The National Catholic Reporter started a series of articles examining Pope Francis' recent
interviews. You can find this and the other following articles published on NCRonline.org.
The real test of Francis' reform: touching the spiritually poor
Hans Kung | Sep. 23, 2013
Pope Francis shows courage: not
only in his brave appearance in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro
, but also by entering into an
open dialogue with critical nonbelievers. He has written an open letter to
leading Italian intellectual Eugenio Scalfari, founder and longtime editor in
chief of the major liberal Roman daily newspaper La Repubblica
are not papal instructions, but a friendly exchange of arguments on equal
Among the 12 questions from
Scalfari printed in La Repubblica
Sept. 11, the fourth seems to me of
particular importance for a church leadership ready for reforms: Jesus
perceived his kingdom not to be of this world -- "Render to Caesar the
things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" -- but the
Catholic church especially, writes Scalfari, all too often submits to the
temptations of worldly power and represses the spiritual dimension of the
church in favor of worldliness.
Scalfari's question: "Does
Pope Francis represent after all the priority of a poor and pastoral church
over an institutional and worldly church?"
Let's focus on the facts:
- From the beginning,
Francis has dispensed with papal pomp and glory and engaged in direct contact with people.
- In his words and
gestures, he has not presented himself as the spiritual lord of lords, but
rather as the "servant of the servants of God" (Gregory the
- Facing numerous
financial scandals and the avarice of church leaders, he has initiated
decisive reforms of the Vatican bank and the papal state and called for
transparent financial politics.
- By establishing a
commission of eight cardinals from the different continents, he has
underlined the need for curial reforms and collegiality with the bishops.
But he has not yet passed the
decisive test of his will to reform. It is understandable and pleasing that a
Latin American bishop puts the poor in the favelas of the great metropolises
first. But the pope of the Catholic church cannot lose sight the fact that
other groups of people in other countries suffer from other kinds of "poverty,"
and also yearn for the improvement of their situation. And these are people
whom the pope can support even more directly than he can those in the favelas,
for whom state organizations and society in general are primarily responsible.
The synoptic Gospels have
developed a broader notion of poverty. In the Gospel of Luke, the beatitude of
the poor refers without a doubt to the really poor, poor in a material sense.
But in Matthew's Gospel, this beatitude refers to the "poor in
spirit," the spiritually poor, who, as beggars before God, are aware of
their spiritual poverty. Thus, in line with the other beatitudes, it includes
not just the poor and hungry, but also those who cry, who are left out,
marginalized, neglected, excluded, exploited, desperate. Jesus calls both the
miserable and lost ones in a situation of extreme affliction (Luke) and those
in a situation of inner distress (Matthew), all those who are weary and
burdened, including those burdened by guilt.
Thus the number of poor who need
support multiplies many times over. Support in particular from the pope, who
can help more than others, due to his office. Support from him as the
representative of the ecclesiastical institution and tradition means more than
just comforting and encouraging words; it means deeds of mercy and charity.
Offhand, three large groups of people come to mind who are "poor" in
the Catholic church.
First, the divorced. From many
countries and counted in the millions, many are excluded from the sacraments of
the church for their whole life
have remarried. Today's greater social mobility, flexibility and liberality as
well as a noticeably longer life expectancy make greater demands on partners in
a lifelong relationship. Certainly, the pope will emphatically uphold the
necessary indissolubility of marriage even under these aggravating conditions.
But this commandment will not be understood as an apodictic condemnation of
those who fail and cannot expect forgiveness.
Rather, this commandment expresses
a goal that demands lifelong faithfulness, as it is lived by innumerous couples
already, but cannot be guaranteed. The mercy that Francis calls for would allow
the church to admit divorced and remarried persons to the sacraments if they
seriously wish it.
Second, women who are ostracized
in the church because of the ecclesiastical position regarding contraception,
artificial insemination and also abortion, and often find themselves in a
situation of spiritual distress. There are millions of them in the whole world.
Only a tiny minority of Catholic women obey the papal prohibition to practice
"artificial" contraception, and many with a good conscience use
artificial insemination. Abortion should not be banalized or even be used as a
means of birth control. But women who for serious reasons decided to have an
abortion, often experiencing great moral conflict, deserve understanding and
Third, priests who had to leave
the priesthood because they married. Across the continents, they number in the
tens of thousands. Many suitable young men do not even become priests in the
first place because of the commandment of celibacy. Without doubt, voluntary
celibacy of priests will continue to have its place in the Catholic church. But
the legal commandment that church officials remain unmarried contradicts the
freedom guaranteed in the New Testament, the ecumenic tradition of the first
millennium and modern human rights. The abolition of mandatory celibacy would
represent the most effective means against the catastrophic shortage of priests
noticeable everywhere and the related collapse of pastoral care. Should the
church maintain mandatory celibacy, there is no thinking of the desirable
ordination of women into the priesthood.
All these reforms are urgent and
should first be discussed in the summit of eight cardinals, which is to meet
Oct. 1-2. Francis faces important decisions here. He has already shown great
sensitivity and empathy with the hardships of people, and proved considerable
courage in various situations. These qualities enable him to make the necessary
and forward-looking decisions regarding these issues, some of which have been a
problem for centuries.
In his interview, published Sept.
20 in Jesuit journals worldwide, including La Civiltà Cattolica
Francis recognizes the importance of questions such as contraception,
homosexuality and abortion. But he refuses to put these questions too much at the
center of the church's mission. He rightly calls for a "new balance"
between these moral issues and the essential impulses of the Gospel itself. But
this balance can only be reached when reforms that were postponed again and
again are realized, so that these fundamentally secondary moral issues will not
rob the proclamation of the Gospel of its "freshness and
attractiveness." This will be the great challenge for Francis.
[Fr. Hans Kü
Swiss citizen, is professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at Tübingen University
He is the honorary president of the Global Ethic Foundation (www.weltethos.org