off the cuff:

The Vatican Spring?

posted by The Editors

The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the subsequent elevation of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the throne of St. Peter involves a number of “firsts” for the Catholic Church: the first papal retirement in 600 years, the first election of a non-European pope in the modern era, and the first Jesuit pope ever. Even the papal name chosen by Bergoglio—Francis I, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi—is a first. Many observers both within and outside the Church have interpreted these “firsts” as a sign that the papacy of Francis I will mark a departure from his most recent predecessors and will bring much-needed reform to a Church hamstrung by the sex abuse scandal, a rigid and opaque bureaucratic structure, concerns about the role of women in the Church, and the ever-dwindling ranks of the faithful.

Early actions and statements suggest that, in keeping with his namesake, the new pope will adopt a more humble, ascetic style, and work to reorient the church toward a fuller embrace of its mission to serve the poor. But critics have also pointed out that Francis remains bound to the same conservative positions on questions of sexuality, gender, and reproduction upheld by his predecessors. Moreover, questions have been raised about the new pope’s relationship to the military junta responsible for Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s and 80s, when Bergoglio served as provincial for the Jesuit order in Argentina.

Does the election of Francis I signal a major shift in Vatican policy, structure, or doctrine? How significant is Francis’ status as an “outsider” to the Roman Curia, especially his background as a Latin American and a Jesuit? Is this status likely to position him as an agent of change within the Church, or do his theological continuities with his predecessors and the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy guarantee that any reform he initiates will be largely cosmetic?

Our respondents are:

Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire

John L. Esposito, Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University

Jeffrey Guhin, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, Yale University

Cecelia Lynch, Professor of Political Science and Director of International Studies, University of California, Irvine

James Martin, S.J., Author and Editor at Large at America

J. Michelle Molina, John W. Croghan Assistant Professor in Catholic Studies, Northwestern University

Sarah Shortall, Ph.D. candidate in History, Harvard University


Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire

The election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian Jesuit who has many years of experience ministering to and living amidst the poor is refreshing. It sends a symbolic reminder to the world that the Catholic Church is geographically universal and that its ethnically, culturally and economically diverse members enact an on-the-ground catholicity that continues the living tradition of Catholicism. Closer to home, it is also particularly significant to the growing number of Hispanic Catholics who are putting their imprint on American Catholicism that the new pope is from their home region and speaks their language. Symbolism alone, of course, does not produce institutional change. But change, I would argue, is an ever-present fermenting possibility in the Church. I know it is easy to point to the encrusted ways in which the church operates and to the many well-established doctrinal and institutional mechanisms it uses to resist the tides of social and cultural change in the name of Tradition. Yet, as Benedict’s resignation itself underscores, where there is a will to do things differently, it can be legitimated within the confines and with the imprimatur of the Church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is the most obvious and the most transformative case in point; and yet it, too, was fully in continuity with already existing doctrinal strands in Catholic thought (a point recently reaffirmed by Benedict).

The many legitimation problems confronting the Church today call out for a willfully bold response from Francis. For example, the acute shortage of priests in the U.S. and its implications for the celebration of the Eucharist strike at the theological and the communal core of what it means to be Catholic. While some will resolutely resist change in the Church’s understanding of ordination for political and doctrinal reasons, the larger question demanding Francis’s leadership is whether the Catholic tradition can continue as a living tradition if its members cannot participate in its core ritual. Sometimes, particularly over the course of a long and pluralistic tradition like Catholicism, a discontinuity with settled practices (e.g., changes with respect to who may be ordained) may be necessary in order to sustain more important continuities (e.g., the Eucharist, which according to the Catholic Catechism is the vital source and summit of Catholic life).

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John L. Esposito, University Professor and Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University

The election of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a relative unknown and conservative initially seemed par the course, given all the conservative cardinal candidates appointed by John II and Benedict XVI. However, statements he made as a cardinal indicated a potential openness to change regarding issues like celibacy and gay marriage: “For the moment I’m in favor of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures. It’s a question of discipline, not of faith. It could change.” And while he did publicly opposed the Argentinian government’s move to legalize gay marriages, he did eventually indicate support the Church’s recognition of civil unions for gay couples.

While Liberals or Progressives welcome a move away from Benedict XVI’s retrenchment and retreat from the spirit of Vatican II, Francis’ conservative theological opposition to married clergy, women’s ordination, and abortion/birth control are all significant hurdles. However, Pope Francis could lay the groundwork for future change. With regard to women in the Church, while he may not alter his opposition to women priests, a first step, based on recent scholarship that demonstrates women had prominent leadership roles in the early Church, would be to support their ordination as deacons. Given recent Vatican appointments, the Vatican decision last year to place Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the main representative group of U.S. Catholic sisters, under the control of bishops, which was made without consultation or knowledge of Congregation for Religious, the Vatican office that normally deals with matters of religious life, may well be reversed.

