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Reforming Popes – Moving The Mountain…Or Something Less?

June 15, 2015
Catholic Church, outside of Mora, New New Mexico (March, 2013)

Catholic Church, outside of Mora, New New Mexico (March, 2013)


note: also published at Foreign Policy In Focus


Popes…and Reforming the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church is again stirring.

Among many of my Catholic friends, a sense of hope is replacing decades of resignation. They now cling to Pope Francis’ every word, looking forward to what the pontiff will say next. Although ideologically distinct from them, I have found myself working with and living next to Catholics all my life, especially those who have been associated with The Catholic Worker, Sisters of Loretto, some elements among present and former Jesuits. At times we have struggled to find the common ground…and have often succeeded.  Of course, it should come as no surprise that I find myself working more closely with those critical of, or trying to reform the institution. They are a serious, dedicated lot of present and former priests and nuns, some who refer to themselves as “reformed Catholics.”

Over the decades, especially here in Colorado, we have developed a pattern of cooperation and trust – and from my perspective at least, respect – in struggles for social justice, against racial and religious discrimination and for peace. They are long distance runners for social justice. They spilled blood (literally) in their efforts to close the Rocky Flats Nuclear Facility just northwest of Denver, work with the homeless and have been among the strongest critics of U.S. foreign policy worldwide, but especially in Latin America. One does not have to lecture them or explain what might be referred to as the shortcomings or inequities of capitalism; that they understand well. Some have taken on the Sisyphean task of democratizing, reforming their Church, others have, frankly, given up on that effort. Regardless – reformers and/or dropouts – it is their religious commitment, something deep in the spirit of their religious upbringing, which has shaped their values and commitment to social justice. Their commitment is genuine and enduring and has endured the ups and downs of Vatican policy shifts over the years.

As has been the case with previous statements over the past two years, there is both interest and no small degree of excitement over the expected papal statement by Pope Francis on global warming. The environmental movement is hopeful the Pope’s statements will give added “oomph” to the global efforts to bring CO-2 levels down. Conservative Republican Party hopefuls Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, Congressional snow ball king Jim Inhofe are all worried.

The Vatican’s media build up to Pope Francis’ comments suggests a well orchestrated media campaign to give maximum coverage to the Pope’s views on the subject. Of course, the Pope’s adding his voice to countering global warming would be a most welcome addition to trying to tackle the growing menace of climate change. But does it suggest – along with Pope Francis’ many other statements – a fundamental reform, reorientation of the Catholic Church in the coming period, or something less? Are there deeper institutional shifts unfolding from the Vatican in Rome to the entire Church institutions, or, to the contrary, are the Pope’s statements little more than window dressing on institutional structures that resist any fundamental reworking …or even tinkering with?

No doubt Pope Francis’s statements have been encouraging.

After a long period of nothing short of political reaction and unending scandals concerning sexual abuse and corruption, the Catholic Church is giving hints of a change in its orientation. There is some hope – among Catholics, people of other religious faiths and non believers alike that a new direction is in the offing. Much of this optimism for Church reform is a result of the torrent of written statements and spoken commentaries issued by the new leader, Pope Francis. Among his more welcome – if not startling – public comments of late:

Speaking of a growing global “dehumanization” shortly after his election to the papacy he was quoted:

“At the same time, we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live and, often, to live with precious little dignity”

It was remarks like these – and Pope Francis has made them virtually non stop – that has raised the hackles of conservative thinkers and commentators everywhere. They’re worried that the Pope has “turned red” (meaning that the Pope had become, or is sympathetic to Communism). These comments were immediately understood for what they were: a searing criticism of global neo-liberal capitalism, sympathy for the world’s poor, concern about the growing worldwide polarization between rich and poor (characterized as the growing gap between the 1% and the 99% in the USA). Add to his continued attacks on free-market capitalism has been statements underlining his concern for the environment, his opposition to military adventurism (without naming the usual suspects involved), his genuine concern about the humanitarian crisis in Europe of the flood of African and Middle Eastern peoples hoping to reach Europe only to drown in increased numbers in the Mediterranean, etc. In his response to a journalists concern about the Catholic Church admitting gay priests in its midst he is quoted as responding with his now famous comment on homosexuality “Whom am I to judge.” If Pope Francis still tows the church line opposing a woman’s right to abortion, on the questions of gay rights, he has essentially shifted the church’s position to an “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, a more tolerant attitude towards gay priests of which, it appears, there are more than a few.

It is also quite refreshing in fact, almost hard to believe, that the pope has taken these initiatives, which I assume has – for whatever reason – the support of the College of Cardinals, what I conclude is something akin to the Catholic Church’s central committee. His statements are a breath of fresh air that improve the atmosphere and give encouragement to people all over the world struggling to end economic and social injustice, to save the environment and for peace. Better – much better indeed – to have a pope critiquing neo-liberal Capitalism, than to be praising it to the hilt, better to have him, at least identifying with the poor than has been the practice of so many American bishops here in the USA – cozying up to the rich and powerful.

