Sicut in Caelo, Et in Terra The efforts of Pope Francis to transform the Catholic Church
When Pope John Paul II visited Romania in 1999, he achieved a historical landmark as it was the first time the head of the Catholic Church visited a primarily Eastern Orthodox country since the Great Schism in 1054. While his papacy did not escape criticism and controversy, John Paul II was arguably one of the most charismatic and well-liked popes in recent times, having received recognition for several breakthroughs: he is widely credited for his role in motivating political movements that led to the collapse of Communist regimes and of the Duvalier rule in Haiti; he publicly addressed apologies in the name of the Catholic Church to those individuals and groups who had suffered because of it, for instance the Galileo affair, the actions of the Inquisition or the Church’s underwhelming response to the Holocaust. Another key feature of his tenure was the efforts he invested to establish and sustain dialogue among the Abrahamic faiths. Although, from a theological viewpoint, he is considered to have been a conservative, he came under criticism from both progressives and traditionalists for issues such as failing to adequately handle the sex abuse of children by Catholic prelates, his stances against artificial birth control methods or his support of religious freedom.
Upon his death in 2005, his mission was taken up by Pope Benedict XVI, who would later be known for his staunchly conservative views, mirrored in his opposition to relativism (which he viewed as the root of many societal and moral ills), and his sometimes less cordial relations with Judaism and Islam. Benedict was on the other hand renowned as the intellectual backbone of the Vatican, being a well-respected academic, arguing for establishing Christianity as a religion based on reason and criticised what he perceives as a narrow conception in the scientific world of what is scientific and what is not. He was also a highly influential figure in the Vatican’s inner circle and remarked himself for his handling of allegations of child abuse by Catholic priests. However, he shocked the world in early 2013 when he chose to resign his position on account of his age and health issues. He was then succeeded by the current Pope Francis.
While some might accuse the Pope of being a more political actor than a theological leader, the statements he made as well his efforts and international trips show us that his politics and theology are very much aligned.
The election of Pope Francis was in itself historically significant as the first non-European Pope in over 1.250 years as well as the first Pope from the Jesuit order. His public image has been built upon modesty and humility, opting for far less spectacular apparel compared to his predecessor and forgoing the traditional residence in the Apostolic Palace to stay in the House of Saint Martha, as well as preferring a public bus in lieu of the famous papal car. His papacy was based on the notion of God’s mercy and was aimed at “repairing the Catholic Church at all levels”, according to the Jesuit publication America. He has thus far received mixed reception: on the one hand, some of his views have been hailed as liberal, being much less condemning than his predecessors when addressing homosexuality, abortions or divorce in an effort to make the Church more inclusive, while also condemning climate change and economic inequality and for taking a hands-on approach to preaching.
On the other hand, he has drawn criticism from both progressives and conservatives: the former chastise him for his perceived lack of effectiveness in handling the problem of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests as well as for not truly being liberal in his views and not bringing any meaningful changes to Catholic theology and ethics (e.g. he argues against the notion that gender identity is a matter of choice and does not endorse the ordaining of women). The latter lambast him for straying from standard Catholic dogma, even going so far as to assert that atheists can still go to heaven if they are righteous in the eyes of God; conservatives have even called for his censure. His most recent move that has drawn attention is his initiative to reform the Vatican’s administrative body, the Roman Curia, the purpose of which is to reinforce the Catholic Church’s missionary role in the world.
It is in this context that Pope Francis will undertake an apostolic visit to Romania from the 31st May to the 2nd of June 2019 under the motto “Let’s Walk Together”. Earlier in May 2019, Francis travelled to other mainly Orthodox countries, Bulgaria and North Macedonia (previously known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). During his visit there, Francis advocated for a more tolerant attitude towards migrants and for more peaceful cohabitation of different ethnicities, praising North Macedonia in this regard, greatly improving North Macedonia’s image internationally; the Bulgarian Orthodox Church refused however to carry out joint prayers with the Pope. The visit of the Pope to Romania, Bulgaria and North Macedonia is one of the many visits the Pope has made outside the Catholic world. Earlier in 2019, Francis visited the United Arab Emirates and Morocco; in the first years of his pontificate, Francis paid visits to countries where the other Abrahamic faiths – Islam and Judaism – were predominant, such as Israel, Jordan and Turkey, as well as countries such as South Korea and Sri Lanka where the Abrahamic faiths are represented by far smaller shares of the populace.
