Pope Francis seems to be the hands down winner for the most watched, and talked about worldwide personality for 2014. The 78 year-old Pontiff’s age may be against him for longevity, so he won’t be able to break the modern record like John Paul II, but his enigmatic smile and ability to change the perception of the Roman Catholic Church may continue to win him accolades.
There has been no image change for the Church since John XXIII, who in 1961 with his precedent-shattering Council – Vatican II – which changed not only its liturgy, but its theology, and even the way priests and religious, looked and lived their lives.
He inherited a church tainted by ongoing pedophila scandals, and whose harmful language to gays and lesbians (“intrinsically disordered”) , and the near eternal rejection of women into its ordained ranks, made it seem churlish, and old-fashioned, not to mention misogynistic and intolerant
Francis now has the task to take this moribund institution and reimagine it along modern lines — even expressing self-deprecating remarks such as the by now famous, “Who am I to judge,” when asked about gay priests, of whom there are many.
By all accounts he has been successful, with many people comparing him to John XXIII, whose near peasant like countenance made him seem no where near infallible, and has raised the profile of the church in thought and word, if not in deed. The latter is the most significant, in that there have been no doctrinal changes, and none are anticipated.
If hope does exceed expectation, then Francis also needs to stem the tide of ex Catholics, who by many accounts are numbering three in five, even greater in the United States, where even such bastions of Catholicism such as Chicago, have seen the numbers dwindle, as outlined in the current issue of Chicago Magazine.
With a better educated membership, those that remain are often the ones to ask the most probing questions, and thus belie the old Roman Catholic standard of “pray, pay and obey.” In the United States, they seem to be moving, in a more European direction: going to the church for marriage and baptism, but staying mainly to the sidelines for any substantive involvement, all of which may prove to be Francis’ biggest challenge, taking those cultural Catholics and making the life of the church central to their existence, like it did for their grandparents.
He has also proved himself to be an adept player in international politics, as witnessed by his active help in holding meetings to help end the United States longheld and legalized antipathy towards Cuba — the lynchpin in the Cold War of the Kennedy administration. And,while much remains the fact that there are economic and travel changes in Cuba make his role a sea change, especially since the Papacy has had no direct temporal role since 1870, although the cause of Cuba and the Vatican’s desire to lift the embargo have been a longstanding desire stretching back to the 1998 visit of John Paul II.
Many of his former colleagues, and even some of his opponents, call him a bridge builder, with his attempts to resolve conflicts. A case in point, some say that he knew that when Argentina became the first South American country to legalize gay marriage, that a better approach might be to support civil unions, and only upped his opposition because of conservative backlash. Even now, some Vatican observers say that he might offer this again, to stem the exodus of those that have left the church for their opposition. But, while that might seem like a olive branch, it would also mean a second-class status that would appeal, and not appease anyone.
Pedophile priests still present the church with a moral dilemma, and one that it has trouble gaining real traction, with credible cases still appearing, and his choice of Gerhard Mueller as a cardinal that made the leadership of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, shudder, due to what they say is his “dreadful record,” on handling pedophile cases in the past.
On all of the other social issues, Francis opposes abortion, access to contraceptives, and gender identification, all of which still position him still as a religious conservative, despite the warm press coverage, and the love bouquets that the media has given him. But, his wave of support may not abate, and the reimagination effort, for now, seems to reign supreme, while he helps changes the style and the tone of the papacy, if not, a push towards doctrinal change.