Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Challenges Faced by Pope Francis

From the perspective of a lifelong Baptist, I believe that Pope Francis has assumed leadership of a Roman Catholic Church confronted by two very different challenges. One is the result of a profound moral failure. The other is a complex collection of problems in which theological and cultural issues are deeply—perhaps hopelessly—intertwined. 

The moral problem is the most urgent. It is the shocking disgrace of pedophile priests and the equally scandalous failure of church authorities to face and address the problem. Indeed, instead of confronting the problem, in too many instances there was a conspiracy to cover it up. The result has been hypocrisy squared. First, the hypocrisy of men who had vowed celibacy but who in fact engaged in sexual behavior that was both immoral and illegal in nature. This sin was then compounded by the added hypocrisy of bishops who lied and falsified evidence in an attempt to shield the guilty and protect the image (and financial resources) of the church. We’re not just talking here about a case of Catholics failing to meet some extraordinary code of behavior such as priestly celibacy. This was the failure of men in positions of leadership and trust to live up to the most basic standards of decent upright human behavior. Priests doing things that would get an atheist arrested. I know of nothing more toxic to a Christian community than hypocrisy. It has cost the RCC the trust of its own parishioners and the respect of the outside community. Until this issue is thoroughly and openly vetted and purged, the church will lack the moral authority and resolve to address the other problems facing Catholics. 

The second challenge is actually a long list of separate issues involving both theological and cultural concerns. The ordination of women, marriage for priests and nuns, birth control, abortion, beliefs about homosexuality, a dying European base, diversity of belief and practice in Africa—the list goes on and on. Dealing with these issues is far more complicated than the simple if painful business of true repentance needed to address the moral lapse. It requires the church’s leadership to distinguish between adjustments that are possible without a change in church doctrine, such as the decision coming out of Vatican II to allow the mass to be said in the vernacular instead of in Latin, and changes that would require sometimes profound doctrinal shifts. Addressing these later issues is fraught with peril. It is the difference between a valiant and forthright admission that you were mistaken in your interpretation of Christ’s teachings and a craven collapse in the face of outside cultural pressure from assorted special interest groups. Courage or cowardice. As a Protestant I would obviously differ with my Catholic brethren on any number of doctrines. But for change to be a corrective, it must be for the right reasons. The new Bishop of Rome has a reputation for humility. I hope and pray that with this comes great wisdom combined with strength and vitality that belies his 76 years. With the challenges before him, he will need it.

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