Saturday, March 8, 2014

Pope Francis’s first year: Faith, hope...and how much Change?

IN THE 12 months since he appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s to begin his papacy with a disarmingly unaffected “Good evening” to the crowd below, Pope Francis has won a following far beyond the Roman Catholic church. He has softened the image of an institution that had seemed forbidding during the reign of his predecessor, Benedict, and shown that a pope can hold thoroughly modern views on atheism (“The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience”), homosexuality (“If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”) and single mothers (he has accused priests who refuse to baptise their children of having a “sick mentality”).

More than anything, Francis has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to communicate his ideas, and those of his faith, purely by gesture. Every recent pope has spoken of the need to treasure human life, even in its most tragic and painful manifestations. But Francis achieved more than any of them when he embraced a sufferer of neurofibromatosis, a disfiguring genetic disease. Though all popes pay lip service to the need for humility and simplicity, Benedict departed from the Apostolic Palace after his unexpected resignation in February 2013 in a Mercedes limousine. Francis drives a 1984 Renault of the sort owned by many French farm labourers.

A poll published by the Pew Research Centre on March 6th found that, in America, two-thirds of Catholics and half of non-Catholics regard the new pope as a change for the better. But whether he is attracting lapsed Catholics to return to regular observance is unclear. In a poll of Italian priests last year, more than half reported increases in church attendance. But Pew found no significant change in how often American Catholics said they went to Mass.

The task ahead is daunting. High birth rates in the developing world mean the number of baptised Catholics, around 1.2 billion, continues to grow. But there is an ever-widening gap between the doctrines of the church with regard to sex and marriage and what Catholics, particularly in the developed world, think and do. Clerical sex-abuse scandals, and the church’s complacent response, have also seen many Catholics in western Europe and North America turn away in disgust. A fear sometimes voiced privately in the Vatican is that Catholicism risks one day becoming a religion largely for Africans and Asians, confined elsewhere to a self-consciously reactionary fringe. Much therefore depends on this frugal, likeable man. ...

A misstep in his handling of the long-running scandal of clerical sex abuse poses other, perhaps greater, dangers. On this, critics accuse the pope of moving too slowly. He has set up a special commission for the protection of minors, but its role is merely advisory. Though he suspended Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, a German bishop, for his opulent lifestyle, he has so far done nothing about Robert Finn, an American bishop convicted in 2012 for failing to tell the authorities about a priest suspected of sexually abusing children.

“He has changed the topic from abuse without doing anything about it,” says Anne Barrett Doyle of the American watchdog group “I would never have predicted that a whole year would go by without the new pope reaching out in a meaningful way to the victims.” In his most recent interview, with Corriere della Sera, Francis appeared to suggest that the church was the true victim: it was “perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility...And yet the church is the only one to have been attacked.”

The Economist

Mar 8th 2014


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