After centuries of secrecy, corruption and greed, the Catholic Church may be turning a corner. Andrew Thorpe-Apps asks whether the notion of Christian Unity can now be taken seriously.
Like millions across the globe, I followed with interest the events surrounding Papal conclave earlier this year. When the puffs of white smoke finally appeared, we heard the news that a former chemical technician from Buenos Aires had been elected Pope.
At the time, I did not greet the Papal election with much optimism. There was the string of child abuse scandals and cover-ups. There was the Church’s continued homage to archaic traditions and luxury. And, once again, there was a sense that this was just an old man out of touch with the modern world. I saw no reason to celebrate.
But I was wrong. Pope Francis is not only the first Pope from the southern hemisphere; he is the first Pope in living memory who is genuinely interested in reform. In an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, Francis said he feared that the Catholic Church would collapse ‘like a house of cards’ if it does not change course. After the conservative John Paul II and the Vatican-insider Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has brought a new spirit to the Papacy.
The recent UK drama film Philomena, starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, shows how far the Catholic Church has come since the mid-twentieth century. But although children are no longer taken from their mothers as penance for fornication, the Church still has one foot firmly rooted in the past.
It would be misguided to expect sweeping changes in the official Vatican views on same-sex relationships, birth control or female priests. These issues will take decades to resolve.
Yet Francis has sought to shift the Vatican’s fundamental priorities. Rather than encouraging people to serve the Church, Francis is asking his priests to serve the people. He has shown great empathy for the poor and vulnerable, and has led the battle against excess and luxury. Francis has spurned the traditional Papal residence in the Apostolic Palace in favour of a far simpler house. He has even been spotted driving around in an old Ford Focus.
The splendour and traditions of the Holy See look more like an outdated Monarchy than a force for spiritual enlightenment and kindness. It is this image problem that Francis seeks to remedy. Ironically, this will involve the Vatican learning lessons from the Protestant Reformation. The self-described ‘reformers’ of 1517 ‘protested’ against the doctrines, rituals, leadership, and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church.
This is not to say that Francis must make wholesale changes to the Vatican’s structure. But measures should be taken to increase accessibility and to ensure that alleviation of poverty and suffering is the cornerstone of the Church’s work, rather than theological, scholastic or ceremonial concerns. If ordinary people can be put at the heart of everything the Church does, then we may speak of a Catholic Reformation and a truly inclusive Church.
There have been setbacks. In June, an accountant in the Vatican’s asset management organisation was charged with conspiring to smuggle over £12m in cash into Italy. In October, the Vatican suspended the bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, over his lavish spending. Dubbed the ‘bishop of bling’, Tebartz-van Elst is accused of spending more than £26m on renovating his official residence. But where in the past such scandals would have been shrouded in secrecy, the once infallible claws of corruption are loosening. Even the most high-ranking Vatican officials must now feel the weight of both internal and public scrutiny.
This gradual shift to a more empathetic and transparent Catholic Church is vital, not only for Catholicism, but for Christianity as a whole. Whether non-Catholic Christians like it or not, the Papacy remains Christianity’s focal point as far as the outside world is concerned. Until the Vatican gets its house in order, all denominations will suffer from the continued onslaught of religious apathy.
Whereas Benedict XVI emphasised the boundaries and markers of identity, Francis has installed mercy as his core spiritual message. He has welcomed those once held at arm’s length, be they divorced or homosexual; rich or poor; Anglican or Greek Orthodox. He has asked Christians to pray together as one. In so doing, Francis has shown that, even through the many doctrinal differences, Christian unity can be achieved if the message of Christ is placed at the centre of all we do.
It is through this simple idea that Pope Francis emerges as a leader capable of speaking for all Christians.