By the second anniversary of his papacy on March 13, 2015, Pope Francis had achieved worldwide fame and enthusiastic admirers among peoples of different nationalities and faiths. His humble nonjudgmental persona and embrace of the poor was balanced by his decisiveness in reforming the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy, the Roman Curia.
The Catholic Church has 1.2 billion followers in Europe, Africa , Asia, North America and Latin America. Church attendance has been rising in Africa and Asia, while it has been declining in Europe and the United States according to a Spanish-language Univision poll of 12 countries. The poll also found sharp differences on the question of whether a divorced Catholic who remairries outside the church is living in sin. 75 percent of African Catholics surveyed answered “yes”, while 75 percent of European Catholics said, “no”. Pope Francis has avoided categorical public statements on many subjects that involve family issues, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, divorce, contraception and abortion. He encourages discussion and debate. His more open approach is in contrast to the traditional positions taken by most of his predecessors. Here are some of his important actions and statements during 2014 and 2015:
On January 12, 2014, he named cardinals from small, poor countries, including Haiti, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua and Ivory Coast. He also chose a second cardinal from the Philippines whose large Catholic population was recovering from a brutal typhoon. The College of Cardinals with 120 members who elect each pope has been dominated by Europeans , especially Italians for centuries. Francis, who is from Argentina, and the first non-European pope in modern times named 16 new cardinals; nine from Asia, Africa and Latin America, six from Europe and one from Canada. None from the United States which already has eleven cardinals. Francis also made appointments to four key departments in the Roman Curia, including Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, one of his close allies. Vatican observers noted that Francis favored men who had worked as priests for years before becoming bishops, and had favored the pastoral style that he has always followed.
“What he is really trying to do is change the culture of the church,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter. “To reform an institution like the Catholic Church, you don’t just move boxes around on an organizational chart.” For the Vatican gathering of the cardinals in February, 2014 , Francis chose Cardinal Walter Kasper, known for liberal social views as the main speaker. In his hour-long speech, Kasper spoke on the family and the needs of divorced and remarried Catholics. He had told the pope that he wanted to address strengthening marriage and worried that he might offend some of the cardinals. Francis suggested he present the subject as a question rather than a thesis. After the speech, Kaspar said, “”So I put a question in a way to give a direction and a solution. I had the impression afterward that he liked it.” He added, “The pope has a ministry of uniting. He cannot take a confrontational way. He has to convince a majority. I hope it is a growing majority.”
On February 24, 2014, Pope Francis announced a major overhaul of the Vatican’s administrative and economic bureaucracy. He set up an agency to oversee budgets and financial planning and created a new post of auditor general to guard against fiscal mismanagement. He selected Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, Australia to head the new agency, the Secretariat for the Economy. Cardinal Pell had been openly critical of a scandal under Pope Bendict XVI– when his butler leaked private letters. At the time, Cardinal Pell had told the Associated Press, “It would be useful to have a pope who can pull the show together, lift the morale of the Curia and strengthen a bit of discipline here.”
Pope Francis has had his critics on the right and on the left. Many conservatives in the United States, especially the activist Pro Life Movement leaders, have been unhappy that Francis has not emphasized abortion as a major issue. At the other end of the political spectrum, those women who desire a greater role for women in church affairs, including the possibility of female priests, have seen no signs of that occurring in the near future. A third group of men and women who were advocates for victims of clerical sex abuse were angry with the pope’s defense of the church’s handling of the world-wide crisis. Father Reese, the analyst for the National Catholic Reporter said it was a mistake to analyze Francis as if he were a politician with an agenda. He said the pope’s primary goals are broader: to provide attention and care for the poor, and to establish a church culture of acceptance and forgiveness. “All of us in the church are going to have to realize that we are not going to get everything right away. And we’re probably not getting everything we want, ever.”
In February, 2014, a United Nations commission issued a critical report on the church’s handling of the abuse cases. By March 22, Francis took action and made his first appointments to a special commission with an equal number of women and men and more lay people than clergy. Marie Collins, an activist Irish woman who was abused by a priest as a child, said their priorities should include requiring dioceses to report abuse to civil authorities, responding to victims with a pastoral, not an adversarial, legalistic approach, and holding bishops who covered up accountable. “Until bishops who protected abuses are removed, it’s very hard to have confidence,” she said. Most of the eight members are from Europe and the United States, but more will be added from developing countries where Catholicism is growing rapidly.
In June of 2014, theAmerican Bishops met at their semi-annual meeting in New Orleans. They are a conservative group, almost all were appointed by Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict and they reflect their traditional doctrine and dogma . In 2015, they have to decide how to update their quadrennial guide for Catholic voters. This year, there was much discussion about the example Pope Francis was setting with his ascetic life style and emphasis on helping the poor and economic inequality. Many U.S. bishops live in grand houses and drive luxury vehicles they feel set the right tone for their position in the hierarchy. This year, they were well aware of the example Francis set with his emphasis on personal humility and economic justice .
Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said in an interview, “We don’t perhaps at times talk enough about the poor, about the economy, and we don’t perhaps talk enough about reaching out to those with disabilities, those whose voices are not heard.” In contrast, the archbishop of Indianapolis, Joseph W. Tobin told a group of theologians, “What I’ve seen is how disruptive Pope Francis has been within the hierarchy of the United States. I was talking to a groups of brother bishops a while back and they were saying that bishops and priests were discouraged by Pope Francis because he was challenging them.” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the gathering that, if the voters guide is not revised, ‘it will not include anything of the teachings of Pope Francis.” The current guide discusses evil in terms of abortion and racism. Francis describes economic inequality as a social evil.
It is worth noting how the Paul Ryan 2011 Federal Budget written before he ran with Mitt Romney on the Republican ticket in 2012 was described by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as “immoral” because it sharply cut programs for the poor, needy and children while raising benefits for the rich. The current 2015 Republican Budget closely follows the same design and provisions. Since Pope Francis is planning to make his first trip to the United States in 2016, it will be interesting to see if his visit to Philadelphia will come before, after or at the same time as the Democratic National Convention to elect their presidential ticket for November, 2016.