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Challenges and opportunities: the road ahead for Pope Francis

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The resignation in February of Pope Benedict XVI — and the subsequent election of Pope Francis — sent shockwaves through the Catholic world. The Daily sat down with Paul Crowley, professor of religious studies, to discuss the significance and circumstances of Francis’ election and the challenges facing the new Pope moving forward.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): The new pope is the first Jesuit and the first Latin American to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. In a nutshell, what do you think about the election of Pope Francis and its significance for the Catholic Church and the world?

Paul Crowley (PC): Well it’s too early to tell in one sense, because he’s only been in for two weeks. He has signaled that he wants to commence a new era in the leadership of the Church. Symbolically he’s done that. For example, last Thursday [March 28] he washed the feet of young offenders in a juvenile detention facility, including Muslim kids as well as girls. It symbolized a real departure from previous ways of doing things. So, he’s signaling that we should be open to what is new and embrace the new. The other side is that he’s also known to be a somewhat conservative man, at least in terms of basic teaching doctrine.

TSD: Could you expand a bit more on the “new era”?

PC: For the past 35 years the Church has been led by two very different popes, but they both shared … a program to reassert a certain kind of Catholic identity in the Church and in the world. Some people would interpret it as having been conservative. I think what this pope wants to do is signal that what people have known for the past 35 years in the Catholic Church is not the only way to run the ship and a message that is more compassionate, more inclusive [and] more open to the world is also possible. He’s also really throwing his lot with young people [laughter].

TSD: According to Raymond Arroyo, news director and lead anchor of EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network, “Benedict and Francis are like Pavarotti and Domingo — the style is different but the songs are the same.” What is your take on that?

PC: It’s premature to say that. What that guy was saying was that basically the new Pope Francis is going to be articulating exactly the same doctrine as Benedict did. To some degree that may be true, obviously<\p><\_><\p>there aren’t going to be great big fundamental changes. But there could be openness to new things. There could be some surprises. So I’m not sure it’s Pavarotti and Domingo [laughter]. It might be, I don’t know, Pavarotti and U2.

TSD: The Pope also breaks tradition by being the first pope to name himself Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. What is the significance of this choice?

PC: In most people’s minds, Francis stands for two things. One is the rebuilding of the Church from the ground up, and the second is poverty. This pope, coming from a developing continent, has seen poverty, and it’s a very different world from what people in North America and Europe are accustomed to seeing. I think he wants to bring this to the attention of the Church and to the world — that the vast majority of humanity is very, very poor, and that somehow this is what God is calling us to. Instead of the spotlight all being drawn to the Pope, he wants the spotlight to be on people who have been forgotten, people who are on the margins, who are suffering in a number of different kinds of ways.

TSD: Francis ascends to the papacy at a time when the Church has been rocked in recent years by scandals of sex abuse, corruption and infighting among the church hierarchy. How do you think he will navigate the future?

PC: He absolutely has to do a couple of things. He has to get control of the Vatican bureaucracy. He has to send the message all the way down to the local dioceses and bishops that it’s a new day and another style of church that he’s trying to communicate. It’s a humbler church. It’s one that does not necessarily know all the answers in advance and that will be a listening church. So that’s number one.

Number two, he has to, in very real ways, undertake convincing measures coming from Rome that sexual abuse and any other kind of scandal will absolutely not be tolerated and there are mechanisms in place all the way down the line so that will never happen again. There’s been some progress made in that but there hasn’t been enough accountability asked of the bishops themselves and I think that’s what he really needs to do.

TSD: Today, we see that the Church has preserved conservative positions on certain issues such as human sexuality and bioethics, while adopting more liberal positions on others like the death penalty. What do you think of this modern church that seems ‘divided against itself’?

PC: The Church has to signal an openness to listening to the various discordant voices in the Church that are coming from positions of real life experience and often real life suffering. That’s number one. I think the more there is the opportunity for people to think they are being heard and listened to, the less the possibility is that the whole thing will collapse. I also think there are ways, theologically, to reconsider some of what people think are closed issues. Just as one example, I think it is quite possible to ordain women as deacons in the Church. I think that should be no problem. Theologically and historically that’s justifiable, and most people see and understand that.

The other thing to remember is a principle called the ‘development of doctrine’ — it’s kind of a Catholic version of evolution [laughter] where we understand Church teaching as something that has evolved over time in many cases. Sometimes there have been real changes in Church teachings. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church prohibited usury, charging interest on loans — it is certainly not prohibited now. The same with slavery — the Church, way up until the 19th century, had [looked] the other way when it came to slavery. Now, it’s a major proponent of human rights. We are living within history and history is an ongoing, organic, developing thing, and we want to be faithful to tradition and at the same time open to where history and the spirit of history is drawing us.

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