Can Pope Francis heal the Catholic Church's wounds?

Pope Francis inherited a Catholic church fraught with scandal and internal squabbles. Can a new rhetoric of compassion and acceptance reignite the faithful's devotion to the papacy?

Giampiero Sposito/Reuters
Pope Francis strives to separate Catholic essentials from the gild and the ermine in hopes of rekindling a connection to disillusioned followers.

“Freedom,” as Janis Joplin so famously sang, is “just another word for nothing left to lose.” I think sometimes her words could describe the job facing the new pope.

Troubles in the American Catholic Church alone – which the Economist estimates accounts for 60 percent of total church wealth – are crushing, and the litany is familiar:  According to Pew’s Religion and Public Life figures, church attendance among even strong Catholics dropped from 85 percent in 1974 to 53 percent last year. Only 27 percent of all Catholics attend weekly.

In the past eight years, eight of America’s dioceses have gone bankrupt, and another is set to file soon, much of it due to the priest sexual abuse scandals that have cost the American church more than $3 billion. Many dioceses that stayed in the black are rapidly unloading assets to cover their bills.

Some 100 million, or one-third of Americans, including this reporter, have been baptized Catholic, yet America appears to be following Europe in becoming more secular. Evangelical churches now compete for once-reliably-Catholic Hispanics.

The faithful, observant, and not, seem to be forever squabbling – over women priests, gay priests, married priests, gay marriage, abortion rights or wrongs, capitalism, a return to Latin prayer, which politician should be denied communion. Etcetera. And, of course, the sexual abuse scandals left much of Catholic America without the heart to carry on as before. Even if they could, is anyone listening?

The concerns of the once-mighty bishops were all but ignored at the White House during the Obamacare calculations, and the old notion of keeping the “faithful” in line is almost unimaginable now. Today, people – if they want to be Catholic – are, and if they don’t want to be – aren’t. No authority figure asks them what teachings they observe or don’t observe.

Probably most every Catholic is – or does – something the rules would disallow. Sometimes, they believe what they’re doing is wrong and they do it anyway, with varying degrees of remorse. Sometimes they believe the rules themselves are wrong. Contrary to popular misconception, in many places, a Catholic could go to mass every week for 30 years without hearing a sermon about birth control or abortion or sin.

It’s pretty much accepted that, as people worship as Catholics year in and year out, they reach a greater understanding and embrace of the how’s and why’s of church teaching.  It’s probably much the same in other faiths.

As in organizations everywhere, church authority brings with it props which themselves connote power. The CEO gets the corner office. The president gets pomp and circumstance. Mom and Dad get the remote. While his church has lost much, the new pope still has Rome at his disposal. He still has the trappings of his office – the pageantry, the history, the wow.  But why does this pope seem to be giving up the little leverage he has left?

Weekly, it seems, he’s peeling away another convention of authority, forfeiting another symbol of power. First it was the name he took – that of a simple saint, beloved, but also, it could be argued, a little crazy. Then there was the shunning of the need for a big apartment, a fancy car, an A-list of sins, a judgmental nature, a guy to carry the bags. And in a world in which “compliance,” seems to be a cardinal virtue, he similarly tells millions of kids in Rio to make a mess, to shake things up. 

Despite the weight of the troubles, this Francis seems to move more freely than any pope in memory. He separates Catholic essentials from the gild and the ermine. Indeed he seems to have calculated that, unless he eschews the trappings that set his office apart, he will lose the essentials of the church. Kind of like when a friend gets a promotion and things are never really the same again between you, what with him in that corner office and you in the cubicle. It’s right there in the instruction manual:  “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke14:11).

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