Why you should care
Pope Francis is seeking Christian unity, raising fears among some clergy. But who should really be afraid?
A key tenet of Catholicism is that the pope and the clergy do not change church teachings. They can shed new light on them, but the beliefs and rules themselves are meant to have been the same for 2,000-plus years. If you suddenly allow homosexuality, female priests and contraception, it contradicts that history and, some fear, could undermine the entire church. After all, if Catholicism accepts all those things, how can it differentiate itself from any major Protestant sect?
Yet, ever since his ascension in 2013, Pope Francis has worked to help the Catholic Church acknowledge shifts in societal norms. In May, for example, a victim of sexual abuse said the pope told him that God made him gay and that it “doesn’t matter” — a statement the Vatican did not confirm. During the Zika crisis of 2016, the pontiff suggested that contraceptives could be used to slow its advance.
While such comments do not fully align the Catholic Church with 21st-century society, they certainly break from tradition at a pivotal time when the relative influence of Catholicism is changing internationally; it’s waning in Western Europe and growing in sub-Saharan Africa. And there’s the lingering stigma over the church’s response to sexual abuse by members of the clergy, with the Pennsylvania grand jury most recently in the news. And now, with the pope pushing for greater unity among Christians, a question emerges as to whether his efforts will prove a successful strategic reboot for an institution trying to soften its conservative image, or the death knell of the Catholic Church.
[Some clergy] … will have difficulties accepting the pope’s moves.
Elisabeth Parmentier, professor of theology, University of Geneva
In June, the pope celebrated the World Council of Churches’ 70th anniversary in Geneva, reigniting the debate over how far Pope Francis is willing to go with his appeal to all Christians while still defending the Catholic Church’s identity. The pope dubbed himself a “pilgrim in quest of unity and peace.” Putting himself out there is the modus operandi, establishing what he called a “new evangelical outreach.” Never relenting is key, the pope made plain: “Ecumenism made us set out in accordance with Christ’s will, and it will be able to progress if, following the lead of the Spirit, it constantly refuses to withdraw into itself.”
Last year, the pontiff participated in the 500th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. Relations with the Lutheran church lead to discussions with the German National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation on controversial issues such as ministry and the Eucharist. Bishop Gerhard Ulrich, of Germany’s United Evangelical Lutheran Church, present at that meeting, told the Catholic News Service that the pope “underlined the goal of completely overcoming differences.” But what that will mean remains to be seen.
James Oyet Latansio, a Catholic priest from South Sudan who attended the interdenominational service in Geneva, said that in regions like his, torn by years of ethnic violence and famine, the pope’s message was that religions need to cooperate “in the spirit of unity, service and giving to the neighbor.” Similarly, Martin Robra, a German Protestant pastor and head of Roman Catholic relations at the World Council of Churches, underlined that in Africa, churches and interfaith humanitarian organizations were on the forefront of crisis management. Case in point: West Africa’s Ebola pandemic from 2014 to 2016, where clergy members managed to change burial rituals to minimize the deadly disease’s cycle of infection.
So will pushing hard for change and unity go too far?
“As a Jesuit, [the pope] has a certain amount of liberty of thought, and is open to discernment and reflection toward the church’s orientation,” says Elisabeth Parmentier, a professor of theology at the University of Geneva and an expert on ecumenism. Pope Francis sees the importance of dialogue between religions and knows “that as long as Christians are not more united,” such dialogue is impossible, she adds. But his approach is not without risks. What he’s doing, Parmentier says, “creates a lot of fear within the Catholic Church. [Some clergy], high-ranking church dignitaries and the bishops will have difficulties accepting the pope’s moves.”
While the pontiff’s calls for further unity among Christians may still be a tough sell within the upper hierarchy of the church, Parmentier is confident about his support on the ground.
Church leaders may oppose the pope’s less conservative approach, but the faithful are likely to stick around, according to Parmentier, ironically because of the very traditions the clergy fear are being undone. Generations have embraced the physical and spiritual traditions of the church. “Even if they don’t agree, they stay in the church and try to live their faith as best as possible,” says Parmentier.
But, she warns, other churches should consider, amid an ecumenical push, “whether [they] may become less attractive than the Catholic Church.”