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Jeffrey GuhinPh.D. candidate in Sociology, Yale University

If you want a pope who’s going to support abortion, women’s ordination, and gay marriage, Pope Francis is going to disappoint you. (If you want him to spend a lot of time opposing them, you’ll be disappointed too.) I don’t think those issues bother him, which, well, bothers those folks—liberal and conservative, Catholic and non-Catholics—whose first priorities are pelvic. While these are not “first world” problems (gay rights, women’s rights, and sexual health matter everywhere), glance at the global church and you’ll find they can sometimes obscure others: war, environment, poverty, and corruption, to name a few. Through its tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, the Church has maintained its Gospel commitments to peace and the poor, even if these teachings’ sometimes low priority make them the Church’s “best kept secret.” Because of his experience in the Global South and because his order vows to be loyal to the Vatican’s teachings but not tempted by its trappings (their founder Ignatius was sometimes misrecognized in Rome because of his filthy robe), Pope Francis will change things. Like that earlier Francis, he will lead by example, cleaning up Vatican careerism, striving to make our world cleaner and safer for this and future generations, and modeling a concern for the poor, whether blocks away or around the world. He will make a difference on gender as well: he’s appointing women to key Vatican positions, washing women’s feet, and attempting unprecedented though not uncanonical innovations. Pope Francis’s radical commitment to Gospel values might not be the precise political goals of estadounidense liberals and conservatives, but I hope I can be forgiven for believing, with that first Francis and this one, that a recommitment to Christ’s values of poverty, peace, and compassion might be enough.

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Cecelia Lynch, Professor of Political Science and Director of International Studies, University of California, Irvine

As a non-Vatican insider (thank heaven!), all speculation about the degree of Pope Francis I’s departure from the conservatism of his two immediate predecessors seems to be just that. However, an analogy with not-too-distant history of a different kind may be apt. I’m thinking of the Mikhail Gorbachev analogy—someone who was supposed to shake things up just enough, provide some new thinking, but not change the order of things. And of course Gorbachev himself intended to rejuvenate an ossified governing structure and alliance without bringing the whole edifice down. Yet Gorbachev helped set in motion a series of events that in the end went far beyond his vision or his control, opening spaces for restive social movements to grow, innovate, and initiate the end of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European alliance.

We can only hope that this Pope’s current initiatives, however modest at the moment, might open just enough space to engender a similar and perhaps even more revolutionary awakening of restive Catholics and Catholic theology in the world. It is unlikely that Francis will initiate a revolution in Catholic social teaching himself. Nevertheless, the theological and social resources are present for such a revolution, but each and every opening needs to be better articulated, acted upon, and expanded by Catholics across the globe. Such activism should not remain warehoused in either social or economic agendas, but should combine both in an across-the-board insistence on the transformational potential of Catholic teachings on “catholic” love and human dignity, if only they can genuinely include the poor and people of all genders and sexuality as equals.

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James Martin, S.J., Author and Editor at Large at America

Pope Francis has already initiated change in the Vatican. But when looking for “change” we should be careful to consider not only words, but also symbolic actions, which carry enormous weight in Christian and especially Catholic circles. Remember that Jesus did not only teach with words, but with his actions as well. The first Jesuit pope ever elected (itself a sign of change within the College of Cardinals) chose the name Francis, as a sign of his commitment to the poor and to what he would later call “a church that is poor.” So far he has eschewed many of the trappings of his papal office—setting aside some of the more elaborate vestments that popes have worn, choosing to move out of the grand Apostolic Palace (aptly named) into a small two-room suite, and also referring to himself not as “pope” but as the “Bishop of Rome.” On Holy Thursday, when priests traditionally wash the feet of parishioners to emulate Jesus’s washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, and as a reminder that the true leader is the one who serves, Francis broke with tradition. Instead of celebrating this Mass at a grand church in Rome and washing the feet of priests, he went to a youth detention center and washed (and kissed) the feet of young inmates, including two women and a number of Muslims. Pope Francis’s unexpected liturgical action was a vivid symbol of his desire to do whatever is needed to spread the Gospel in new ways to a world hungry for authenticity. Will changes come to the Vatican? They already have.

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J. Michelle Molina, The John W. Croghan Assistant Professor in Catholic Studies, Northwestern University

In these early days of Francis’s papacy, change seems to be in the air. Yet the ethereal currents are impossible to chart, in part given the flimsiness of available categories. “Liberal,” “conservative,” “radical,” “outsider,” “entrenched,” are tin sign-posts that, in often too breezy assessment, rattle rather uselessly.

