Pope Francis could save the Church. Will he?


The Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis has come roaring back to life as if it were the worst days of 2002, when the scandal tsunami out of Boston seemed to inundate the entire church.

The shock waves this time came from substantiated sex abuse allegations that a well-known cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, a retired archbishop of Washington, had molested boys; he was forced to resign last month from the College of Cardinals.

Then came the grand jury report out of Pennsylvania detailing 70 years of horrific abuse by some 300 priests, too much of it facilitated by bishops.

It has all landed on the desk of the current pope, and the scandals have the potential to undermine the Francis pontificate.

It shouldn’t.

Indeed, if Pope Francis lives up to his own words and actions, this could be a chance for him to advance his vision of church reform and turn a long-running crisis into an opportunity for long-term renewal.

The scandal has even some of John Paul’s staunchest fans questioning the wisdom of his canonization in 2014.

This eruption was inevitable

At a historic meeting in Dallas in June 2002, American bishops agreed to a comprehensive set of policies designed to protect children and punish offending priests.

But with other observers, those of us in the media — the people regularly accused of trying to “bring down the church” — shook our heads as the bishops effectively exempted themselves from genuine oversight or discipline for failing in their jobs, the sin that truly scandalized the faithful.

Only Rome could investigate bishops, they said, and only the pope could punish them.

That wasn’t likely.

The Vatican under John Paul II was not very keen on the United States hierarchy’s new policy against priests, and the pontiff certainly didn’t want to throw his own bishops under the bus.

Now the scandal has even some of John Paul’s staunchest fans questioning the wisdom of his canonization in 2014, and it bedeviled Pope Benedict up to his stunning 2013 resignation.

A Church living in itself, of itself, for itself

In closed-door meetings on the eve of the conclave that elected him in March 2013, Pope Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires — gave a brief, powerful address in which he said the church needed to open up or risk becoming

  • “self-referential” and
  • “sick” with
  • “theological narcissism” that leads to the worst evil,
  • “spiritual worldliness” of an institution that is “living in itself, of itself, for itself.”

The church, he was saying, had to undergo a moment of kenosis, of self-emptying, like Christ on the cross, surrendering power and prestige and privilege in order to truly become what she is called to be.

As pope, he has saved his harshest rhetoric for his fellow clerics, especially the cardinals and bishops, criticizing them as “careerists” and “airport bishops” who spend more time flying around the world than tending their flock.

“Clericalism is a perversion of the church,” Pope Francis told 70,000 young Italian Catholics at a rally this month. “The church without testimony is only smoke.”

Pope Francis’ vision of the church is clearly more radical than the defensive posture of John Paul or the nostalgic traditionalism of Benedict. But is he willing and able to implement it? Continue reading


  • David Gibson (pictured) is the director of the Centre on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.

News category: Analysis and Comment.

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