Vail Valley Voices: Catholicism’s future |

Vail Valley Voices: Catholicism’s future

Matthew Kennedy
Vail, CO, Colorado

Pope Francis’ selection was stunning, yet not unexpected. His election signifies that the Holy See is seeking an evolutionary – not revolutionary – change to the Vatican’s modus operandi and teachings.

My sense was that Pope Benedict’s tenure would be short-lived, and that he was a transitory figure. Pope Francis’ election vindicated that analysis.

The thinking was the Vatican’s leaders realized during the 2005 conclave that Catholicism faced several internal and external problems mandating resolution.

The best means of addressing those issues was via a pope belonging to the church’s traditional wing; having potential reformist leanings, yet who was unwilling to make groundbreaking changes; and would have a short-tenure, thus allowing the Vatican to assess the Holy See’s various leaders for who could most efficiently utilize a gradual approach toward addressing the church’s problems.

The initial thinking was Benedict possessed those attributes. He proved otherwise, yet his exit, while surprising, instigated a potential transition for the church.

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Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aries, and his papacy’s implications for the Vatican’s direction is noteworthy for several reasons:

• His selection was a geographical and theological first.

• He probably was to instigate an “evolutionary” change to the church.

• The new pope may pursue a different approach toward addressing the Vatican’s social, economic and political positions, plus its bureaucratic issues.

Francis is the first pope from South America and the first outside of Europe since the 8th century. And he is the first pope belonging to the Jesuit Order.

The conclave’s nod to Bergoglio is an acknowledgement of Catholicism’s large non-European membership. It also acknowledges that perhaps unconventional thinking is vital toward resolving the church’s issues, since the Jesuits are known for questioning the Holy See’s positions and practices.

A probability exists that Pope Francis may be known as “The People’s Pope.” Cardinal Bergoglio chose a simple life as the archbishop of Buenos Aires. He lived in an apartment instead of the church’s residence. Bergoglio also used public transportation when commuting to work. His example, his openness and unusual accessibility to the common man provide a strong idea of how his papacy may unfold.

Pope Francis may take a hard, yet amenable stance toward the various social, economic and political issues impacting the church’s parishioners. He may maintain a strict doctrinal interpretation of the Vatican’s traditional teachings yet furnish a degree of previously unthought-of practical, modern latitude.

For instance, one Catholic analyst suggested he might pursue the aforementioned approach toward condom usage. Francis may issue an encyclical (or papal interpretation of the church’s teachings) noting the Holy See officially prohibits condoms, since those are viewed as potentially obstructing life’s roots. It may also allow condoms if the intent is to prevent the spread of disease. The condom controversy is especially problematic among African Catholics. Many are victims of HIV and would not have been infected if the Vatican had allowed the use of condoms.

The above approach cannot be discounted, given the new pope’s reputation for working with the impoverished, but also his strict adherence to the church’s teachings.

A second potential message of Pope Francis’ selection is that the church’s leaders recognize the Vatican has some serious internal problems, the ongoing child sex abuse scandal being the most notable.

The new papacy will probably review each cleric’s involvement in the former controversy. He will most likely reprimand, reduce an official’s responsibilities or remove those clerics with the most serious offenses.

Cardinal Bergoglio was known for his straightforwardness, along with understanding and appreciating the needs of the impoverished. It will be very surprising if the new papacy fails to pursue those and similar measures.

Pope Francis will have to contend with several additional issues. These include the role of women and improving Catholicism’s attraction, given a strong challenge and popularity by evangelists, especially throughout South America and Africa.

A third issue entails improving its relationship with the world’s Islamic and Jewish communities, both of which were damaged during Pope Benedict’s tenure.

The final major topic relates to the Vatican itself. The Holy See’s bureaucracy – the Curia – is permeated with corruption, plus a banking system mandating better transparency. Francis will need to reform the Holy See’s bureaucracy to ensure greater efficiency and accountability.

The next couple of weeks, months and years will probably be some of the most interesting in the Holy See’s history. Some of the changes Pope Francis institutes will not resonate with many, while other reforms will surprise his critics and supporters.

The conclave’s choice of Cardinal Bergoglio was commendable. It offers a strong hope for Catholicism’s future and its parishioners.

Matthew Kennedy has a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the University of Westminster in London. He’s lived in Europe, Asia and Russia. Comments or questions can be directed to

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