“It will take Pope Francis five years to reform the Catholic Church.”
This was the prediction of Father Hans Kung, a leading Catholic theologian, shortly after Francis’ election.
On March 13, Francis will celebrate his fourth anniversary as pope. How is he doing?
Many would give him an “A” for the changes he has made in the College of Cardinals. He has appointed men for their pastoral sensitivity rather than their administrative skills. He has ignored the tradition of appointing cardinals of certain places, such as Venice and Philadelphia, and chosen men from Third World countries. Because cardinals younger than 80 will pick his successor, the longer Francis lives, the more the College of Cardinals will reflect his spirituality.
On financial reform, Jesuit Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter gives Francis “a C+ for not having finished the job.” He adds, “The Vatican Bank is in pretty good shape. APSA, the finance and investment office, has made some progress. But there are large pockets of money, especially that controlled by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, that need to be looked at more closely.”
Reese also thinks it’s remarkable that no prosecutions have resulted in any of the investigations into Vatican finances. He suspects Francis does not want to put a cardinal on trial.
A third action for Francis is to change the culture of the Curia, the administrative arm of the Vatican. Francis well understands that changing the structures and personnel in an organization — whether it be a school or a police force —will have little effect unless the culture of the institution also is changed.
From the first days of his papacy — by both word and example — Francis has challenged the culture of clericalism and privilege. He wants bishops and priests “to be servants, not princes over their flocks.” He wants them to be so close to their people that they “smell like their sheep.” Rather than use words of a social scientist, he uses Christian language for change — namely, conversion. He calls for a deep spiritual conversion to identify more with Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve.”
His biggest battle now with the Curia is its response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Personally, Francis has condemned what happened in the strongest language. He penned in the preface to a new book by a clergy sexual abuse survivor that this was an “absolute monstrosity” in the church’s history. He has met with abuse victims and asked for forgiveness, both privately and ritually. Since his election, he has promised a zero-tolerance policy against clerical sexual abuse.
However, on March 1, Marie Collins, the only active member of the pope’s new commission on clergy sexual abuse who is an abuse survivor, has resigned due to frustration with the reluctance of Vatican officials to cooperate with its work to protect children. Her decision was precipitated by the refusal of a Vatican office to comply with a request from the commission, an action approved by the pope. The request was simply that all letters sent to the Vatican by abuse victims receive a response.
In resigning, Collins gives the pope high marks for dealing forcefully with the problem at the top level of the church, but she says his efforts are consistently frustrated by the Curia. She asks for three changes by the pope:
Give the commission the responsibility and the power to oversee implementation of its recommendations when they are approved.
Give the commission an adequate budget to do its work without having each item of expenditure go through the internal Vatican approval process.
Remove the restriction on the recruitment of professional staff from outside the Vatican.
The National Catholic Reporter believes the pope’s final grade will depend on his response. Its March 3 editorial states: “The resignation of Marie Collins from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is a turning point in Pope Francis’ pontificate. It cannot be any other way. For all the hope and promise that we find in Francis and his vision for the church, we believe his pontificate teeters on the brink of failure on the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy.”
For four years, Pope Francis has worked hard to change the clerical culture of the Catholic church. Many of the clergy agree with him and have prayed and acted to be more like Jesus. Some, most notably in the Curia, have not. This fifth year will not be an easy one for Francis.