Since his election eight months ago, Pope Francis has had no shortage of people willing to offer him advice about the governance of the Church. This advice has ranged from the barmy – the suggestion that he should appoint middle class Irishwomen as cardinals – to the intriguing – the idea that offices of the Roman Curia should be based in Hong Kong.
The Pope will, of course, tread carefully. Having spent a considerable part of his life in leadership roles within the Church he will be acutely aware of the observation of G. K. Chesterton that “the reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.”
Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) is a tour de force on evangelisation, it is also a challenging document that calls all members of the Church to move beyond complacency. It is clear that the Pope wants the entire Church to be on a missionary footing, right up to the Pope himself. “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy,” he writes.
“It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelisation.
“The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion,” Pope Francis writes.
He clearly wants to breathe life into the concrete idea of collegiality understood as shared co-responsibility between the Vatican and local bishops. “The Second Vatican Council,” he writes, “stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position ‘to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realisation of the collegial spirit’. Yet this desire has not been fully realised, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated.
“Excessive centralisation, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach,” the Pope writes.
There needs to be a lot of reflection on how collegiality can be exercised in the Church in a more collaborative fashion. I would say, however, the experience of bishops’ conference has been far from universally positive. Too often the bishops’ conference has served as an excuse for individual bishops to hide behind a form of collective responsibility which really leads to a situation where no one is responsible. A bishops’ conference can too often lead to a triumph of mediocrity where individual bishops are unwilling to speak or to act preferring to defer to a sometimes unwieldy structure.
The Pope will disappoint those who have sought to co-opt him as the so-called ‘loyal opposition’.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pope’s text is where he speaks about the Eucharist as “not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.
“These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness,” the Pope writes, surely a thinly-veiled hint at the debate about the admittance of divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist. He warns that “the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems”.
Pope Francis is clearly a man who is open to listening. On the issue of abortion (which some commentators misinterpreted the Pope as asking the Church not to be concerned about in an earlier interview) he insists that “the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question”.
“I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernisations’. It is not ‘progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life,” the Pope insists as if directly answering the naïve commentators.
He is also definitive about the issue of women’s ordination insisting that it is “not a question open to discussion”. Instead, he is critical of those who see priesthood simply in terms of power and view the ordination of women as part of a power struggle in the Church. The Pontiff also is scathing in his critique of economic systems that imprison rather than liberate people. There is much in the text that will represent a challenge to conventional economic wisdom in austerity Ireland.
Pope Francis’ new teaching document is dramatic stuff written in clear, frank and insightful language. It offers us powerful challenges and shows that in Francis we have a Pope who cannot be neatly slotted into narrow categories.