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Pope Francis and the Future of the Catholic Church
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-03-17 10:17:36
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“I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief — four or five years; I do not know, even two or three, two have already passed. It is a somewhat vague sensation, the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more.”  
                                                                                           --Pope Francis I

The above statement by Pope Francis was pronounced only a few days ago and has caused much consternation. Is it perhaps a hint that he too is contemplating resignation? Will we eventually end with three popes in the Vatican? Or is the Pope referring to an uncanny premonition that he will soon pass away?

Also intriguing is the fact that this present Pope, somewhat like Pope John XXIII whose pontificate lasted only five years, has called for a holy or Jubilee year coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops which set the Church’s course for its future, to be proclaimed on December 8 2015, and to conclude on November 20, 2016. Since 1300, when this practice began, it would be the 20th Holy Year. A holy year usually takes place every 25 years. Like the Vatican Council, is such a holy year envisioned as a year of radical reforms? Time will tell, of course, but meanwhile what are to make of all this disconcerting news?

For a plausible answer to that question we would be well advised to peruse a book just out (March 2015, Viking Press) by Garry Wills titled The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis. Garry Willis is a towering public Catholic intellectual in the USA, a Pulitzer price winner, a best selling historian of Lincoln at Gettysburg, a commentator on various American presidents, author of the by now classic Bared Ruined Choirs, with a 1961 earned Ph.D. in classics from Yale University, and a former Jesuit priest to boot, who never completed his Jesuit training and eventually married and had children. What is intriguing about Wills is that despite his vehement anti-clericalism and call for Church reform, he has remained a devout Catholic lay person who prays the rosary every day. He has never confused the baby for the bathwater and thrown both out the window. Nevertheless, few if any person would be able to seriously challenge him on theological grounds. He knows Church history inside-out.

A previous book by Willis became a best seller and was titled Why Priests? It was a scathing critique of the Church’s terrible sense of its own history: Church and theologians, Wills points out, have gone back and forth every couple of centuries on issues such as chastity and abortion, Latin as the official language, celibacy, the role of women in the Church. Similarly, in this latest book Wills begins with some historical essays which demonstrate the logical incoherence of today’s bishops on Aquinas natural law theory. He is convinced that a strong noble pope could conceivably correct this perversion, and that theology has been captured by the hierarchy which has perverted it from a tool to help the laity understand their faith better to a code to be wielded capriciously so that a rule can always be found for or against just about anything.

Wills is a formidable theologian indeed, but he is more concerned with what Christians do and less with what they write theologically. Likewise, the present pope who for many years worked among the poor in Argentina’s slum and has spoken at time of his own fallibility, is willing to use inclusive language such as “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.” The question arises: if he really believes that, how can women be excluded from church functions, including the priesthood?


Garry Wills (1934-    )

In any case, the scholarly lucid essays in this book systematically address the wrongheadedness of the Catholic Church over many centuries—and the space therein for Francis' long-needed reforms. This is a pope who is determined to admit change and renounce ‘infallibility. He is guided by his close scholarly readings of the Gospels, as well as by modern commentators, examining how the church can right itself—as it has repeatedly over the ages in the face of bad decisions.” 


Published in March 2015 by Viking Press

Wills courageously addresses this question: Is it possible, or even prudent, for an institution that has survived for 2,000 years to change? He persuasively demonstrates to the reader that the Catholic Church has changed substantially over the course of its existence and must in fact continue to do so if it is to fulfill its mission. As he puts it: “Pope Francis heartens some Catholics and frightens others, both for the same reason, the prospect of change.” Then Wills focuses on the Church’s history, and specifically on the many ways in which it has erred, backtracked, prevaricated, and groaningly inched its way forward into the modern age.

There are clear signs that Pope Francis, before the end of his pontificate, be it by resignation or by natural death, wants to move the church in a more inclusive direction. This is something that is greatly needed at this point in time; it is in fact a first step to an all inclusive reform. Saint Augustine referred to the church and its people as corpus mixtum: a mixed body, both sinful and holy, from its individuals on up to its institutions. It is perhaps too early to predict if the reforms envisioned by Wills and hinted at by the Pope will in fact take place but of one thing we can be sure: the Pilgrim Church will not stay still, it never has, and will continue its long journey toward the Promised Land. It has changed before, it will undoubtedly change again.

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rose2015-03-23 01:14:59
I agree this Pope is too good to be true something is bound to happen

rose2015-03-26 02:42:15
I agree this Pope is too good to be true something is bound to happen

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