When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the new pope on March 13, 2013, he appeared on a loggia at the front of St. Peter’s Basilica without the red cloak traditional for the occasion, and then further broke with custom by bowing his head in front of the crowd on the Place below and asked her to bless him.
They were signs of a new informality and accessibility that the Argentine Pope has been cultivating ever since, often speaking impromptu and deviating from tradition on a large and small scale. Ten years later, Pope Francis’ changes go well beyond a new style: he has challenged church teaching on controversial issues from divorce to homosexuality, which worries conservatives with his progressive leanings, if not always satisfying liberal hopes.
The pope urged a group of young Catholics early in his reign to “make a mess” and has often decried rigidity on moral issues as deadly to the faith. But critics say he has also encouraged a polarization that some warn could endanger the unity of the church.
After 35 years of conservative cutbacks under St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, including on contentious issues of sexual and medical ethics, church leaders are now openly discussing rethinking the doctrine against contraception and homosexual relationships.
German bishops on Friday voted to adopt a formal liturgy to bless same-sex relationships, a move that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
This decision is part of a larger project in the German church to change teaching and practice in areas such as the ordination of women, priestly celibacy and the role of lay people in church leadership. The company has alarmed church conservatives, including in the US, who have warned it could lead to schism, or a permanent split in the church.
“There’s a sense that subjects that were once considered taboo or excluded are suddenly back in play,” said John Allen, editor of Catholic website Crux. This openness “has generated widespread excitement and energy within Catholicism, but has also aroused resistance, both from a traditionalist right convinced that things have gone too far and from an impatient left, concerned that change is not.” advance fast or far enough.”
The pope has stopped supporting some of the progressive goals his more liberal approach had raised hopes for.
He disappointed those who expected him to allow married men to be ordained priests and women to be deacons, a lower rank of the clergy. Both ideas were supported by a majority of bishops at a Vatican synod in 2019. But the Pope did not rule out such changes in the future.
German bishops’ vote on same-sex blessings last week came in defiance of a Pope-approved 2021 Vatican decree banning 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 progress was clear from the start, would never have happened without the Pope’s blessing, said Robert Mickens, English editor of La Croix International, a Catholic publication.
“Francis loves to open doors – some might accuse him of opening Pandora’s box. He likes to start a process and let others take it forward,” said Mr. Mickens.
Pope Francis, like his two immediate predecessors, has had to grapple with the long-running crisis of sexual abuse by priests.
Pope Francis has issued a defensive note for several years, emphasizing the Church’s progress in combating abuse. In one particularly controversial case, he dismissed allegations 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 Pope Francis to urge all Chilean bishops to tender 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 dismissing priests found guilty of molestation than under his predecessor, Pope Benedict.
The pope, elected after scandals surrounding corruption and incompetence at the Vatican, was mandated by the cardinals who elected him to reform the Catholic Church’s world headquarters in Rome. He continued efforts begun under Pope Benedict to prevent money laundering at the scandal-plagued Vatican Bank, which is said to have cleaned up its act.
The pope himself has touted an ongoing Vatican trial of 10 people, including a once-powerful cardinal, as evidence of greater transparency and accountability around Vatican investments, which he has centralized and placed under the oversight of a panel of outside experts.
Pope Francis’ style of government has proven to be a mix of autocratic and democratic, drawing criticism and even confusing many of his supporters.
Pope Francis is not afraid to rule directly, issue decrees or official doctrinal documents, like when he instructed priests to be lenient on divorce or restricted the traditional Latin Mass – thereby reversing a liberalization by his predecessor, Pope Benedict.
But on some of the most important issues, Pope Francis has indirectly encouraged change. He has given an unprecedented number of papal interviews and press conferences, and made informal comments that have become far better known than his official statements. 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 by embracing “synodality,” an idea of church governance that emphasizes the participation of all members of the church, including lay people. 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 role of women and LGBT people in the church.
For his supporters, this initiative is a sign that Pope Francis is seeking a church that listens to its members. For his critics, synodality is a recipe for cacophony and dissolution.
Pope Francis is likely to leave some of the most contentious issues to his successor, who will also have to grapple with growing divisions in the Church, said Sandro Magister, who writes about the Vatican for Italian magazine L’Espresso.
“Breaking the unity of the church is a relatively easy and quick task, but restoring order is a gargantuan task that could take decades,” said Mr. Magister.
Write to Francis X. Rocca at email@example.com
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