The overall guide for many of the written and spoken statements of Pope Francis is a document known as Latin as the Evangelii gaudium (the English of which is the “Joy of the Gospel,”) a 220 page “papal exhortation” – otherwise known as a position paper which outlines the Vatican’s views on both religious and secular matters or as it is otherwise put “the church’s primary mission of evangelization in the modern world.”

James Carroll, whose major work, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews is definitely worth its 756 page read, explains to the uninitiated the fine differences between “papal exhortations,” “formal encyclicals,” and “letters to the faithful” the difference in a recent article in The New Yorker:

“A papal exhortation is an official statement issued by the Vatican that ranks below formal encyclicals, which are used to state the Church’s position on things like abortion and contraception, but above a regular letter to the faithful.”

If I understand it correctly then, Evangelii gaudium, while something less than actual Church policy (which would be a formal encyclical) is something more than a “letter to the faithful” which ranks on the level of a press release. This is good to know, but then the question emerges, what does that mean? Carroll, who does wonders breaking down the Church’s bureaucratic language to lay and secular folk like myself, goes on to explain that it, the Evangelii gaudium, is essentially a pope’s policy statement, “some themes for his tenure” Carroll calls it – what he, Pope Francis, hopes to accomplish during his tenure, ie what I would call a kind of “vision statement.”

Written in down-to-earth language in contrast to the Vatican’s more typically dry and academic like statements that gives it more global appeal, it is explicitly a call for new period of intense missionary activity everywhere, but it seems especially in the core countries of the global economy where the Church has been battered by sexual and financial scandals, decreased church attendance across the board, a paucity of recruits for the priesthood.

Although it is unspoken, the association of the Church’s leadership in the United States and Europe with extreme right wing free market politics that include a strong dose of cultural bigotry (anti-gay, anti women’s rights approaches) has the lead the Catholic Church into a crisis from which it is now trying to extricate itself. Such an approach – cozying up to the most conservative elements of political power, encouraging, blessing the economic and cultural policies that the Evangelii gaudium is now trying to reverse – proved to be a political and recruiting dead end.

The need for a fresh approach, before the crisis deepened that much more became the order of the day in the Vatican. And here, the College of Cardinals – a generally stodgy body whose recent appointments reflect the decades of right-wing political shifts – were responding to the flood of calls from below, from Catholics worldwide but especially in the United States – for radical reform. After a short period of confusion, and reluctance to cede to the obvious after the death of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican finally stirred to the call from below. In March 2013, two short years ago, it chose a new man, appropriate for the times, one Jorge Mario Bergoglio,

Evangelii gaudium calls for nothing less than a “perestroika” in the Church’s world view and structures, a “structural renewal that cannot be deferred,” besides a renewed commitment to the world’s poor it emphasizes the need for the Church to confront the over centralization of its ossified bureaucratic structures, a new flexibility in interpreting the Church’s message – ie, a less dogmatic, rigid approach to pretty much everything.

Vision statements are nice, particularly when it comes to reforming or reworking what is well known to be an institution facing a series of scandals, corruption and decline. They give hope to the faithful – and to the rest of us actually – things can improve and that the institution can once again find a way to live up to its ideals. But will the hoped-for policy produce institutional change? Or is what we are hearing little more than a new layer of make up on what is a terminally ill body, one whose 1800 year history since the First Council of Nicaea in 325 has remained a somewhat rigid, top down in organizational structure.

There have been genuine moments of re-energizing Catholicism from above – the counter reformation of the mid 1500s centered around the decisions of the Council of Trent, which among other things, endorsed the work of the then newly formed Jesuit order which helped reorient the work of the Church back to focusing on the fate of the poor. More recently, the decisions of the Second Vatican Council called for by Pope John XIII in the early 1960s had a similar affect of energizing the worldwide institution and to a certain extent, harmonizing the Church’s nearly two millenniums of history with the changes unfolding in the modern world at the time. It is notable though, that these periods of spiritual and organizational renewal were followed by periods of seething conservatism, the more recent one being most notable.

Are we seeing here little more than the Church continually adopting itself to a changing world, ie, more of a tactical than a strategic shift? The case can be made that the Second Vatican Council was an effort for the Church to connect to what was the great post World War II ideological shift which rejected theories of racism and colonialism, ushering in a great period of anti-colonial nationalism in the Third World in which the term “socialism” was more than quite popular: it was nothing short of a moral and ethical guide post for social change. The Second Vatican Council, blessing as it did, however gingerly, liberation theology and a spirit of spiritual exploration and dialogue fit in nicely with the times. The coming to the papacy of Pope John Paul II, a key figure in the collapse of Communism in Poland and beyond in the late 1970s dramatically changed the Church’s orientation and influence in a much more conservative direction. The attempts to undo the decisions of the Second Vatican Council were unmistakable.