What is possible with a Jesuit as pope? We can best grasp the inability to easily capture this man and this moment if we approach “possibility” as framed by the philosophical practice that is the Spiritual Exercises. This program of spiritual renewal offers the means through which every Jesuit finds his vocation; he also takes up these meditative practices to shape his attitudes and actions in everyday life.

The purpose of undertaking the Spiritual Exercises is to know and overcome oneself in an effort to find God—in particular, the Jesuit seeks to discern God’s will as he evaluates his life in terms of the past, present and future. The question “what ought I do for Christ now?” is how every Jesuit—Pope Francis included—tests himself.

In other words, we would be wise to be attuned to how Francis prays. For Jesuits, prayer and meditation signal that life is full of possibility. As Bergoglio wrote in a recent publication: “To pray is an act of freedom.” To pray, he continues, is to take leave of self, of the desire for control, or any effort to gain the upper hand with God. And this meditative experience must find its full expression in the world as the Jesuit looks for God in all things. Or as Bergoglio says in the same publication, “My experiences with God are found on the road, located in the search itself, in the act of giving myself over to the search.”

If we inhabit a moment of suspense in these early moments of his papacy, so does Francis. Yet he has been trained to live in that tension, to avoid easy categorization, to discern signs, to listen, to test. Francis, as a Jesuit, is necessarily experimental, paying attention to the ordinary as he discerns what might be possible within the Church he now leads.

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Sarah Shortall, Ph.D. candidate in History, Harvard University

Like many people, my first reaction to the news of Cardinal Bergoglio’s accession to the papacy was “Who is that?” By no means one of the much-discussed frontrunners singled out in the lead up to the conclave, Pope Francis is something of an unknown quantity. This has in many ways inflated the expectations of Catholics across the ideological spectrum, who see in Francis an answer to the grave challenges currently confronting the Church.

A new translation of the dialogue between then-Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Abraham Skorka provides some indication of the direction the new pope may take. These pages reveal to us, as John Allen puts it, a “moderate realist” whose unimpeachable orthodoxy on the major doctrinal questions is tempered by a characteristically Jesuit sense of flexibility and practicality. Citing the late Cardinal (and fellow Jesuit) Henri de Lubac, Pope Francis calls upon the clergy to avoid the temptations of both politicization and quietist retreat into a private faith that ignores the central religious significance of social engagement.

It will be interesting to observe how Francis squares these commitments with his new role as both a temporal and spiritual sovereign. I suspect that the main features distinguishing his papacy from that of his predecessor will remain at the level of personal style and symbolics. While Francis’ impressive humility and personal piety may help to rebuild the spiritual stature of an institution that has been severely damaged by revelations of sex abuse, corruption and curial infighting, the new pope is unlikely to push through the kind of substantive doctrinal reforms for which many liberal Catholics worldwide have been clamoring. At best, we are likely to see some reforms to the bureaucratic structure of the Curia and a more collegial leadership style. The appointment of the “G8”—an advisory commission of eight cardinals representing every continent—signals the new pope’s desire to reorient the Vatican towards a more global outlook that is responsive to the concerns of the local churches. It also signals a shift in the balance of power away from the Secretariat of State, which took on an expanded role under Benedict XVI. However, the new pope is unlikely to inaugurate a “Vatican Spring” of the kind Hans Küng called for in a powerful editorial penned on the occasion of Benedict’s resignation.

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5 Responses to “The Vatican Spring?”

  1. avatar Matthew Knowles says:

    Expectations run high for Francis I to be a reformer pope and while this may not be entirely off base, I think that most peoples’ ideas of reform are unrealistic. Dr. Lynch’s comparison of Francis to Gorbachev is a fairly accurate analogy of what many secular liberals hope from the new pope. The ex-Soviet president’s policy of Glasnost opened the door for liberal capitalist infiltration into the USSR and fundamentally changed its culture for good. It seems to me that liberal secularists want to see essentially the same thing happen in the Catholic Church: a relaxation of tradition and a pervasive infiltration of liberal social reforms. Just like the liberal capitalists of the 1980s, liberal secularists argue that the Church must undergo these reforms if it wishes to keep up with the times.

