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Analysis: Pope Francis has taken a Catholic Church in crisis and begun to remake it with his powerful brand of moral authority.
There is Pope Francis with angelic wings, smiling beatifically on the cover of the New Yorker magazine wherein James Carroll’s profile sings hope for a church reformed. And there is Francis featured as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. They are just two of the many prominent public expressions of the new pope’s virtues that stand in high relief from the darkness that has shadowed the church for two decades now.
In the nine months since his election in Rome, the pope from Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has become a moral statesman on the global stage, preaching an ethos of mercy, justice and peace.
Cardinal Bergogolio was elected last March by cardinals aghast at a Roman Curia so balkanized that a butler leaked papal correspondence to the media; money-laundering at the Vatican Bank; and the clergy abuse scandals which sociologist Father Andrew M. Greeley, in 1992, called “perhaps the most serous crisis Catholicism has faced since the Reformation.”
How has Francis responded to the crisis? Do his early moves suggest structural changes to match his eloquence on mercy and justice?
With breathtaking rhetoric, like his powerful statement last month against rising income inequality around the world, and powerful symbolism, like washing the feet of Muslim girls in prison, Francis has shifted media focus from the church’s unresolved crisis to a language of hope that many people crave.
“The Vatican and Western legal systems grind against each other like tectonic plates beneath the earth, while church money bursts up from the cracks to abuse victims and their lawyers.”
But a core question lingers over all of this good publicity: At what point will he confront the weight of necessary change within a church still in need of structural reform if it is going to resolve the priest sex abuse crisis that has consumed it?
The pope’s standing as an apostle of peace evolved over the last century. Before the Great War, the pope was a revered religious monarch with little impact on international politics. World War I drove Benedict XV to make powerful pleas, trying to halt the carnage; he proposed peace planks that President Wilson advocated at the Versailles treaty talks. Pius XII, whose silence on WWII Nazi atrocities raised a controversy well after his death, was praised by Golda Meir and Albert Einstein in life. John XXIII championed human rights in his encyclical, “Peace on Earth,” and interfaith understanding at the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Paul VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
John Paul II took human rights to a new level as a catalyst in the fall of the Soviet communist empire. But from John Paul’s painful twilight years through Benedict’s beleaguered papacy, the lengthening crisis of child-abusing priests damaged the papal role as moral statesman. How could any pope preach of human rights and dignity while refusing to confront a criminal sexual underground in clerical culture? When popes fail, as Benedict did in his passivity to the 2010 explosion of abuse cases in Europe, the papacy seems crippled.
But Pope Francis is on a remarkable ride as he endeavors to heal the church. When he spoke the phrase “who am I to judge?” in response to a journalist’s question about a gay priest, it suggested a tone of tolerance to bishops, at least in America, who held an unyielding stance in the culture wars. For that, the longstanding gay magazine The Advocate chose the pope as its person of the year.
In calling down “the globalization of indifference,” giving voice to the poor and refugees, and eschewing papal finery, Francis has touched a spiritual hunger in Western societies where religious worship has plummeted in recent decades as consumer culture boomed.
Suddenly, a global figure insists on a moral imperative to help others, challenging a passivity that marks the age. We sit like couch potatoes watching a virtual apocalypse, numbed by the nightly show of rot — Wall Street swindlers, school shootings, a cowardly Congress, trashy celebrities, even Lance Armstrong who, we now know, replenished himself with fresh blood like a vampire to strengthen his cycling performance.
Great athletes enact humanity’s yearning for the mythic quest to victory. Great pastors explain the mystery of God’s love, articulating spiritual values to transcend the specter of inexplicable suffering, particularly that of children. They refute the idea of fate as random, cold and godless.
Francis’s rousing defense of the poor hit a media arena that seems to have