And over the past decades, as the logic of the Cold War is receding three major global issues have emerged with full force, well known to most: the dangers inherent in climate change, the growing gap, the French have a better word for it – “le gouffre” – between the North and South, core and periphery of the global economy – a world heading in two opposite direction that is politically unsustainable, and the related emergence of genocidal civil war, exemplified most vividly by the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, but also by current conflicts in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) and much of sub-Saharan Africa. These events, the shifts in global geo-politics necessitate yet another shift in Vatican thinking, a new vocabulary more in tune with the times. The chord struck worldwide, the enthusiasm which Pope Francis’ comments continue to ignite, suggest that verbally at least, the Catholic Church’s leadership has found a formula that resonates. What it means in terms of reworking a financially and politically conservative institutions is entirely another matter.

It turns out that Stalin’s 1935 famous comment (attributed to him by Churchill) writing off the Church’s influence because it lacked military forces (How many divisions does the Pope have?) missed the mark. To the contrary, the Catholic Church is the essence of soft power (influence without actual political control of government) in the world today. It has long learned the fine art of changing its vocabulary to meet changing times. Although it has run into problems, it has prove to be tactically adept at shaping its message to these changes, and above all, defending its interests, while remaining surprisingly resistant to changing or certainly democratizing its structures.

There are warning signs from other places, other examples of the appearances of change leading nowhere, or hardly anywhere. Pope Francis’ comments have been compared to the contrast between what presidential candidates say before they are elected – not to name any obvious examples – and what they actually implement once in power, when they have come up against vested interests – both practical and ideological, along with the force of habit – to intervene. There are a whole litany of would be reformers in recent times – from Aquino in the Philippines, to Mikhael Gorbachev in the USSR, to one Barack Obama here in the USA who found their plans positive change ran into political buzz saws, be they the International Monetary Fund, the entrenched elements of the Soviet Communist Party or the continuing expanding power of U.S. based finance capital and its military industrial complex…all of which ripped the heart and soul out of the intended reforms so that all that was left was “all the changes needed to maintain the status quo” – if that.

The promises did not bear fruit in institutional change.

They often raise false hopes – a kind of “messiah-complex”, that an exciting individual can come along and change things with a wave of his (it is mostly a “his” phenomenon) hand or a few public statements that, are so out of context with the institution’s practices that they suggest a new direction is in the offing. Unfortunately though, the early promises don’t translate into much – or any – substantial institutional change – and the hope first engendered can turn to bitterness. The last time I personally witnessed such a phenomenon was in a 2011 trip to Tunisia early in those hopeful days of the Arab Spring. It was startling – yes, the country had rid itself of a tyrant and his retinue, yes, there remains even today a new atmosphere of freedom of speech, but it was striking how little else had changed – in the country’s economy, its political bureaucracy, its finance and internal security ministries, its official media. All the change necessary – once again – to maintain the status quo? Is this a cynical appraisal as some would argue – or simply a realistic assessment? Does it mean that ll the struggle and sacrifice that went into “changing the system” went for naught?

Will the same thing happen to Pope Francis’ vision for steering the Catholic Church ship of theocratic state in a more wholesome direction? Hard to say, but it is clear, that few institutions have more elements committed to the status quo than the Church…and that the history of “Church reform”…over the past 1800 years – not exactly a novel theme – hasn’t gotten very far, and even when it has, the “forces of reaction” as I like to call them, are waiting in the shadows for the right moment to re-emerge with force, something, by the way, they are very good at.

I don’t mean to throw cold water on Pope Francis’s energy and what I take to be his genuine concern for the poor, for the environment, to end war. I’m just not so sure as to what factors pressed the Church to make these changes in emphasis? Nor is it clear how deep-going they are are? Are they just a cynical cosmetic attempt to regain ground lost these past decades or something more substantial, deeper. Will Pope Francis’ vision be implemented all or in part? Will his vision survive his tenure? Is all this a genuine shift or just public relations? Are the statements from the Church’s highest levels matched by processes of democratization of institutional structures from below?

I don’t know the answer to these questions and in the end time will tell. These new approaches do give liberal and progressive Catholics, long frustrated with the Church’s more recent conservative and culturally reactionary drift a new opening, a more tolerant environment to press for ideas that are important to them. Good. But at the same time it is a little disappointing to see the speed with which people – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – have hitched their fate to Pope Francis’ star, who “love him” and view his statements as anything more than they are: verbal commitments to change. This comes in part to a deeply held kind of messiah complex – even among secular people, the idea that the election of a particular leader, will by itself change the world. For many of us on the Left, (a space I wondered into some half century back and deciding I liked the climate, stayed – I ain’t leaving either,) it was the hope that Mikhael Gorbachev could “work a miracle” and reform the un-reformable – Soviet Communism. Not only did it not happen (I know – one shouldn’t use double negatives but I like to occasionally) – but the whole system collapsed.

