Saturday 25 May 2019

What message will Pope Francis deliver to Ireland this August?

The Pontiff is treading a difficult path between an inclusive pastoral approach and entrenched attitudes, writes Paddy Agnew

REFORM: Pope Francis has demonstrated a humble and engaging style since his election in 2013
REFORM: Pope Francis has demonstrated a humble and engaging style since his election in 2013

Paddy Agnew

Five years into the pontificate of Pope Francis, a curious thought presents itself. Is it possible that when it comes to church reform, the "Great Reformer" can talk the talk, but not walk the walk?

This thought struck me during a working lunch last week in Rome with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. As former Prefect for the Pontifical Council of the Family, he was, he likes to say, "the person who chose Dublin for this summer's World Meeting of Families".

The Sunday Independent asked him for his reaction to the Irish abortion referendum result. Did he accept that a majority of Irish Catholics now are either indifferent to or totally reject elements of fundamental Catholic Church teaching? In such a context, what exactly will Pope Francis have to say to the Irish in August in Dublin?

"The Church cannot be a party to the dirty work of others [abortion] and I don't think that it is right that the law [in Ireland] now enables Pontius Pilate to wash his hands of the affair... I will never accept to be complicit in the cold-blooded aiding of the dirty work of death," he replied, adding: "I was adamant that the whole [Catholic] world should go to Dublin to express their support and solidarity...

"You have to acknowledge that the recent history of the Irish Church is one of enormous problems, enormous and it is clear that the way this whole matter worked out [the referendum] was greatly influenced by those problems, by that climate..."

Archbishop Paglia's words should surprise no one. He is totally in line with Catholic Church teaching. More significantly, eight days ago, Francis himself used untypical hard language when he likened abortion to Nazi eugenics with "white gloves", adding in the same comment that the only real family is one based on a marriage between a man and a woman.

Just 24 hours later, in an interview with Reuters, Pope Francis was criticising the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border, saying populism is not the answer to the world's immigration problems.

The point about Francis is that he represents an enigmatic figure for those in the secular, non-Catholic world attracted by his engaging, avuncular demeanour. From the moment he stepped out onto the loggia of St Peter's on the night of his election in March 2013 and said "Buona Sera", he has struck a strikingly different, humble and engaging style - certainly by the standards of Popes.

A more inclusive pastoral approach, however, may well not lead to any doctrinal reform. Secular commentators would do well to recall that, as someone brought up in the 1930s and 1940s, Francis is, in the words of one of his many biographers, Austen Ivereigh, someone who after the Second Vatican Council remained "sceptical of progressive attempts to depart from core Catholic traditions".

In the age of 24-hou r news and social media, Francis quickly became an overnight sensation. He was the Pope who had chosen not to live in the grandiose apostolic apartment, preferring instead a relatively modest pad in the Domus Santa Marta where he lives, not in isolation, but in the midst of the comings and goings at the Vatican's very own B&B.

A thousand images have copper-fastened his different style - queuing at the Vatican canteen with his tray in hand; carrying his own beat-up briefcase on to the papal plane; standing in line at the optician's shop near the Vatican to get his glasses adjusted; his rejection of papal ermine and a golden papa pectoral cross, embedded with jewels. Above all, he is the Pope who told the world's media, two days after his election, that he wanted "a Church of the poor, for the poor".

After 35 years of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis was, certainly for the world's media, a totally welcome breath of fresh and very different air. In many senses, he was to the Catholic Church then what Meghan Markle has been to the English royal family now. Both were ancient institutions in bad need of a PR facelift.

In the wake of a period when the Catholic Church had been rocked by seemingly never-ending scandals, from the clerical sex-abuse epidemic to the arrest of Pope Benedict's butler (convicted for stealing documents off the pontifical desk), Francis was enthusiastically grabbed by the cardinals at the 2013 conclave as the man who could, finally, get a hold of the Vatican Curia and put the house in order.

His electoral mandate was essentially twofold - reform the Curia and get the Holy See's finances in order.

Francis's humble, ordinary demeanour, his relentless insistence on the Church's social teaching, his enthusiastic espousal of environmentalist concerns in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si and, above all, his inclusive pastoral style only served to heighten expectations. In his first year, on the papal plane on the way back from Brazil, he famously said that if a person is gay and seeks God, then "who am I to judge". That prompted many to, incorrectly, suggest that Church teaching on the "sinful" practice of homosexuality was about to change. That teaching has, of course, not moved an inch.

