Friday, May 2, 2014

Pope Francis embarks on a critical path

   When an Argentinean cardinal noted for his simple lifestyle and concern for the poor was elected to head the Roman Catholic Church, he took the unusual name of Francis. Few would have guessed he would also take up the task of shaking up an institution whose teachings inform six members of the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court, the vice president, senators and congressmen, and 1.2 billion members around the world.
    Christianity is the world’s largest religion. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination. No one should doubt for a moment that the denomination’s beliefs will influence directly or indirectly what happens in the United States, where six of nine members of the Supreme Court are Catholics.
    Last week, Pope Francis I instructed the church’s bishops to survey their flocks about the big issues, social issues like birth control, premarital sex, divorce and gay marriage. These matters have opened significant rifts in the church for decades.
    Slate magazine reports majorities of U.S. Catholics believe their church should allow same-sex marriage, women in the priesthood, divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, and priests to marry. The majority shows overwhelming support for abortion in at least some circumstances (76 percent), and contraception (79 percent). Catholics in the more conservative developing world tend to disagree.
    Any organization risks its future when there is a significant gap between the leadership and its followers. Americans often simply ignore the church’s teaching in their private lives. In public, however, they have turned on its ecclesiastical leadership by suing it over its unwillingness to face child abuse by Catholic priests.
    Disputes over whether the Catholic Church is too permissive go back to the massive changes of Vatican II, instigated by the unexpected activism of another pope, John XXIII. Opponents argue that at that time the church gave up its moral authority.
    Pope Francis, however, has captured the imagination of young Catholics, many who were seriously considering abandoning their church. He enjoys increasing support from Catholics and non-Catholics in both progressive developed and more conservative developing countries. His abandonment of everything from papal Mercedes limousines to red shoes, and his visits to displaced refugee communities, have given Francis street credibility.
    He will need it going forward. Matters that reside at the heart of faith rather than on the edges of trappings and ritual are certain to stir strong political forces in an institution with effects well beyond its walls. No matter where the surveys come down, this pope’s actions could have far-reaching effects.

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