At a dinner party a couple nights ago, a good friend commented that, with Pope Francis, Catholics could now stop arguing about church reform, stop criticizing recalcitrant bishops, and let the “Francis effect” do its work. I respectfully disagreed…. 

The issue is far more complex than just wanting Francis to reform the church.
First of all, if one wants to speak of the “Francis effect” as a positive solution for a number of contemporary church problems, there is still much unfinished work. And the Vatican is a good place to start.

The clerical sexual abuse crisis is not over and the Pope Francis Vatican remains sexual-abuse-schizophrenic. It refuses to remove abuse-cover-up bishops, like Bishop Juan Barros, defended by Pope Francis and assigned last year to Osorno, Chile, despite allegations that he covered up clergy sex abuse by a priest in the 1980s and 1990s. Victim testimony also indicated that Barros was present and witnessed sexual abuse by the abusive priest Fernando Karadima. 

Perhaps the self-defensive old boys club mentality still prevails behind Vatican walls? In February 2016, at an instructional presentation for newly appointed bishops, Tony Anatrella, a psychtherapist and consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, stressed that bishops DO NOT have a duty to report clerical sexual abuse to civil authorities, because going to the police is the responsibility of victims and their families. 

More recently, as we consider contemporary Vatican behavior, there is the strange case of Father Joseph Jeyapaul, a priest from India who admitted to raping two adolescent girls in Minnesota, when he served in the Crookston diocese from 2004 to 2005. 

After being charged with sexual abuse, which included rape and forcing one of the girls to perform fellatio on him, Jeyapaul fled to India, where he was arrested. Extradited back to Minnesota, he admitted his crimes. The man was then suspended from the priesthood and served a year and a day in prison in Minnesota. After his release in July, he was deported back to India. Then came an interesting turn of events.

In February, the Vatican approved lifting Father Jeyapaul’s suspension from the priesthood and agreed that he could be reassigned to a new parish in India. Later he was even appointed head of a diocesan education commission.
Pope Francis has focused appropriate attention on caring for the environment and continues to get positive acclamations for his encyclical Laudatio si. Perhaps, however, one could suggest that he has been less attentive to the spiritual and ministerial environment in our Catholic parishes. The priesthood is in crisis. Morale is low and priests are getting older and older. Calls for dropping clerical celibacy are routinely ignored; and bishops continue to shut down parishes. Not a very positive scenario. 

Contributing to the ordained ministry problem is an antiquated priestly formation process in our seminaries that, sorry to say, no longer attracts some of our best and brightest young people. Even the pope has complained about a new group of overly conservative young presets; but there has been no major overhaul of the seminary structure. It is time to stop closing parishes and start ordaining zealous and pastorally-minded young men, who are or would like to be married. We need more — not fewer — sacramental communities in our church. We need to re-think and re-make creative structures for pastoral ministry. A major complaint from millennial believers is that the church is out of touch, impersonal, and out of date. To date, 33 million Americans have dropped out of the Catholic Church.

And there is nothing positive about the still enshrined, hard-nosed old boys club structural mysogynism in our church. It is wrong; and there are absolutely no valid theological or historical reasons why women cannot be ordained as deacons and priests. For your summer reading I strongly recommend an excellent study: Women Deacons: Past, Present, Future by Gary Macy, William Ditewig, and Phyllis Zagano.

Looking at Catholic belief and practice these days, too many church leaders, including the Bishop of Rome, continue to bemoan the “tyranny of relativism.” They miss a nuanced understanding of what is happening. As theologians Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler noted, in their April 19th article in the National Catholic Reporter: “Concern about relativism is undoubtedly warranted in the 21st century, but the magisterium fails to discern the difference between relativism, which rejects objective, universal moral truth, and what we shall call perspectivism, which acknowledges objective, universal moral truth, but also insists that truth is partial and always in need of further clarification.”

Yes contemporary church leadership needs help comprehending that truth is developmental; and a good place to benign remedial education would be the entire range of issues involving human sexuality and gender. A lot of our bishops need to go back to school. It might help as well if some of them would just get married, and others come out of the closet. 

In this week’s reflection, I have no desire to denigrate Pope Francis. I am not ready to pre-canonize him either. The old gentleman can only do so much. He only wants to do so much. Frankly (no pun intended) I think Francis knows exactly what he is doing with his warm remarks followed by minimal institutional change. But do we know what we are doing? Perhaps there is too much focus on the pope? After all, it is Jesus Christ — not the Pope of Rome — who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

It is time for all of us to realize that when it comes to church reform, in the days of the “Francis effect,” the major task belongs to you and me.

Church history is clear. Church reform is always from the bottom-up and only secondarily from the top-down. The voice of the people is where it begins and gets its energy. Popes come and go, but the institutional church remains…..continually in need of reform.

Let’s start to really think, talk, organize, and get on with the project.

9 thoughts on “A Meditation about the “Francis Effect”

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Jack. There are many of us who have been feeling this way, talking about it, reading about it, and joining like-minded groups within our religious circles, but what do we do from here? This has already taken centuries, with no bending. I don’t wish to leave my Church, but I won’t be here at the end of this century, and I’m growing so weary, especially as a Catholic woman. I get so tired of thinking and talking about these things, I want action. A couple of months ago I stopped making any donations to my parish and to my diocese. This is the only way I know of to get their attention, and I feel terrible about it.

    1. You write great stuff, Jack, and I admire your undying spirit. The hubris, though, among the powers that be in the RCC don’t really want to examine any of these issues too closely. After all, what would be their response? The norm has been to hunker down like stray dogs in a windstorm. The sensus fidelium is ignored with a pat on the head, dripping with connotations that “father” knows best. For me, the “Francis effect” does not bode well for future. Too little too late? Parking at my church is made easy via the ever increasing number of vacant pews. Sad but true!


  2. Jack, I appreciate your comments regarding the “Francis Effect”. However. while he has focused “appropriate attention on caring for the environment”, he has not attempted to address the effect of human overpopulation on the environment. By ignoring the right of women to control their own reproductive abilities, especially (but not solely) by the use of contraceptives, we are heading toward excessive planetary human overpopulation. This leads not only to a drastic shortage of fresh water and sufficient food for the ever increasing billions of humans inhabiting this planet, but we are constantly endangering other species by reducing their habitat.

  3. This is one of your finest posts….so right on point, on so many issues. Thank you for shining a light on the way forward.

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