Pope Francis may have been an unlikely successor to Pope Benedict XVI, but he is already emerging as a remarkable pontiff, one who has always led a simple life himself, who understands the kinds of lives led by many Roman Catholics, and who also knows the dangers of a remote clergy apparently more concerned with specific forms of orthodoxy than with the mission of providing a spiritual space for all of the faithful in our complex and troubled times. That the Church of Rome faces serious problems is clear, with declining attendance and a shrinking priesthood, especially in developed countries, with widening rifts between followers’ attitudes in the developed and developing worlds, and with terrible scandals of child sex abuse, corruption, and incompetence which would have destroyed many a lesser institution. The Pope’s fellow priests probably know that very well, but the way His Holiness has responded to the situation is making the world sit up and take note.
In an interview with the Italian Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, which has been translated and republished in the American Jesuit journal America, the pontiff says the Church is “the community of God’s people.” Therefore, one of its first tasks is to recognise “how human beings understand themselves today.” The Pope had already made waves by replying to a question on gay priests, “Who am I to judge?” but now he has gone further, saying that the Church must not “interfere spiritually” in the lives of gays and lesbians and that priests must not be obsessed with homosexuality, abortion, and contraception to the neglect of their wider mission, which is to proclaim and spread the “saving love of God.” Even the way that is done could be radically reformed; Pope Francis says local doctrinal issues are best addressed by local bishops’ conferences, with the Vatican available for consultation. Furthermore, the pontiff is clear about a stronger role for women: “the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.” Just as radically, on September 22, the Pope told 20,000 listeners in Sardinia that the world must abandon its “idolatry of greed” and reform the global financial system. Significantly, the Pope has not proposed changing the church’s line on homosexuality, contraception, and abortion — or on women priests — but he has reminded all the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics that if they do not end their obsession with those issues and start acknowledging humanity as it is today, the Church’s moral edifice could fall “like a house of cards.” For Roman Catholicism, His Holiness may well be a truly world-historic figure.