Three Years After, Pope Francis Faces Mounting Challenges

As Pope Francis celebrates three years in office this week, there are mounting challenges confronting him and the church which he leads.
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As Pope Francis celebrates three years in office this week, there are mounting challenges confronting him and the church which he leads. His honey moon is now over and there are emerging cracks in the church and uncertainty about the future direction of the Catholic Church. Many Catholics are now hoping that Pope Francis could deliver concrete and lasting reform in the church through changes in some of the laws of the church which should go beyond making strong statements and counter-institutional gestures. There are three challenges among many facing Pope Francis which will define his legacy.

The first is how successful he will be in his ongoing reform of the curia, and the institutional culture of the church's hierarchical clericalism. The second is how he responds to the call for a more inclusive church for women and LGBTQs. Many Catholics are waiting to know which way he goes with the recommendations made to him from the raucous synod on marriage and family life concluded in October 2015.

The task before him is to find a common ground on a transformative pastoral ministry to LGBTQs without alienating conservatives in the West. At the same time he must take into consideration the strong appeal to traditional definition of marriage by most Catholics in the Global South where the church is witnessing an exponential growth. Whatever decision he takes on this matter carries consequences for the unity and future of the Catholic Church.

The third is that Pope Francis must deal decisively and conclusively with the shameful cases of clerical sexual abuse in the worldwide church. But dealing with the consequences will demand addressing the fundamental roots of the problems, the church's laws and institutional culture. This last point seems to me to be the most decisive because it undermines the moral high ground and teachings of Catholicism. It also detracts from the mission of the church as a light in the world and in healing the world and being a beacon of hope through concrete acts governed by Gospel values.

Pope Francis must pursue vigorously the reforms of the structure of authority and accountability in all aspects of the life of the Church. Unfortunately, he faces strong opposition from some cardinals, bishops and priests. The schemes and stratagem of some of the Vatican high command who are ganging up against the Francis Revolution have been well documented in the tell-it-all revelations published by the Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi in the book, Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis's Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican.

Clerical sexual abuse especially against minors is a cancer to modern Catholicism. The recent marathon testimony on accusations of complicity in covering up clerical sexual abuse by Australian Cardinal Pell, who is Vatican's financial czar, showed once again that this problem is not going away. A week after Cardinal Pell's testimony, Cardinal Phillipe Barbarin of Lyon, France was served papers by prosecutors along with five others in a similar charge. He is being accused of failing to denounce the crimes of others and endangering the lives of people in relation to the sexual crimes committed against young scout members by Father Bernard Preynat between 1986-1991.

One can point to the report on the failings of Cardinal Law in Boston, or the shocking revelation in the Murphy Report set up by the Irish government on how the Irish Catholic Church and the police colluded to cover up hundreds of sexual abuse cases by clerics among the most egregious in recent times. There is already a long line of bishops who were forced to resign in the US because of their failure to defend minors by holding accountable the errant priests who perpetrated these crimes--bishops Nienstedt and Lee Piche in Minnesota, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas etc. Whether it is in Catholic dioceses or religious movements like Legionaries of Christ or the Sodalitum of Christian Life in Latin America, sexual abuse has become a constant in recent Catholic history.

In May 2009 for instance, Archbishop Paulin Pomodimo of Bangui, in Central African Republic was forced to resign at the age of 54. In the same country and within the same time, Bishop François-Xavier Yombandje of Bossangoa, once president of the nation's episcopal conference, resigned at the age of 52. Their resignations followed a Vatican investigation, conducted by Cardinal Robert Sarah, which found that both of them adopted a moral life which was not always in conformity with their vows "to follow Christ in chastity, poverty, and obedience." This investigation also found out that many celibate priests in that country had homes with women with whom they had children.

Every new charge or investigation of clerical sexual abuse opens another sour on the collective conscience of the Catholic Church, delegitimizing her standing and teaching. Practicing pedophiles or institutions which harbor sexual deviants cannot be a credible teacher of sexual morality or wax sanctimonious on the sublimity of her moral insight on birth control, contraception and a culture of life. Pope Francis has rightly called sexual abuse 'an ugly crime' comparable to 'a satanic Mass.' He has done more than his predecessors to remove this cancer from the church, but it is near impossible to cauterize in three years a cancer which took centuries to calcify in the bones of the church.

What the clerical sexual abuse reveals to me as a Catholic priest is the huge gap between what Catholicism teaches and what is actually practiced by many of her clerics; the disconnect between unrealistic moral ideals and concrete life situations. It also highlights the heavy burden imposed on the conscience of many Catholics including clerics and religious within the system.

Many Catholics are rejecting the teachings of the church on her structure of authority, criteria for the sacraments, clerical culture, sexual morality, celibacy, marriage and family life. Opponents even within her leadership cadre argue that some of these teachings founded on a limited notion of natural law, and reductionist interpretation of the ultimate purpose of the moral demand and the church's traditions no longer offer answers to the questions of today.

But most importantly, clerical sexual abuse is a reflection of unequal power dynamics of a macho culture. This unhealthy mindset and ecclesial culture sublets every other consideration in order to preserve and protect the institutional prerogatives and privileges of an all-male clerical ruling class.

The good news is that Pope Francis' commitment to a poor, merciful and humble church which reveals the face of God has given a new credibility and vibrancy to a once tired and sick institution. Indeed, Francis' quiet reform of the curia, the Vatican bank, the bishop accountability legislation, and his rejection of clericalism, and power play in the church and dirty money from donors are some of the efforts taken to heal the church of the root causes of clerical sexual abuse. This reform must continue vigorously.

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