In Bolivia in 2015, Francis called the "unfettered pursuit of money" nothing less than the gathering of the "dung of the devil", while he accused world leaders of failing to defend the earth from exploitation. Yet, two months later, when he visited the country that more than most represents the unfettered pursuit of money, the USA, he said nothing about the devil's dung nor about "the new colonialism".

Francis's decision to institute a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 was understandably widely applauded, as was his decision to appoint abuse survivors such as Irish woman Marie Collins to the new body. Four years on, however, both Collins and fellow abuse survivor, Englishman Peter Saunders, have resigned from the Commission, totally disillusioned with its ineffectiveness.

Collins now says that she was totally convinced of Francis's good will in attempting to improve, reform and codify the Church's response to an epidemic that, as recently as 2016, saw 416 priests investigated by the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith (CDF) on alleged sex abuse charges. However, Marie Collins also says that it eventually became clear to her and fellow lay members of the Commission that the Curia, in this case the CDF, systematically blocked any Commission proposal it disliked.

Even though the Commission dealt directly with Francis, sending him reports, proposals and other communication, initiatives were still blocked. The CDF not only blocked the creation of a Bishop Accountability Tribunal (re cover-ups) but it also refused to conform to a request that it would itself respond to complaints from victims. In the end, concluded Collins, the whole process was simply "a waste of time".

Worth reporting that in February of last year, the CDF was heavily criticised in Italian media for its handling of the case of Don Gianni Trotta, a priest laicised by the CDF in 2012 for sex abuse crimes but subsequently not "signalled" to civic authorities. Allowed to take over the training of an under-11 boys football team in the province of Foggia in Puglia, southern Italy, Don Gianni is alleged to have abused as many as 10 boys following his laicisation and he is currently in prison, serving an eight-year sentence for sexual abuse.

Furthermore, Italian daily La Repubblica has claimed that one of those who failed to denounce Don Trotta was the Spanish Jesuit, Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, the man who was appointed Prefect of the CDF last July by Francis. As the CDF No 2 in 2012, Ladaria had ordered that Holy See silence, called "pontifical secrecy", be applied to the case. A reformed Curia?

Even Francis himself spectacularly tripped up on the sex abuse issue this year when, during his papal visit to Chile in January, he defended controversial Bishop Juan Barros, widely accused by sex abuse survivors of involvement with convicted sex abuser priest, Father Fernando Karadima. In Chile, Francis defended Barros but subsequently he experienced a sea change, summoning abuse survivors and the Chilean hierarchy to Rome and admitting that he had got things wrong. Just 10 days ago, he accepted the resignation of three Chilean bishops, including Bishop Barros.

That was a problem that Francis created (and to a certain extent resolved) himself. He has, too, created similar problems for himself with choices such as that of Australian Cardinal George Pell, a man committed to stand trial on multiple historic sexual assault charges, on his C9 inner council.

However, clearly his Curia sometimes puts obstacles in his path. What about the four cardinals, led by conservative American Raymond Burke, who in the autumn of 2016 posted their "Dubia" (doubts) to the Pope re his exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the preparatory document for the World Meeting of Families?

The Cardinals claimed that his teaching, especially with regard to the suggestion that in certain circumstances divorced Catholics might receive Holy Communion, was causing "uncertainty, confusion and disorientation" among the faithful. It is intriguing to note, too, that Cardinal Burke has recently made common anti-immigration/anti-Francis ground with former Trump strategist, Steve Bannon, and with crusading new Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

In the end, however, it is important to remember that Francis is not Che Guevara in a cassock. He remains a doctrinally orthodox Pope blessed with an inclusive pastoral approach. Longtime Vatican observer, Giuseppe Rusconi of the Rossoporpora website, says that, despite everything, this will guarantee the success of his Irish visit, saying: "He will speak a language of dialogue, without judging or offending anyone and for that reason, he will be a huge success...He wants to embrace contemporary man but the risk there is that he himself could be embraced by contemporary reality..."

The risk, too, is that maybe he will fail to seriously reform the Catholic Church.

Sunday Independent

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