“The real challenge for Francis is to go beyond rhetoric…”

“The real challenge for Francis is to go beyond rhetoric…” February 26, 2014

There’s been some discussion around the blogosphere about last night’s “Frontline” on “Secrets of the Vatican.”  Most comments have been harshly critical. Yesterday, for example, the USCCB mailed out an “advisory” review, which noted:

The historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the headline-grabbing start of his successor’s ministry are certainly events worthy of close and careful analysis.

Unfortunately, “Secrets of the Vatican,” a PBS documentary purporting to provide just such an examination, turns out to be, in large part, both sloppy and one-sided…

“Secrets of the Vatican” represents a squandered opportunity to inform television audiences about the very real problems facing the church and its new leader, a potentially valuable overview blinded by worldly values, preconceptions and prejudices.

Over at the PBS website, meantime, they’re offering a number of viewpoints on the papacy and the challenges facing Pope Francis, from people like Nicholas Cafardi, Sister Simone Campbell and—arguably, the most even-handed observer of the Vatican—John Thavis.  He writes:

The big question is whether Curia reform will bring lay expertise to the highest levels of the Vatican. If Francis is serious about challenging the Vatican’s clerical culture, restructuring must be more than moving the chairs around. There’s no good reason why lay men and women should not head Vatican offices.

Of course, Pope Francis’ vision extends far beyond bureaucratic issues. His idea that the church should operate more as a “field hospital” and less as a gatekeeper will face a crucial test next October at the Synod of Bishops on the Family. One item on the agenda will be the current ban on sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, which has already sparked an unusually public debate in the Catholic hierarchy.

But surveys around the world have indicated a much broader problem: a tremendous gap between church teachings on marriage and sexuality and the practices and beliefs of ordinary Catholics. Will the synod be encouraged to freely discuss these issues and recommend changes, or will it be another exercise in rubber-stamping Rome’s past statements? Much will depend on whether Pope Francis is willing to shake up the synod’s methods and enhance its status, in a more collegial approach to church governance.

Over and above these internal debates, Francis wants the church to be a force of mercy and healing in society. As pope, he can lead the way with his own words and gestures. But in the long term, much will depend on the people he appoints as bishops. In many ways, today’s Catholic hierarchy, formed largely in a conservative mold under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, represents the biggest drag on Francis’ reform project.

The new pope’s call for a church “of the poor and for the poor” will be successful if Catholic social teaching is better integrated in schools, in clerical formation programs and in people’s lives. That, too, will require a change of emphasis that cannot be achieved overnight.

Pope Francis also faces the task of healing wounds the church helped create: the lasting damage and mistrust caused by sexual abuse. Some have criticized the pope for saying relatively little to date about the sex abuse scandal, though he has named a commission to study the problem. The real challenge for Francis is to go beyond rhetoric and take the difficult but necessary step of holding bishops to account for their cover-ups and their mistakes.

There’s much more. Read it. And check out the other opinions, as well.

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