In a recent address to papal nuncios, Pope Francis seems to have made it clear that he wants to change the intentions and focus of the clergy and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead of the highly intellectualized and intensely authoritarian stance adopted by the two most recent popes, Francis seems to embody a much more pastoral disposition – one which has drawn comparisons with Pope John XXIII, affectionately known as a simple, down-to-earth and friendly leader.
This is certainly welcome news for those many Catholics who have been dismayed at the rigidity and aloofness of the former “administration” at the Vatican. Too much emphasis on doctrinal correctness, dogmatic protectionism and authoritarian control over those perceived to be too “liberal” in their Catholicism has caused a very distinctive division among the people of God. It’s too simplistic to say that the Church has been divided between the pastoral and the evangelistic missions and it would be incorrect. It is the interpretation of those missions that seems to be the problem.
That’s nothing new, of course. The new path envisioned at the time of Vatican II by the majority of the faithful – the path of primacy of conscience, social responsibility, inclusiveness, friendliness towards other religions and Christian denominations – has often been derided by those in favour of a much more tightly controlled orthodoxy read through the lens of a kind of academic fundamentalism.
Pope Francis is taking on a great challenge if he truly wishes to change the culture of clergy and hierarchy at this point in the Church’s history. It is not a simple matter of setting out new criteria for choosing new bishops and cardinals. It’s not even just a simple matter of cultivating a “change of heart” among Church leaders. The new criteria he proposes for choosing bishops – loving, patient supporters of the laity, people of hope and prudence – are as indicative of a change of psychology as they are of a change of heart.
With Benedict’s emphasis on correct teaching, which carried forward John Paul II’s emphasis on confronting culture (also seen as a corrective), a certain attitude seemed to emanate from the Vatican that spoke of smug certainty, superiority, Catholic tribalism and loyalty to authority at the expense of pastoral outreach to those in most need. It seemed to many of us as though the Church’s leaders had literally “changed their minds” on a number of non-negotiables that had formed during the hey-day of Vatican II consciousness.
These non-negotiables were part of my Vatican II spiritual formation. As a member of the Church, I was empowered to overlook religious barriers to engaging others about spiritual matters. I was raised in an atmosphere of cooperation with other religions, instead of competition. I was raised to believe that religious rules took second place to doing what was pastorally appropriate in certain situations. I was raised to know that my conscience should be my guide in discerning directions and actions. I was taught that scriptural writing needed to be situated in context, and that it could be interpreted and corrected and questioned. I became aware of the “dark” side of Tradition – that the Church has not “always and everywhere” been a blessing for humans or the earth.
Fortunately, I think, I retain these non-negotiables as an integral part of my spirituality. I was not convinced to change my mind about the teaching of Vatican II. As a result, I have struggled along with other Catholics through the last two papal regimes, wondering at times whether I could continue to identify with the Church as it officially presented itself to the world through the communications of the Vatican.
I especially experienced anger and sorrow as I witnessed many of the changes initiated at Vatican II become stalled and mired in controversy. I have been horrified by the self-protective stance of priests and bishops during the uncovering of, not only the crime of sexual abuse, but the immoral conduct of those seeking to conceal the truth and to deceive everyone about the victimization of so many people. The fact that these same people sought to impose their moral authority on “the flock” is a scandal of monumental proportions.
But – back to hope. Pope Francis may be inaugurating a new regime, but at least some signs indicate that he is hoping to change the psychology of leaders, beginning with choices for appointments to higher positions of authority. This will be a very difficult task, since the culture of the priesthood has been subtly – and not so subtly – morphing through the last couple of decades. Who knows? Maybe many priests, bishops and cardinals will be glad to leave aside the pursuit of intellectual, doctrinal and dogmatic perfection for a more pastoral approach to ministry. It is naive to think that this will be an easy change, but it is certainly necessary. What remains to be seen is whether Pope Francis will be successful in finding the type of leader he is seeking among those seeking advancement towards more powerful leadership positions.