    The problem is that most liberals misunderstand the nature of religion vs. secularism. They are stuck in a ‘human rights’ based approach in which they believe that people possess intrinsic rights as human beings and no institution, not even religion bodies, have the right to ignore them. What these liberals fail to understand is that their notions of human rights are entrenched in a secular worldview that necessarily contrasts with that of the Church. To Catholics, there is no higher authority than that of God and as such human rights only matter insofar as they work within the Catholic framework. The problem with many liberal social reforms, like gender-equal clergy and marriage equality, is that they are difficult to justify within a Christian moral framework. The secular perspective is a moral framework in and of itself, which is why it conflicts with the frameworks of religion. More realistic hopes for Church reform should center on more subjective interpretations of scripture and questioning of tradition for tradition’s sake. From this perspective, Francis certainly has the potential to be a force for reform.

  2. avatar Paul Williams says:

    The Catholic Church is an immense organization with deep seated structural problems at every level of its existence.
    It is also primarily a power-and-control-seeking political religion or business corporation, which, like all such corporations, is to protect its assets/interests, and to extend its market share too.

    These problems have deep historical roots and momentum; roots and momentum which are totally impervious to any necessary change. Problems which are the inevitable manifestation of its double minded sex and body negative misunderstandings of what we are both as incarnate human beings, and the nature of our eternal Transcendental Identity prior to our culturally and religiously constructed social personality (and even the traditional misunderstanding of the nature of the human soul).

    Furthermore, the Catholic Church has always played a divisive and exploitative role in human affairs. And it will continue to do so until it purifies itself of these deeply rooted patterns and tendencies. Only if it freely abandons its self-appointed exclusive claim on all of humankind and ceases to confront and damn all other faith traditions (and even Protestants too) will it begin to demonstrate the love, tolerance, and truly self-sacrificial attitude that Jesus taught and demonstrated while he was alive.

  3. avatar Valentina Napolitano says:

    It is important to see Pope Francis as a part of an Atlantic Return – part of a long durée of a never ending process of conversion of and from the Americas, now coming back to the center/heart of European Catholicism. He is a Criollo Pope, he carries with him a history of criolization from the Americas: hence he is, and is not, fitting in metropolitan power institutions – although he is a living part of them. How this criolization may be worked out, in the Catholic Church at large, is an open ethnographic question.

    Francis also evokes the history of the Jesuit co-founder Francis Xavier. Xavier’s focus toward the missionization of the “Orient” may be inspiring what seems to be Pope Francis’ renewed attention to the Orthodox Churches as well as the Palestine/Israel conjunctures.

    While John Paul II privileged the diocesan world and 20C priestly orders (see for instance the Mexican order of the Legionaries of Christ), Benedict the XVI supported more strongly ‘old’ orders such the Jesuits. Pope Francis is in continuity with the latter support of the modern spirit of the 16th Century Church, as Molina suggests here, but with a spin.

    One of the Jesuit order’s vow is the servitude to the Pope. Now the subject and the object of servitude are the ‘same’ person. If these are conflated there is a powerfully mirroring, a ‘coming back home,’ that is happening to this Pope. Hence service/servitude/serfdom and homecoming will be interesting area to keep a psychoanalytic eye into this 21st Century Catholic Church.

  4. avatar Carl Farrington says:

    Are we seeing the beginning of a Vatican Spring?

    A short sermon by the Pope on May 22 offers hope for a major change not just for the Catholic Church but for religious and anti-religious thought and behavior worldwide. The Vatican Radio website provides what appears to be an almost word-for-word translation of the Pope’s remarks at The Pope’s appeal was made in a very modest fashion, namely at an early morning mass for governmental employees of the Vatican City State. Nonetheless, he spoke about what is common to all people everywhere.

    The Pope noted first that we all are able to do good. We also have in common a moral sense of a duty to do good and avoid evil. The Pope said we not only can do good, we must.

    The sermon or homily was inspired by the Gospel reading for the day, John 9:30-40, which tells of the disciples trying to stop someone who was driving out devils in Jesus’ name who was not a disciple and Jesus saying they should not try to prevent commendable actions.

    The Pope noted that it has been common throughout history for people who believe they have the truth to not recognize the good deeds of those who do not share their vision of truth. This blindness to the goodness of others leads to war and even to killing in the name of God, which is an extreme form of blasphemy.

    The Pope ended by saying:

    “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

    “Doing good” the Pope explained, is not a matter of faith: “It is a duty, it is an identity card that our Father has given to all of us, because He has made us in His image and likeness. And He does good, always.”

  5. avatar Lilian Calles Barger says:

    The new pope is in the tradition of Catholic social teaching. Therefore, however he may talk about the poor, he is not a liberationist. The poor are still dependent on the good graces of those more fortunate who express good will. It’s be nice-to-poor-people theology. There is no confrontation with global capitalism as a system, only a desire to minimize its more hurtful aspects.

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