FLORIDA, March 13, 2012 — From one end of the world to the other, the media are abuzz with news of the new pope: the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit, a break from the past.
Setting emotion and novelty aside, just how much change can we expect from Francis?
Apparently, he is setting his administration up to be one for society’s lowest socioeconomic strata. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If faith-based initiatives can uplift those suffering from unimaginable poverty, then who can complain?
The problem is that Catholic doctrine as it currently stands does not permit some of the most essential measures for fighting poverty.
“We do not expect very many changes, but sincerely hope that the culture will change to better reflect the needs of the church and of Catholics,” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said shortly after the election results were announced. “As Cardinal Bergoglio, [Francis] was outspoken against the recent liberalization of Argentinian laws on abortion, stating flatly that ‘abortion is never a solution.’ But this is no surprise, as he and his fellow electors were all appointed by his two conservative predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II.”
There is more to the story, as you might imagine.
“We recall with fondness Pope John XXIII, who confronted the troubles of his day by convening the Second Vatican Council ‘to open the windows of the church to let in some fresh air.’ Pope Francis needs to go even farther and throw open the Vatican’s doors to shed some light on a bureaucracy that has allowed the management of the Vatican Bank and the sexual abuse crisis to get completely out of hand,” O’Brien continued. “Facing this reality, and the other problems within the church, requires leadership, and leadership is something different than simply referring back to the established Vatican playbook.
“This is where we could use a pastoral pope, one who recognizes that the main role of the hierarchy is not to become enmeshed in politics but to focus on developing relationships within and outside the Catholic community.”
Will the Roman Catholic Church do what it must to modernize?
“We call on Pope Francis to recognize that he is now the head of a very diverse church, one that includes Catholics who use contraception, who have or provide abortions, who seek fertility treatments, who engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage or with people of the same sex, as well as people who are living with HIV & AIDS,” O’Brien stated. “These Catholics are absolute traditionalists in that they live according to their consciences and by virtue of their faith every day. A leader of our church who affirms rather than denies the lived wisdom of the faithful would be well within the Catholic tradition as well.”
While this probably isn’t what many would like to hear, I do not believe that the Catholic church will make the necessary changes to remain a first world power. Over the last few decades, the church has been losing membership at an astounding rate in developed countries. It continues to grow in the United States largely because of immigration from poorer nations.
Despite this, the traditional American Catholic majority ‒ people of Southern or Eastern European background ‒ is vanishing. While there still are scores of churchgoing Bavarian, French, Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics, many of these are elderly. Their sons and daughters are, to a large extent, either lapsed, converted to another religion, or are completely non-religious.
This lost generation has been replaced by a seemingly endless stream of Latin Americans, who are now the lifeblood of American Catholicism. There are also many former Protestants who entered the fold from various fundamentalist or ultraconservative mainline sects.
These people do not generally want the changes which O’Brien advocates. The changes in question are practical, rational, and would be welcome in most mainline or non-Orthodox Jewish congregations, but that is just not the direction in which the Catholic church is going. Even as it loses the first world, its evangelization tactics in less affluent and stable regions have found great success.
What most people forget is that any organized religion operates as a business. It offers spiritual capital rather than the material kind, and accepts financial support ‒ donations ‒ in return. Each customer base has its own set of spiritual preferences, and the Catholic church has simply found a base which suits its needs for the twenty-first century.
Can anyone, while keeping a straight face, of course, claim that Francis being from South America is merely coincidental?
There is nothing wrong with this, in my view. The Catholic church is doing what any functional enterprise should; identifying with and backing the interests of its base. The thing is, though, that the demographics of this base have changed. Whether the traditional majority wishes to acknowledge reality or not is another issue.
This shift has been taking place for some time. Pope Francis only highlights the obvious. So, the new boss really is, setting aside the rhetoric, pretty much the same as the old one.
Far-left? Far-right? Get real: Read more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto
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