Wily Francis is modernising Catholicism while keeping its 'brand'
Published 23/09/2013 | 05:00
With great respect, some of the commentators who have such strong views about the teachings of the Catholic Church seldom visit a Catholic church or attend a Mass. As they often proclaim themselves to be agnostics or secularists, why would they do so? Yet, in consequence, they don't always know what is really happening on the ground.
I am not a particularly good Catholic, but I am reasonably observant, and I do listen to Sunday sermons quite closely – both in Ireland and England. They can be very informative.
And I can say, hand on heart, that I have seldom heard, for the last 25 years, a sermon focusing on abortion, gay marriage or contraception. If such subjects are touched on, it is only in a passing allusion.
Most of the sermons I hear are on the theme of the day's gospel. Yesterday's homily followed the passage in Luke 16:1-13 on God and Mammon – about the dishonest steward who wasted his employer's assets.
The corrupt steward craftily dodged the consequences by doing a deal with the debtors, asking them "How much owest thou unto my Lord?" And where the bloke says "a hundred measures of oil", the steward replied: "Take thy bill and sit down quickly, and write 50." He repeated that all down the line.
The boss, strangely, commended the bad steward for having acted effectively. The Christian parable that emerged was that "the children of this world . . . are wiser than the children of light". And you cannot love both God and Mammon.
This prompted a sermon – appropriately enough – on the wickedness of the bankers. Our modern bankers were corrupt, we were told, but they were quick and sly as well – children of this world, indeed. The priest even threw in a line about sexual sins only being in the ha'penny place next to the sins of grinding the faces of the poor.
Many of the sermons that I have heard in recent years were about the poor. That is perfectly orthodox. Both the Old and the New Testaments are concerned with the poor and the marginalised. Most of these sermons are compassionate and thoughtful, even if I do occasionally ask myself, listening from the pews, "are all priests Lefties nowadays?" Very occasionally I ask myself if the priest preaching against the evils of job exploitation has ever, in the Cockney phrase, run a whelk stall? Employers also bring benefits to humanity (as the gospels show).
In the context of what I hear from the pulpit, I was half-surprised when Pope Francis said last week that the Catholic Church should stop banging on about abortion, gay rights and contraception and turn to other issues which should concern Christians.
Does he know that these questions touching sexuality are very seldom aired from the pulpit? On abortion and gay marriage, the campaigns have been driven by the laity. Any pro-life or pro-traditional marriage street demonstration nowadays will illustrate that fact. In Ireland, there is some criticism among some pro-life activists that the clergy has been rather weak in support, and the Association of Catholic Priests noticeably absent (even if bishops have made the odd statement).
In France, the anti-gay marriage lobby has a noticeably secular composition: there are vehement objections to the way President Hollande has forced through the legislation which is not supported by the heartland of France. In America, the anti-abortion movement has been galvanised by Evangelical Protestants who have brought their considerable energy to campaigns.
Does Francis know – has he been properly briefed – about the reality of the situation on issues touching on sexuality? Surely he must be informed. But what the Holy Father is doing, I think, in these speeches is what a number of corporate bosses are seeking to do – modernise.
Every institution has to modernise – to use the language and invoke the ideas of the contemporary world, not the world of yesteryear. Yet this procedure can be trickey.
I've sat in on London media conferences where this was discussed at length by marketing experts and focus-group leaders. An institution has to appeal to new trends, without losing touch with its traditional base. Because if you lose touch with your traditional base, you lose touch with your "brand".
Like every other institution, the Catholic Church has to modernise and relate to the young and the contemporary. At the same time, to use the marketing lingo, it has to hold on to its well-embedded "brand" – we're talking over a billion people here, guys!
So a leader must give signals that he is moving with the times and understands the preoccupations and chillaxing language of now. But he must be aware that he is building on 2,000 years of history, which has survived an awful lot of upheavals, including a few popes who were even more wicked than bankers.
The New Testament enjoins Christians to be as "gentle as doves, but as wise as serpents". Francis is a Jesuit who will know exactly how to reconcile the serpent and the dove.