ONE YEAR LATER: Pope Francis' Revolution in Context

Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis

ONE YEAR LATER is an afternoon series focusing on the first year of Pope Francis’ papacy. Bondings 2.0 will be running this series all week.  The anniversary of his election is Thursday, March 13th.

Pope Francis’ first year has been a whirlwind for Catholics of all stripes, and the world at large. To further understand why and how the new pope is changing the Church, this post sets Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s election in the context of his immediate predecessors, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, to draw out just what has made Pope Francis different.

Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, set the scene in a February column published on the anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation (and for an analysis of Benedict’s legacy, read Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s column). Coday writes:

“Remember what we, in the U.S. Catholic church, had been through: an ‘apostolic visitation’ of congregations of American women religious; a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the appointment of overlords to help them ‘reform.’ Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois had been excommunicated because he supported women’s ordination. Long established and trusted scholars, Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley and St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, had been censured. The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board for child protection had warned the bishops that complacency threatened the continuing implementation of their policies and guidelines meant to keep children safe. The U.S. bishops seemed to be doing their best to scuttle health care reform over — of all things — artificial contraception; their campaign for religious freedom seemed petty and partisan. A clunky, ideologically driven translation of the Mass prayers had been thrust upon us.

“I remember people feeling dejected and drifting away from the church. Not storming out, just drifting away.

“Writing last year about the state of the church (and by ‘the church’ I mean we, the people in the pews who form the body of Christ), Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister used the word ‘weary.’…’weariness is a condition of the heart that has lost the energy to care anymore.’ “

In light of where the Church was, and where it is now with Pope Francis leading, the author notes, “What a difference a year makes.” Since his election, the new pope has made headlines repeatedly for positive words and acts on LGBT matters. Sr. Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founder, wrote a piece assessing what Pope Francis has done in regard to LGBT topics.

And what is so different?

Michael Sean Winters wrote a lengthy blog post on the continuity/discontinuity of Pope Francis with Benedict XVI and John Paul II for the National Catholic Reporter. While noting overlaps, Winters points to a key distinction relevant to those concerned with sexual ethics and social justice: 

“It can be fairly said that in the pontificate of John Paul II, pastoral theology was made to be a subset of moral theology. Responding to what he perceived as theological chaos in the post-Vatican II era, rightly or wrongly, and I think there was a bit of both, John Paul II came down hard on those who were trying to push the envelope on matters of moral theology…No one could credibly claim that there was not a large measure of old-style, Polish clerical authoritarianism in John Paul’s character…

“Under Francis, it can be said that moral theology has been returned to its proper place as a subset of pastoral theology, not the other way round. Indeed, you could say that one of the principal differences between Francis and his predecessors is that he has placed far less emphasis on his job as teacher of the faith and far more emphasis on his job as pastor of the flock.”

Yet, the narrative that Pope Francis is the dichotomy to Benedict XVI and John Paul II is not quite right. To further understand what is happening, The New York Times documented personnel changes made by Pope Francis, including the demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke and other cultural warriors who rose under the previous two papacies. Jason Horowitz and Jim Yardley write:

“Less apparent, if equally significant [than public actions] for the future of the church, is how Francis has taken on a Vatican bureaucracy so plagued by intrigue and inertia that it contributed, numerous church officials now believe, to the historic resignation of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, last February.

“Francis’ reign may not ultimately affect centuries-old church doctrine, but it is already reshaping the way the church is run and who is running it. Francis is steadily replacing traditionalists with moderates as the church prepares for a debate about the role of far-flung bishops in Vatican decision-making and a broad discussion on the family that could touch on delicate issues such as homosexuality and divorce…

“Francis remains tricky to define, a doctrinal conservative whose humble style and symbolic gestures have thrilled many liberals.”

Later this week, “One Year Later” will explore just how Catholics in the pews have responded and what long-term impact Pope Francis might have as he embarks on a second year. You can view the full series by clicking here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. Olly Dennis
    Olly Dennis says:

    The comments on ‘weariness’ and ‘drifting away’ from the Church of the faithful are pertinent, there is a sort of giving up on the unrealistic and forensic distance from reality by the bureaucracy of the Vatican. The great schism here is that they are out of touch with their PARISH priests, modified ‘reports’ of the situation on the gound make their position sterile, a ‘them and us’ situation unconnected WIITH, the people.


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