Tuesday, February 25, 2014


The list of problems facing the Catholic Church is long. Among the scandals Pope Francis inherited nearly one year ago are the clergy sex abuse crisis, allegations of money laundering at the Vatican bank and the fallout from VatiLeaks, to name just a few. Given the challenges, where should reform even begin? Moreover, how much change can truly be expected? FRONTLINE put these questions to five experts. Here's what they said:

True Reform Will Take Expertise From Outside the Church

John Thavis is the former Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service and author of The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis came out of the gate quickly following his surprise election nearly a year ago. He established a series of advisory commissions, launched a deep reform of the Roman Curia and insisted that the Catholic Church must shift its focus from identity-building to wider spiritual outreach — as he put it, healing wounds and aiding "those who are most distant, who are forgotten, who are most in need of understanding, comfort and help."

Momentum is important for any reformer, and Francis goes into his second year with unprecedented support from Catholics around the globe. But to push his innovations to the finish line, the pope will need to navigate many obstacles.

"If Francis is serious about challenging the Vatican's clerical culture, restructuring must be more than moving the chairs around. There's no good reason why lay men and women should not head Vatican offices."

He will also have to deal with a problem that is partly his own creation: impatience for change. Francis has raised expectations on many fronts, and the one-year mark is seen as a time to start delivering results.

In some ways, the institutional reforms the pope envisions at the Vatican may be the easiest to enact. Francis was elected with a mandate to bring order to the dysfunctional bureaucracy and clean up financial corruption in Vatican agencies, and his decision this week to establish a central panel to oversee Vatican finances was a giant step in the right direction.

The fate of the Vatican bank will be a bellwether. Some have suggested that outright suppression of the bank would send a strong signal about the church's direction, but that option seems to be off the table. The bank needs to be reformulated so that many of the thousands of existing private accounts are closed and those that survive are closely regulated.

Unfortunately, Francis is discovering that when it comes to financial reforms, the pockets of resistance and infighting that plagued his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, have not disappeared. Just last week came revelations of tensions between Rene Bruelhart, the Swiss director of the Vatican's Financial Information Authority (AIF), and its recently resigned president, Italian Cardinal Attilio Nicora. The AIF board meanwhile complained that it was being kept in the dark about the agency's own investigations inside the Vatican.

The pope has approved the hiring of external consulting firms for other Vatican restructuring efforts, a move that will presumably give him leverage when it comes time to consolidate or eliminate agencies. But there's been pushback here, too. Roman Curia officials have been quietly criticizing what they say is over-reliance on outsiders who know little of the Vatican's history and culture, and who come with a heavy price tag.

The big question is whether Curia reform will bring lay expertise to the highest levels of the Vatican. If Francis is serious about challenging the Vatican's clerical culture, restructuring must be more than moving the chairs around. There's no good reason why lay men and women should not head Vatican offices.

Of course, Pope Francis' vision extends far beyond bureaucratic issues. His idea that the church should operate more as a "field hospital" and less as a gatekeeper will face a crucial test next October at the Synod of Bishops on the Family. One item on the agenda will be the current ban on sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, which has already sparked an unusually public debate in the Catholic hierarchy.

But surveys around the world have indicated a much broader problem: a tremendous gap between church teachings on marriage and sexuality and the practices and beliefs of ordinary Catholics. Will the synod be encouraged to freely discuss these issues and recommend changes, or will it be another exercise in rubber-stamping Rome's past statements? Much will depend on whether Pope Francis is willing to shake up the synod's methods and enhance its status, in a more collegial approach to church governance.

Over and above these internal debates, Francis wants the church to be a force of mercy and healing in society. As pope, he can lead the way with his own words and gestures. But in the long term, much will depend on the people he appoints as bishops. In many ways, today's Catholic hierarchy, formed largely in a conservative mold under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, represents the biggest drag on Francis' reform project.

The new pope's call for a church "of the poor and for the poor" will be successful if Catholic social teaching is better integrated in schools, in clerical formation programs and in people's lives. That, too, will require a change of emphasis that cannot be achieved overnight.

Pope Francis also faces the task of healing wounds the church helped create: the lasting damage and mistrust caused by sexual abuse. Some have criticized the pope for saying relatively little to date about the sex abuse scandal, though he has named a commission to study the problem. The real challenge for Francis is to go beyond rhetoric and take the difficult but necessary step of holding bishops to account for their cover-ups and their mistakes.



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