Pope for the Holidays

In the new year, I expect further diplomatic breakthroughs. I strongly suspect that by next Christmas we may see the Catholic Church enjoying normalized relations with the Chinese government.
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The holiday season is always a good time to take stock of the year just past and see what we might anticipate in the 12 months to come. In the case of Pope Francis, it is fair to say that a great deal went well. And not only Catholics but all women and men of good will should feel grateful about that.

Let's start with papal diplomacy. One of Pope Francis' first personnel changes, in October 2013, was to appoint a new Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin. Parolin's predecessor, the catastrophic Tarcisio Bertone, had mishandled things badly. Parolin's quite formidable job was to repair the Holy See's international standing.

Has he ever! The big success story, of course, is the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, announced Dec. 16. The American refusal to deal with Cuba had lost all meaning with the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago. Yet this outdated relic lingered, propped up by an irrational fear of angering an aging, wealthy Cuban ex-pat community in South Florida. Thanks to Pope Francis' far-sightedness, thanks also to his Secretary of State's diplomatic skill, the United States and Cuba are on the path to normalizing relations.

Pope Francis has yet to enjoy similar success with his bold attempt to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In June, he invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican to pray for peace.

The three men earnestly prayed together and, one might hope, gained new respect for one another. But while peace has yet to result, signs of progress have been spotted. Thus President Peres proposed in September that he and Pope Francis establish a United Nations of World Religions to help resolve religious conflicts around the world.

In the new year, I expect further diplomatic breakthroughs. I strongly suspect that by next Christmas we may see the Catholic Church enjoying normalized relations with the Chinese government. I was in China this summer, lecturing at one of the universities. I took time to visit the Beijing Cathedral. It was a warm Saturday afternoon in July. I met with a couple of priests and got to see a youth group. The priests struck me as genuinely devout men, both anxious and very pleased to be speaking with a visiting American Catholic. The youth group was amazing. Around fifty or so teen-aged boys, dressed in bright blue t-shirts proclaiming "God Is Love" in English, I watched them sing hymns and pay their respects at the Cathedral.

The Chinese State has its concerns with religious movements and Francis and his Secretary of State will find it difficult to navigate these issues. Still, I think it can be done and it will be done.

More difficult still for Francis will be healing internal divisions in the Chinese Catholic Church. The Chinese Church is presently divided between a Patriotic Church, whose bishops are appointed and supervised by the government, and an "underground" Church that subsists outside of approved circles. Both groups have produced genuinely holy women and men. Both groups have suffered under the regime, although the underground Church has borne the lion's share of persecution. Merging the clergies of these two churches, smoothing over the all-too-human resentments that percolate just beneath the surface -- these tasks will require real diplomacy.

Will Pope Francis experience any other diplomatic successes in 2015? In the "I-can-dream" category, maybe he can broker a normalization of relations between the United States and Iran. Or finally achieve that all-so-elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. For sure, these suggestions are little more than wishful thinking, but again, who knows?

I count October's Synod on the Family among Pope Francis' accomplishments. He did not win approval for his reform agenda, but he succeeded in doing something nearly as important. He managed to provoke genuine debate in the Church.

The 25 years from the election of Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI's abdication will be seen by future Church historians as the age of "boundary police" Catholicism. John Paul II and Benedict XVI understood their role to be the guardians and enforcers of orthodoxy. They silenced theologians. They hunted for heretics. They removed bishops. The Church of the 1970's was vibrant, vivid, argumentative, and real. John Paul II and Benedict took that Church and transformed it into "fortress ecclesia," a repository and bastion of Truth standing tall against the rising tides of the secular world, but at the price of draining it of its vitality.

Pope Francis' vision of Church is not defensive. It is clear, furthermore, that he wishes to reignite a culture of debate within a Church where the whole idea of debate had been off-limits for a generation. Seen in these terms, the Synod was a success. Bishops who spent their entire careers reciting from approved scripts were suddenly made to think for themselves.

We will have another Synod on the Family in October, 2015. And I expect that we will see real progress on the question of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. Pope Francis has made clear in various ways that that is his preference. He has observed that divorced and remarried Catholics are not excommunicated. They remain part of the body of the Church and obliged by its laws. He views the Eucharist as medicine for the soul. He has expressed high regard for the practice of the Greek Orthodox, and that includes the admission of the divorced and remarried to Communion.

On the other hand, I don't expect similar rapid progress on the acceptances of gays. We will not see the recognition of sacramental same-sex marriage any time soon. On the other hand, there is a growing recognition that such relationships can be a source of spiritual and emotional support and sustenance for those involved. Such a suggestion would have been impossible just two years ago. And as this realization gains ground, I think we can expect to see the Church curtail its legal and political objections to civil same-sex unions.

And, finally, let us not forget the American Catholic nuns. At the instigation, it seems, of well-placed anonymous Catholic conservatives, a campaign was initiated in 2007 and 2008 to discredit and discipline the nuns. Nobody, right now, it must be said, are better representatives of American Catholicism than our nuns. And yet they were made the subject of vicious hierarchical attack. No less than Cardinal Raymond Burke declared that the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious had no right to exist. Thank God Burke is now a fringe figure.

The nuns never should have been attacked as they were. And now, as we near the end of the year, the Vatican's investigation is reaching a provisional yet largely favorable conclusion. One Vatican Congregation -- the Congregation on Religious -- issued a report that amounted to a qualified exoneration of the nuns. Another investigation -- by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- still lingers. A full and complete exoneration would be a great way to conclude the year.

If Pope Francis has shown a blind spot so far in his pontificate, it has been with respect to women. He is a man of spontaneity, but his spontaneous comments on women have sometimes been cringe-inducing. Still, there is no question that he is a man who listens, who is attentive, and whose mind does not come with a rigid, pre-determined agenda. I think we can expect growth.

Catholics have much to be grateful for as they wish Pope Francis a blessed and merry Christmas. Indeed, he is a joy to the world.

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