In Europe, religious sentiment most strongly registers in Eastern Europe, where Orthodox Christianity is prevalent.
While some might accuse the Pope of being a more political actor than a theological leader, the statements he made as well his efforts and international trips show us that his politics and theology are very much aligned. Let us consider a few recent trends. First off, it is no secret that the prevalence of Christianity in the Western world, especially in Western and Northern Europe, has been waning – mainly due to falling observance rates, but also because of the native populations’ negative birth rates and, thirdly, due to the emergence of multiculturalism where compromises had to be made on matters of faith to smooth integration. As such, instead of being a criterion to be accepted by and accountable to a community, religion became a deeply personal matter; in a multicultural society where people believe different things and there is no concept of an ‘objective’ truth, then the concept of a central authority being able to dictate the same truth for everyone seems more and more alien. Thus, the role of religion as a binding force of society weakened, while the authority of the church on ontological and moral problems lessened.
Science vs religion
Furthermore, in recent years several prominent figures such as biologist Richard Dawkins, philosophers Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, physicist Steven Weinberg and Somali activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have condemned the church and religious dogma in general as being at best resistant to and at worst impeding scientific and societal progress, criticising religious institutions as unrelentingly embracing obsolete worldviews and principles that, in their view, range from the nonsensical to the downright dangerous. Several scientists, including renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, have put forth arguments that attempt to explain how life, consciousness and the universe as we know it could have come to be purely by naturalistic forces while removing divine intervention from the equation. Their criticism has addressed both Christianity and Islam, though the bulk of their work has focused on Christianity as befits their audience and the perceived risks.
In his native Argentina, Pope Francis was known as a “cura callejero” i.e. a street-wandering priest, known for preaching and being among ordinary people; he himself has stated his belief in a much less static role of the church.
It is interesting to note that the development and consolidation of the scientific method was spearheaded by deeply religious scholars who believed that, since the creation of the world was part of a divine design, it had to have a structure and operate by laws which can be studied and understood rationally. One such scholar was the Arab polymath Ibn Al-Haytham (also known as Alhazen), whose pioneering studies on light were highly influential among mediaeval scholars and whose rationalism found significant purchase in Christendom, even as it waned in the Islamic world. Nevertheless, science is often (and in my view erroneously) portrayed as standing in conflict against religion in general and Christianity in particular. Aside from logical and philosophical objections, certain historical precedents are invoked as proof of the detrimental role of religious thought and clerical authority on science, such as the infamous Catholic Inquisition, the Galileo affair (who was put under house arrest for defending the heliocentric model) and Giordano Bruno’s execution (who had challenged several sacred tenets of Christianity such as the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, yet is often misrepresented as having been punished for his scientific work).
The failing religious sentiment
Although there are quite a few prominent scientists and philosophers who contend that there is no such conflict, religious belief has lost ground in Western and Central Europe, as well as Southern and Northern Europe (occasionally, it is replaced by various other forms of spirituality or by civic/secular religions). Where moral relativism and personal freedom of thought, belief and expression are the cornerstones of a person’s system of values, the idea that a single authority should preach a single, objective truth and what people should think and feel about life and morality seems, at best, anachronistic and at worst, anathema. This is further punctuated in light of the ongoing debates regarding the interpretation of biblical scriptures (e.g. literally or allegorically) and the likelihood of meaning having been lost in translation throughout the ages as language evolved. Another factor which compounds the problem is the image of the church being tainted by scandals such as the child abuse cases and scientific discoveries being pitted against certain aspects of the dogma (e.g. evolution versus creationism).
In Europe, religious sentiment most strongly registers in Eastern Europe, where Orthodox Christianity is prevalent. Elsewhere in the world, Islam is the most well-represented of the Abrahamic faiths, while Catholicism is a minority faith in most Asian countries. It is in Latin America that Catholicism is the dominant religion – a world with different archetypes, a different outlook on life, a different mindset; in short, a different Volksgeist. It is from this world that Pope Francis hails and where his perspective was shaped throughout his years.
The theology of Pope Francis
Up until Pope Francis’ tenure, the previous heads of the Vatican were Europeans – people who had been educated in Europe, who were brought up in current European culture and who were used to European realities, whereas Pope Francis is a Latin American pope (though of European extraction), a priest who has preached mostly in South America and, as such, is used to its different realities.
