The Guardian view on the pope’s reform project: the world’s largest Christian body needs to change | Editorial

After a difficult year in which he underwent surgery and suffered periodic illness, there was another flurry of concern in November over the health of Pope Francis, who turned 87 this month. Suffering from acute bronchitis, the pope cancelled his trip to the Cop28 summit in Dubai, and twice asked an aide to read out his remarks at weekly audiences in the Vatican.

Ahead of the most important year in the recent history of the Catholic church, well-wishers must hope that the temporary loss of voice was not an ominous portent. Next autumn, the biggest ecclesiastical listening exercise ever undertaken by a pope will come to a contested climax. Dwarfing in scale the modernising second Vatican council in the 1960s – the last great progressive moment in the history of the church – Francis’s “synod on synodality” has canvassed the views of millions of parishioners on every continent over its future. In the autumn, an interim report described this unprecedented exercise as a “radical call to build together … an attractive and concrete church in which all feel welcome”. Next year, following a final conference in Rome, it will be down to Francis to flesh out the detail of what that means.

Loathed and actively resisted by the powerful conservative lobby in the church hierarchy, the synodal project is both the intended centrepiece of Francis’s papacy and the primary motivation for him to stay in office despite ailing health. The fate of longstanding liberal causes – such as greater roles for women in church ministries and the welcome and validation of LGBT+ Catholics – depends on it. Amid emptying pews, a dearth of vocations and a crisis of authority deepened by the scandal of clerical abuse, the future of Roman Catholicism in western liberal societies is at stake in its deliberations.

A common struggle
By and large, and with good reason, left-leaning opinion has been supportive of Francis. Refocusing the church after the traditionalist papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he has tirelessly fought the corner of refugees in an increasingly hostile environment, and become one of the world’s most influential voices on the urgency of the climate emergency. But the awkwardly named synod on synodality has been treated as an internal affair, and received modest coverage in the non-religious media.

That may be shortsighted. At a time when Christianity is being used as a weapon to promote toxic divisions in western politics, the battles being played out in the Vatican are part of a wider struggle to defend and develop a politics of generosity and inclusion. It is, of course, true that western populations continue to lose touch with the formal trappings of religion. Paradoxically, however, the worst kind of authoritarian religious sensibility – intolerant of dissenting views and contemptuous of pluralism – is penetrating the political space to an alarming degree.

In an important new book entitled The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, the journalist and author Tim Alberta charts the extraordinary success of Donald Trump in courting white evangelicals with an apocalyptic version of “blood and soil Christian nationalism”. In an interview in the Atlantic magazine this month, Alberta described the growing influence of a Manichaean worldview that has been skilfully channelled by Mr Trump – a “prism that’s no longer red versus blue … conservative versus progressives … God-fearing Christians versus godless leftists. It’s good versus evil.”

Throughout Francis’s decade-long papacy, the same observation has been applicable elsewhere. The Russian Orthodox church, under the malign leadership of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has become a prop to Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to erase Ukraine from the map. European politicians such as Viktor Orbán and Giorgia Meloni invoke Christian authority for an aggressive identitarian agenda that has threatened women’s rights and licensed hostility against Muslim migrants and LGBT+ communities.

Barriers to progress
In that context, the battle to reform the world’s largest Christian organisation matters. As a counter to the deployment of religious dogma as a political battering ram in the world, Pope Francis has compared the vocation of the church he leads to a “field hospital after battle”, tending the existential wounds of the vulnerable. But as Anglicans have discovered about same-sex marriage, translating that kind of tolerant vision into meaningful reform is a challenge.

Before the first major synodal summit in Rome in October, Francis stated that “the Church has to change … it’s about a change of growth, in favour of the dignity of people”. Over 400 Catholic clerics and lay leaders – including for the first time women with voting rights – duly gathered to discuss what such a fully inclusive church might look like. But to the acute disappointment of many lay observers, a published summary of those conversations failed to explicitly address the status of LGBT+ Catholics or the ordination of women. An open letter of protest – signed by, among others, the former Irish president Mary McAleese – judged that “prophetic voices won no significant concessions from the powerful and wealthy forces of conservatism”.

If Catholicism is to renew itself in the west, that needs to change in 2024, as Francis’s flagship project concludes. Outside the synodal process, papal approval this month for blessings for same-sex couples was a significant step forwards. But given powerful traditionalist opposition from church leaders in Africa and central and eastern Europe, the stakes are high and the path to reform treacherous. In the absence of the global consensus that Francis seeks, progress may only be made by giving greater autonomy to individual national churches. German Catholics, for example, are contemplating the formation of a governing council that would permanently empower the laity alongside clergy and bishops. A more open, equal and relevant church would almost certainly follow.

For 10 years, Francis has used the papacy to foreground a pastoral message of radical inclusion – one which gives voice to the marginalised, the poor and the outsider. In the New Testament, this spirit is symbolised by the meals that Jesus shared with tax collectors, prostitutes and other social outcasts, horrifying the religious hierarchy of his time. In a dark, polarised age, that kind of church would be an asset and an example. A good outcome to Francis’s great enterprise would be a good thing for the world.

Title: The Guardian view on the pope’s reform project: the world’s largest Christian body needs to change | Editorial
Source: World news: Religion |
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Date: December 25, 2023 at 07:04PM
Feedly Board(s): Religion