Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Church That Francis Built

Pius XII--each pope in
his own papacy remakes
the Church 

There is no doubt that in two and a half years Pope Francis has effected a radical change in Catholicism—creating a very different Church than the one he inherited from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.  The Franciscan Revolution has not yet been complete and its thoroughness will depend, to some extent, on how much longer Francis continues in the papal ministry, but once again the toothpaste is out of the tube and will not successfully be put back, at least in its entirety. 
The most notable change in this papacy is from an emphasis on objective moral norms to a much stronger personalist appreciation for the vagaries of human behavior, most particularly regarding human sexuality.  As practically every commentator has pointed out, Francis has not changed any Church teaching on sexual morality but his openness to encounter and willingness to dialogue with transgendered individuals, the divorced and remarried, people in same-sex relationships, has done far more than change a tone.  It has torn down the barriers that isolated non-conforming individuals from the larger Catholic community.  It has put sexual behavior in its proper context and not let it be any longer the overriding defining characteristic of a person’s moral quality.  Francis doesn’t claim that non-marital sexual relationships are not sins but he treats them like any other area of moral fracture and doesn’t impose some sort of Scarlet Letter on individuals who don’t measure up to our somewhat strict Catholic codes.  Consequently people once seemingly isolated from full participation in the life of the Christian community are finding the Church a comfortable spiritual home and learning to integrate themselves back into the community.  More and more are even taking responsibility for their spiritual integrity and deciding for themselves questions about whether their individual choices are indeed serious fractures in their relationship with God and how to handle their taking responsibility for their moral integrity vis a vis participating in the Eucharist and other sacraments.  There is nothing really new in this except for the scale on which it is proceeding.  Some individuals have long had that maturity and spiritual depth to plumb their own consciences and act accordingly, but it is now almost becoming normative.  This does drive some people of the old Scribe and Pharisee Club ‘round the bend however.  Always did.  Even back in the day when the disciples picked corn on the Sabbath.  But that is another story.
The second way in which the change is becoming effective is a move away from the triumphant style of recent years.  Towards the end of the reign of John Paul II there was a very notable shift in sartorial style in Vatican circles.  Cappae Magnae had not been seen in years but were suddenly popping up at all these “traditional” Pontifical Masses in the “Extraordinary Form.”  Silver buckles and violet and scarlet stockings began appearing on prelatial feet.  JPII kept his ox-blood loafers for everyday, but began wearing some vestments, especially copes, that were exceptionally beautiful but also quite different from the more simple style set by Paul VI and used by JPII himself in the first two thirds of his reign.  Then Benedict hit the scene with a fury that can only be compared to a confused six-year old allowed to raid his Gramma’s attic for dress-up.   I mean he was giving Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham a run for her money in period costume.  I don’t mean to be unkind or demeaning but frankly, it was embarrassing.  It was certainly hard to explain to people who live in the everyday world.  And it was threatening to turn the Church into a bizarre fantasyland as the enthusiasm for vintage costuming trickled down through Bishops Burke and Finn and Slattery and Morlino et al to local clergy.  Francis’ return to the more simple style of vesture as well as his Ford Focus and apartment in the Vatican Guest House has set a standard of normalcy. 
I suppose there are other ways in which Francis has changed the Church.  One would certainly be the reduction of bureaucracy and the levels of transparency, especially in financial matters.  There is still a long way to go in these areas, but more progress has been made in these areas in the last two years than in the previous thirty-five.  Another is the move away from a juridical mentality where every canon and each liturgical rubric was noted and enforced.  Francis is not one for allowing his agenda to be snared by minor points.  Francis’ willingness to speak off the cuff is a huge difference from his predecessors and witnesses to his concern for the broad picture rather than sweating the small stuff.  His permitting free and open discussion at the Synod of Bishops witnesses to this same point.  And of course his willingness to take on the issues of the day—Climate Change, Income Inequality, Migrants—is notable.  His predecessors brought up these issues as well but always heavily veiled with abstractions.  Francis is very specific and concrete in his approach. 
We must remember however that the Church Francis inherited was not the Church as it came down from the Apostles.   John Paul II, along with Cardinal Ratzinger—later Pope Benedict XVI—had done much to create the Church as it stood on March 13, 2013.  It was not the Church John XXIII and Paul VI had left.  Francis’ predecessors re-centralized authority in the Roman Curia at the expense of the local bishops whom Christus Dominus at Vatican II recognized as heads of the local Churches.  Ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue had largely gone into a stall.  Liturgical development had taken an ugly turn with “The Reform of the Reform” and even worse with Ecclesia Dei and Summorum Pontificum.  There was a serious attempt to re-interpret the Second Vatican Council in a minimalist fashion.  In fact, much of what Francis has done, has been to restore the Church to the track envisioned at the Council. 
And John XXIII and Paul VI themselves had radically reshaped the Church that Pius XII had left at his death on October 9, 1958.  Few popes have had the opportunity to shape the Church in their papacy as had Pius XII.  His years as a diplomat gave him the skills to exploit the WWII period and the post-war period to extend papal control at the expense of local bishops and cathedral chapters as well as traditionally autonomous religious communities.  Resistance to Communism required the surrender of local independence to centralized Papal authority.  With henchmen like the American Francis Spellman, the French Maurice Feltin, British Bernard Griffin, and Spaniard Enrique Pla y Deniel Pius was able to control the Church throughout Western Europe and the Americas.  He was uncompromising with the Communist Regimes of Eastern Europe and Asia even though it meant the imprisonment and death of numerous bishops, priests, religious and faithful.   He created a political alliance with the United States government to check the spread of Communism, especially in Latin America and placed the resources of the Church at the disposal of the CIA in their joint efforts.  He was the most powerful pope since the 13th century apex of papal power and, at least until is health problems began in 1954 was able to concentrate all power, curial and diplomatic, in his own hands.  His failing health and loss of ability to manage the Curia is in great part responsible for creating that behemoth that has plagued every pope since. 
We could go back further and see how Church has morphed to fit the vision of each Pope, some simplifying and others aggrandizing the Church and their own office.  But for this posting suffice it to say that while Pope Francis has done remarkable work, substantially he has done nothing other than what each of his predecessors has done in his reign. 

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