Theologically, Francis is walking a fine line – making somewhat ambiguous statements that seem to hint at a review of the Catholic Church’s position on some historically problematic issues, while also reasserting the Church’s traditional stance on others so as not to dilute the doctrine and imperil the credibility of Christianity.
In his native Argentina, he was known as a “cura callejero” i.e. a street-wandering priest, known for preaching and being among ordinary people; he himself has stated his belief in a much less static role of the church. As such, a stark difference between his views on mercy and those of John Paul II is that, while the latter believed mercy to be a divine grace obtained when man joins God by breaking with sin, Francis emphasizes cultivating mercy towards one’s neighbours and people helping each other. It is thus important to keep in mind that whereas until his term, the Papacy was dominated by a Eurocentric perspective, his election brought into the Vatican another vision. Under the reform proposed by Francis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith – the body of the Church in charge of defending the tenets of the Catholic faith – will be superseded hierarchically by the Dicastery of Evangelisation. In other words, the impetus to preserve traditional doctrines will be guided by the Church’s missionary vocation.
When we look at the geopolitical role of the Catholic Church, we can recall its role as a strong actor in the Early and Late Middle Ages. This was followed by a constant descent of its relevance in the aftermath of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 up to near-obsolescence in a geopolitical sense. The most recent instance of its role in influencing major international events was its contribution to the fall in communism. When politics and religion were no longer institutionally intertwined, the main geopolitical asset of the church consisted mainly in its influence on popular opinion. However, that power has been on the wane for the reasons I have already outlined. Within this framework, we can discern some of the messages and objectives that the Pope has in view.
One message is that the Catholic Church does not ignore its members all over the world, as demonstrated by the Pope’s travels spanning from Brazil to Albania, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Sri Lanka and the Philippines and all the way to South Korea in the Far East, as well as his statement to Christians in Morocco that “size doesn’t matter”, further drawing attention to his intention to offer support to (and receive it from) Christians from outside of Europe as well as his commitment to focusing on those in poverty. As research suggests that religious sentiments tend to be highest in economically impoverished countries, it makes sense for the Pope to circumvent the economically strong Western Europe and focus his attention on the parts of the world where people put most of their trust in the Church and in God.
Another message is that by embracing Christianity, one is not necessarily in conflict or at odds with other Abrahamic faiths and even with non-Abrahamic religions, given his efforts to ensure cordial relations and find common ground with Buddhism and non-religious people. Yet another notable message which apparently underlies his actions is that no meaningful, beneficial change can occur in the presence of increasing division. Also, his emphasis on the scope of divine mercy serves as the basis for his efforts to reach out to those who have their doubts about Christianity in general and Catholic doctrine in particular.
The objectives that all these messages are ultimately subscribed to, however, are survival and transformation – survival in the sense of ensuring continued relevance in a changing and polarised world, where part of it is moving away from religion, another part is reinventing religion while still another part is embracing various radical strains of religion. Theologically, Francis is walking a fine line – making somewhat ambiguous statements that seem to hint at a review of the Catholic Church’s position on some historically problematic issues, while also reasserting the Church’s traditional stance on others so as not to dilute the doctrine and imperil the credibility of Christianity (e.g. opposing abortion, on the one hand, while enabling priests to forgive people who have committed abortion and receive them in the Church, on the other, or opposing same-sex marriage while being tolerant and supportive of homosexual people).
More recently, Francis has expressed his willingness to mediate peace among the conflicting factions in the Venezuelan crisis on condition that they all agree on the Vatican’s intervention, and has also received a private letter from standing president Nicolás Maduro.
In terms of politics, Pope Francis has been quite vocal in a number of recent events. For instance, he criticised the construction of walls to keep migrants away, openly expressing his disapproval of Donald Trump’s initiative to build one such wall on the US – Mexico border on more than one occasion, even calling into question Trump’s Christian faith due to his insistence on building walls against another community instead of “bridges” towards it. On the other hand, Pope Francis was pivotal in the organisation of the so-called “Cuban thaw” i.e. a series of efforts beginning in 2014 aiming at normalising relations between Cuba and the United States, with Francis publicly receiving acknowledgements from Cuban President Raúl Castro for his role in helping bring about this major diplomatic breakthrough, which is all the more poignant when we remember Cuba’s history as a socialist, atheistic republic (the latter attribute was eventually rescinded in 1992). More recently, Francis has expressed his willingness to mediate peace among the conflicting factions in the Venezuelan crisis on condition that they all agree on the Vatican’s intervention, and has also received a private letter from standing president Nicolás Maduro (the contents of which have thus far not been disclosed).
