With his papacy now entering its fifth year, Pope Francis and the church he leads face more challenges and opposition than ever before. Despite the near-universal optimism that characterized the beginning of his tenure, the pope’s recent years have been defined by turmoil wrought internally upon the Catholic church. Lambasted by the clergy’s more conservative wing for his attempts at liberalization and frowned upon by the left for not liberalizing quite enough, Papa Francesco has found himself at the crux of a fight over the very survival of the church itself.
Since his ascension to the role of pope in 2013, Francis has made his priorities clear. The denouncing of unabashed capitalism, treatment of immigrants and the impoverished with respect rather than revulsion, and the movement to fully re-embrace those who have divorced or practiced non-hetero relationships have all been linchpins in his fight to modernize the world’s perception of Catholicism. Predictably, these goals, and the astounding fervor with which Francis has pursued them, have made him more than his fair share of enemies within the Vatican.
The pope’s ideological foes contend that the church should set the moral agenda for the world, rather than vice-versa. In their opinion, by compromising the long-held tradition and rigorous mandates that have so defined the church’s past, its entire foundation of legitimacy will collapse, leaving behind a fragmented and lawless body. Some of this contingent, led by American Cardinal Raymond Burke, have even gone so far as to claim that the stances of the new pope may constitute outright heresy, which would be grounds for excommunicating Francis from the very institution he claims divine authority over.
The fight over Francis, however, is indicative of a much larger conflict at play. It’s a struggle that strikes at the very heart of organized religion and its place in the modern world, and whichever side comes out on top will have already set in motion the fate of Christianity’s future.
In 2018, the church finds itself strangled by a web of oftentimes contradictory decrees, edicts and rulings 2000 years in the making. Unable to move on from its tumultuous past and unwilling to progress towards the future, Catholicism has profoundly suffered from rising indifference towards what it has to offer. Francis has attempted to combat this reality by bypassing many of the traditions of the past in favor of basing his personal ideology in the most basic of the bible’s offerings: “Who am I to judge,” “The meek shall inherit the earth,” “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The key to these messages lies in their simplicity and universality — regardless of where you lie on the spectrum of piety, these are all notions that any reasonable person can get behind.
A millennium’s worth of corruption and spite have diluted the importance of these simple ideas within the church itself, thus eliciting both Francis’ efforts at simplification and an equal and opposite wave of backlash from Vatican conservatives. This backlash has been a coordinated effort to drag the church back towards the medieval attitudes its image is already so tied to. These desperate grasps at regression, however, are a moral and practical catastrophe of the highest order for a 21st century organization that claims to invoke an enlightened authority.
Famed playwright and activist George Bernard Shaw once said that “the problem with Christianity is that it’s never been tried.” This was not an indictment of the church’s level of effort but rather of its boldfaced hypocrisy and inability to mirror the same qualities it attempts to espouse. In order to sustain its long-term viability in our ever-changing world, the church must return to its earliest roots — not the ones planted at the Vatican or throughout the centuries-long calcification of its byzantine hierarchy but rather those hinted at in those most basic bible teachings. It wasn’t Jesus himself after all who called for the crusades, inquisitions and outdated cultural norms that have come to define the church’s public image but rather his followers, whose interpretation and application of the faith have created an institution comically ill-suited for the rigors of 21st century existence.
It’s somewhat ironic that in these times so full of political polarization, cultural bewilderment and the general sense that all is not well, the church as a force for good has largely been absent. Now more than ever it would seem, there is a vacuum of major institutions whose goals are inherently for a better world. But just as mistrust in the intentions of our governments and major corporations has reached unprecedented levels, the church’s internal conflict has undermined its supposed moral high ground.
Jesus’ vision for the Catholic church presumably didn’t involve the rote denial of a massive child-abuse scandal, institutionalized bigotry against entire swaths of people and a truly astounding number of abhorrent headlines coming out of the Vatican. But nonetheless, this is the very past that the conservative wing of the church has attempted to cling onto with such desperation. It’s absolutely laughable that anyone, much less the very hierarchy of the institution in question, would attempt to justify and carry on with such behavior, but these are the very forces that Francis finds himself up against.
Rather than investing all of its political and moral capital into such obviously lost causes, the church would do well to embrace the message of Francis, no matter the costs: Care for the poor, take a stand for the marginalized and serve as a legitimate moral lighthouse for a world that is so clearly lacking one. In doing so, Catholicism may actually come to find that it still does have a place in modern life — perhaps not in the form of the absolute authority it held in the past but rather as a more pragmatic force — one that could tangibly influence national policy, established norms and human behavior, all for the better.
Catholicism sits at a crossroads. One path holds the re-entrenching of accepted doctrine and the continued hemorrhaging of churchgoers and common interest. The other road, and the one Pope Francis seeks to take, is a much more uncertain one. It does not guarantee or even try to claim that the pews will suddenly be full again or the world will re-embrace religion en masse. It does, however, promise a reinvigorated faith, one that is not based in the institutionalized absurdity or shallow pontificating of the past but in simple, universal truths. These truths are ideas that can be agreed upon by everybody, religious or otherwise, and that are directly applicable to all the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Pope Francis has thrown his full force behind fighting climate change, wealth inequality and hatred of all kinds, and it’s lessons like these that could make the church relevant once more, if only it could wholeheartedly embrace these stances.
Regardless of your personal beliefs, a Catholic church based in genuine morality is an undeniably good thing. No amount of theological squabbling or appeals towards the past are ever going to aid the church as an institution in its fight to see the world become a better place. Francis however, and the values he so desperately clings to, could be the key to restoring the church’s status as a moral authority at a time when the world has such an acute shortage of positive institutional influence.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu