the evil empire. We need to look to his record dealing with the power elites in South America to see how likely he is to be in dealing with the same elites in the Vatican Curia. Is he a boat rocker for the poor or a quiet but dismissable voice for the poor? Is he too mild to effect real change? Is a Francis likely to root out evil or will he start a new chapel inside the vast circus tent of Rome. That is what his father Francis did.

graham patison | 16 March 2013  

...'Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin'... He set himself to obeying the command. St. Bonaventure's 'Life of Francis of Assisi' : In that day I will restore David’s fallen shelter— I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins—and will rebuild it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name, declares the Lord, who will do these things... Amos 9: 11-15

Game Theory | 17 March 2013  

The intro to this post says, "The new Pope is a conservative." Presumably it is referring to Pope Francis' position on doctrine, morals, and liberation theology. In which case it is incorrect. The new Pope is not "conservative". Nor is he reactionary, medieval or rigidly pre-Vatican II. He is, simply, Catholic. As one would hope.

HH | 17 March 2013  

Graham, maybe I'm misinterpreting your comment, but I wouldn't regard South American politics as "the evil empire". I see it more as a result of global imbalance we call the North-South divide (Australia peculiarly falling within the North). I would hazard a guess to say that under similar historic, economic, etc conditions, politics in the North would be just as cut-throat and volatile as the South. That's why I think it's great that Pope Frank is from the South. And despite the harsh realities of South American politics and living, it produces a living faith that is actually about survival, rather than internal doctrinal issues that are irrelevant to most people. (I'm not saying the issue of women priests, married clergy and gay marriage etc are not important, but they are not the concern of the poor.)

AURELIUS | 17 March 2013  

Keep in mind that archbishops in Latin American dictatorships had to tread very, very carefully. Look what happened to Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down while saying Mass! No doubt his assassination was meant not only to shut him up, (he was an outspoken critic of human rights abuses in El Salvador) but also to serve as a warning to other similarly minded prelates in the region. Dom Helder Camara, former Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, had death threats. Interesting, isn't it, that Opus Dei founder Escriva has his statue on the outside of St Peters in Rome, whereas although Oscar Romero's statue is also on a famous church - it is an Anglican church: Westminster Abbey!

Bruce S | 18 March 2013  

Oscar Romero was also a conservative - liberation theology is the logical application of Catholic social teaching/morality.

AURELIUS | 18 March 2013  

Eureka Street has obviously given me an incomplete view of the Society of Jesus. I thought they were all slightly to the left of Che Guevara.

Penelope | 19 March 2013  

Well PENELOPE, as a reader I would hope that Eureka Street is not just a mouthpiece for the Society of Jesus, the same way The Australian isn't for News Ltd/the Murdoch empire. But I think all media are getting squeezed and looking more and more not to bight the hand that feeds them.

AURELIUS | 19 March 2013  

Quite so, HH.

John | 19 March 2013  

Pope Francis Pedophile Priest and Clergy...The Pope has sovery little time to resolve the situation..He cant do it without Bishop's Cardinals which most are involved either directly or by movement. He has to take immediate action to fire then all. They have hurt Parishioners and their Children time for all tp go.. It will impact the Church Directly,immediatly but like all things time will mend. No mone panels, comissions, special meetings on the subject'JUST TAKE action.

jACK | 23 February 2014  

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