Consequently, it is not unreasonable to assume that we are witnessing attempts at a transformation of the position of the Catholic Church in the world, focusing less on the Catholic Church’s role as the sole harbour of divine truth and knowledge of God’s nature and more on turning the Church into an agent of change, reform and growth, of building bridges instead of erecting walls, and a successful model such that others may follow. The efforts of the Pope would best be seen as leading towards reinventing the image of the Church, from the institutional equivalent of an old hermit shaking his fist in defiance towards the decadence of his contemporaries to an active contributor to trying to shape the world, as diverse and imperfect as it is, into a better place – sicut in caelo, et in terra.
Francis has visited countries where Christianity is the minority and has sought to work closely with representatives of other religions. By focusing his attention on the needs of Christians everywhere, by reaching out beyond the Catholic and Christian world and taking a more proactive stance on international affairs compared to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, the best case scenario is that all these actions would lead to the Catholic Church becoming a model of meaningful application of the religious tenets and moral guidelines away from the boundaries of philosophical debate and effecting change upon the tangible problems and needs of the community it shepherds, ranging from individual issues such as self-doubt, identity crises or moral dilemmas to wider concerns such as economic marginalisation or religious persecution.
Another major criticism that has been levelled against him is ineffectiveness: he calls for concrete action on the recent sexual abuse scandal, one of the longest-standing and gravest problems that the Catholic Church has had to deal with, yet there are voices that claim he failed to effectively counteract it which could negatively impact his own reputation and legacy.
This is how the Catholic Church would achieve its transformation in a complex, ecumenical world, where it would subvert the negative, stereotypical image of a rigid, dogma-driven, progress-resistant institution that has caused harm historically and replace it with an example of how the values it promotes are meaningful and helpful in a practical and spiritual way. Through this rebranding, the Catholic Church would attract more people to join the church, maintain its relevance in the public eye and, as a result, improve its influence on public opinion – both by the force of a positive image as well as by creating a greater sense of unity among people from different countries. Not all may share the same religious views, but ideally they would share the same core principles. This would then lend greater weight to the stance of the Vatican on international affairs, and a condemnation or endorsement of a political faction by a charismatic, well-liked clerical figure would damage beyond repair or skyrocket said faction’s popularity even in the eyes of a non-believer, and that could have significant consequences in the long run.
Nevertheless, the scenario above is, as mentioned, the optimistic, best case scenario. Realistically, one must take note that the Pope has several obstacles to contend with. Some of the main hurdles that Francis would face in accomplishing his vision are a lack of time and of allies – the measures that he wishes to implement would need time to be accepted by church officials to ensure continuity, especially when there is a strong conservative undercurrent that hampers the accumulation of a critical mass required to bring about change. Not only that, but according to The New Yorker’s review of Ross Douthat’s “To Change The Church”, Francis’ reform-driven agenda may well risk dividing the church between those who support his views and those who oppose them, thereby weakening the Church instead of strengthening it.
Another major criticism that has been levelled against him is ineffectiveness: he calls for concrete action on the recent sexual abuse scandal, one of the longest-standing and gravest problems that the Catholic Church has had to deal with, yet there are voices that claim he failed to effectively counteract it which could negatively impact his own reputation and legacy. For instance, data by the Pew Research Centre shows that his approach to this scandal has considerably decreased his popularity in the US. Another potential criticism is the inconsistency / ambiguity of some of his positions on controversial issues: despite his condemnation of abuse by clerics and public acknowledgement of the Church’s failure to properly counteract it, he was himself accused of being defensive and deflecting the blame from abusive priests. As a result, in the worst case scenario, failure to achieve reform in the Church would eventually be written down in history as a failed rebranding campaign and as the symptom of an institution trying desperately to escape oblivion and irrelevance in a world that, at least in its developed areas, has grown past it.
Ultimately, as was the case with John Paul II and Benedict XVI before Francis, the problem in the long term is that image of the Catholic Church and its perception is still strongly linked to the persona of its figurehead – what will really give the measure of the success of Pope Francis’ efforts will be the extent to which he manages to create a sustainable system that will endure even when his tenure as Pope is ended. Rather than a string of isolated successes on all manner of issues, it is the continuity of his initiatives that matters in the long run.