by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
“There is not, and there never was on earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilization … The papacy remains not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and useful vigor … The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries … and still confronting hostile kings … She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world, and we have no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. And she may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from New Zealand shall in the midst of a vast solitude take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”
These lines written by a non-Catholic 19th century British politician and author, Thomas Babington Macaulay, come to mind after reading assessments of the 10-year Bergoglio papacy in the New York Times and Washington Post. Both papers would have done well to employ a Church historian like him for help in crafting their articles.
Each reviews the many pros and cons of Pope Francis’s tenure to date with interesting insights. However, it seems that they miss the forest for the trees. To concentrate solely on the myriad practical and often conflictive issues which have faced the pope in these 10 years is to neglect the long view of his “five minutes” in the 2000-year existence of the Christian Catholic Church. Neither the Times nor the Post made any mention of the contingencies which every pontiff brings to their short time in the Petrine ministry. If these articles are the first draft of the Francis history, they should in no way be definitive.
The new direction which Pope Francis has designed for Catholicism, while fascinating and hopeful, will take years to accomplish in this enormously complicated, global faith community. Not to reference this longer view of Francis’s papacy is to miss completely its huge historical context.
In addition, both newspapers and other journals, religious and secular, have cited Francis’s actions and inactions in response to the devastating clergy sexual scandal which has surfaced in these times. Clearly the pope could have done much more to prevent, correct and make amends for the incalculable harm done to thousands of people – particularly children and fragile adults – by Catholic priests and bishops.
However, a strong case can be made that this cancer at the heart of the Catholic Church has proven so much more pervasive and deadly than even a pope can cure. The scandal defies any one set of remedies; it ranks with the worst sins committed by human beings and surely the deadliest ever in the long history of Catholicism. And the fact that it was caused and continues to be felt due to the sins of those called by God to be shepherds, healers, Christ-figures makes it truly diabolical in nature. Jesus’ words come to mind: “This kind can be cast out only by prayer and fasting.” Could Francis have done more? Yes. Could he have removed it? Hardly.
The most important question about the Francis era is its endurance. Will future popes follow the sweeping vision which he has set out? Surely Francis’s own time as pope has already offered a blueprint for effecting it. He has built on the inspiration of another great pope, John XXIII – aggiornamento (adaptation to the times) – and moved forward its initial implementation in his providential Second Vatican Council. Popes come and go, and if the recent history of that outstanding event is any indication, its continuing effects will have to wait for another Francis.
Meanwhile hope and courage are vital.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.