Pope Francis and the Future of the Catholic Church
The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful
Since his election to the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has been hailed from both within and without the Roman Catholic Church as a forward-looking visionary in the midst of a still-stodgy ecclesial bureaucracy.
His apparent openness to same-sex attracted individuals in the Church, as well as his undeniable concern for the poor and marginalized, seemed to indicate a clear way ahead for a Church that seemed for too long to be embroiled in culture war issues.
Yet the energy and excitement that filled the hearts of many progressive Catholics seems to have somewhat faded. Francis has stood firm on the Church’s traditional stance towards the ordination of women to the priesthood, abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.
His recent move to seemingly allow divorced and remarried couples to receive Communion has been muddled by a lack of clarity. The changes many hoped would come about have yet to materialize.
Certain Catholic writers, especially those of a more liberal bent, predicted that Francis’s election would mark a return of Catholics disillusioned with an overly formalistic and perhaps even Pharisaical focus on rules that had long seemed to be most of what the Church had to offer.
Seeing in Francis a less rigid and more spontaneous approach to the faith, these lapsed Catholics would pack the Church in droves. Alas, neither has this prophecy come to pass.
The “vocations crisis” of a lack of young men entering the priesthood continues unabated, even as younger Catholics leave the Church, possibly never to return.
Francis was to staunch the bleeding of these slow-moving disasters, but it seems he has been able to do little to stop them in their tracks.
Does this make Francis’s papacy a failure? To be sure, this question seems premature, as the Holy Father is still at work serving the Church. That said, the wild predictions made by some in the Church have yet to come to pass, if they will at all.
Francis has not radically shaken up established doctrine. In other words, the Pope is still Catholic. His moves towards opening Communion to divorced and remarried couples have troubled conservatives, but it’s unclear if this interpretation of the recent Synod on the Family will be widely adopted.
The material concern for the many poor and suffering, especially immigrants and refugees, has served as a positive example to many in the West, even as a growing number of political figures and movements have pushed for closed borders.
It’s equally unclear what will come after Francis. The most long-lasting effects of his papacy will likely be felt in his additions to the College of Cardinals, which elects future popes.
A number of progressive bishops have been given the red hat, meaning the next pope may not be all that different from Francis in his objectives and beliefs.
Alternatively, Francis’s moves may spark a conservative backlash, with the next pope pushing for greater doctrinal orthodoxy.
At this point, it’s difficult to say. However, it seems likely that, as much as Francis has upended the usual way of doing things in the Church, the Church will likely not have changed as much as his opponents think.