Those in the USA of a less radical, but still liberal bent, put their hopes in an Afro-American Harvard University graduate who became a U.S. Senator from Illinois, and then – in what was really an exciting campaign – became president of the United States – one Barack Obama. True enough, despite the fact that some wacko right–wing Christian fundamentalist and Rush Limbaugh-idiot types mistakenly think the world ended, there has been no end of the world, no rapture, U.S. finance capitalism has gone along its merry way, destroying pretty much everything in its path…for a few billion farthings of profit. How has Obama delivered on “his vision?”

In the same way that today people are grabbing on to Pope Francis’ every word, so in past time did some view what Gorbachev or Obama had to say. The problem here is obvious: although we are told the contrary, actually, in fact, individuals, even well-intentioned ones do not, I repeat, do not make history. It is made instead, by groups, otherwise known as social movements. There is no second coming – either of the religious or secular varieties – brought on by either a religious or secular “messiah.” It is our problem that we viewed Gorbachev, Obama or whomever that way. While listening carefully to what “leaders” say, we need to look beyond their public pronouncements.

In the end, even from a pope, words are important, but easily said. When they are matched by enduring institutional changes, as on rare occasions they have been, well, then they come alive.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. John Kane permalink
    June 15, 2015 3:40 pm

    Thanks, Rob, for a thoughtful reflection. I remain a “reforming Catholic” yet share your worry that Francis’ words and his actions might not be enough for any significant change in either the Catholic Church or the wider world. I could name some hopeful factors (most notably his seemingly very real effort to change the culture of the Vatican and thereby the wider hierarchy — notably so far real reform in the Vatican’s finances), but much still depends both on how long he lives and how much he can persuade the rest of us. Still, one correction and two comments re. your text. Correction: the whole “College of Cardinals” which elected him is probably as surprised as the rest of us, and many of those men are probably very worried that he might succeed. Comments: I understand why many like James Carroll, but I find him superficial and, worse, trendy liberal/left (scratch most journalists and you only get fingers in the wind). As an example (comment # 2) the democratization you and he wish for the Catholic Church is naive — not because (as you suggest) my church is so hide-bound, but because (as you ignore) democratization can mean so many things, most of which have not really made things much better (as in our good old US democracy) despite the old saw about nothing better. The Catholic Church certainly needs great reforms, many new forms of participation (especially among women, to choose a popular example) in governance and policy-decision making, etc. But I’m not sure cliches about democratization help much. John Kane

    • June 15, 2015 5:24 pm

      John, thanks, as usual for your thoughts.
      1. I must say that when it comes to “democratization” I agree with you that it is a loaded term…and that what we have here in the United States, at least what is left of it, is referred to by several friends and myself as “procedural democracy” which leaves much to be desired. I suppose what I mean when I use the term is greater input in decision making by more people…although what forms that might take, can vary.
      2, a little surprised at your comments on James Carroll; was first introduced to him in his earlier work “The House of War” a history of the Pentagon which I thought fascinating and insightful. I am in the midst of his history of relations between Catholics and Jews “Constantine’s Sword” and find it interesting and useful. I am reading it for a very specific reason – from my reading of history – although Catholic-Jewish relations could be somewhat rocky – my reading of history suggests that they took a turn for the worse just before and during the First Crusade – ie, from around 1050 – 1110 a.d. Until then there seemed to be few (or no) pogroms against Jews, and the characterization of Jews in Catholic (and Orthodox) literature might not have been “friendly” but was pretty tame. Either the earlier history was simply not written and the connections were always hostile, or as I suspect (but cannot prove) “something’ seemed to change in Europe in that period that not only created the crusading tradition, but also seemed to intensify anti-Jewish (and anti-Muslim) feeling among Catholics. Me being me, I speculate that it had something to do with an early burst of Capitalism which triggered the beginning of changing societal roles between the religions, although I put this idea out cautiously… So..if there are any reliable sources you might suggest about early Catholic-Jewish relations, I would be most interested.
      Thanks again for taking the time to answer me…and on the points you cite..I stand corrected.

      • John Kane permalink
        June 16, 2015 11:15 am

        Rob — maybe too hard on Carroll. Suspect he’s OK as popular historian of US militarism and Catholic-Jewish relations. It’s the ideological tone that grates, especially on Catholic history and contemporary reality. Too much simplistic good guys and bad guys — which is what I meant about “journalism.” Sells books. Regret that I don’t know sources for the history you’re seeking, but will ask around. John

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