WASHINGTON — Pope Francis has been a busy man. Ever since his election as Bishop of Rome eight months ago, he has single-handedly managed to breathe new life into the Catholic Church. He has eschewed the sartorial splendor and lavish residence of his predecessors. He has washed the feet of prisoners (including women, Roma and Muslims) — a moving spectacle that attests to his devotion to the downtrodden of the world (and also offended some traditionalists). In one of his most moving gestures, he embraced and kissed a man suffering from neurofibromatosis.
At the same time, he’s made it clear that he’s not going to leave it at symbolism. He has chided the church establishment for being "obsessed" with sexual politics to the detriment of its central mission of proclaiming the gospel. He has called for a new "missionary spirit" and decried "obsolete structures." He has pushed for a law aimed to bring financial transparency to the Vatican and has set up a commission tasked with offering proposals for church reform. (Significantly, only one of the eight cardinals chosen for the group was from the Curia, the church’s administrative heart — and the home of many of its most entrenched interests.) All this makes perfect sense for a man who looked to one of the church’s greatest reformers for his regnal name.
But it’s Pope Francis’s latest initiative that has the greatest potential to shake up one of the world’s oldest institutions. Within the past few weeks the Vatican has begun dispatching a questionnaire to parishes around the world to ask Catholics about their views on family life and sexuality in preparation for a landmark synod (a church-wide conference) on those issues next year. It’s the first time that any Pope has done such a thing.
It’s certainly not a move that’s calculated to soothe traditionalists. (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for one, doesn’t seem especially keen on distributing the survey to parishioners, and hasn’t moved to post the document to its website — in notable contrast to their British counterparts.)
For the church’s many critics, of course, such a move is long overdue. Shortly before Pope Francis ascended to the throne, the liberal German theologian Hans Kung wrote an article in the New York Times calling for a "Vatican Spring." For Kung, the contemporary church is an "absolute monarchy" just like Saudi Arabia, the result of changes a millennium or so ago that bequeathed to Catholicism a "centralist-absolutist papacy, compulsory clericalism, and the obligation of celibacy for priests and other secular clergy." It’s this underlying lack of opportunities for participation that has alienated believers (especially women and young people), Kung believes, leaving the church in dire need of top-to-bottom renovation: "Behind the facade," he wrote, "the whole house is crumbling."
There’s no question that the arrival of Pope Francis has coincided with one of the greatest crises in the modern history of the church. The long-running sexual abuse scandal, the revelations of financial shenanigans at the highest level, and the stunning resignation of Benedict XVI, Francis’s hapless predecessor, had stained the reputation of the church and left Catholics around the world deeply demoralized. "The Vatican needs purgation at the top, to enable real renewal from below," wrote Ross Douthat, also in The New York Times, shortly after Francis’ election. Douthat is a conservative Catholic, one whose views ultimately diverge quite starkly from Kung’s. But that gives you an idea of how pervasive the sense of the need for change has become.
Is greater democracy the answer? There are those who certainly believe so. They point to the vast gap between church teachings and the views of many believers. Recent polls show, for example, that 76 percent of Catholics in the United States believe that the church should permit birth control, while around half of them approve of same-sex marriage. Unless the church leadership becomes more responsive to such views, argue reformists, the current exodus of believers is likely to continue. To bolster their case, they argue that the early church — precisely the church of Peter and Paul, in the first decades after the crucifixion of Jesus — was a decidedly un-hierarchical affair, an institution where believers essentially governed themselves and ironed out their own doctrinal and political differences.
Others respond that such views are simplistic. The modern church encompasses 2,000 years of tradition and embraces 1.2 billion believers around the world. Those Catholics represent a vast range of languages, cultures and political views. Yet they all profess a common faith in Jesus Christ as the redeemer of humankind — a transcendent vision that you either believe or you don’t. That’s not really a matter of governance or political philosophy. The job of the church is to maintain this essential unity of the faith while accounting for the pastoral needs of its diverse membership.
And that’s always going to be a challenge. "I think for the vast majority of Catholics there’s no serious problem with the fact that it’s not a democracy," says Leslie Tentler, a history professor at the Catholic University of America. "It just isn’t. I think what people really resent, though, is that no one listens to people’s experiences, people’s values, people’s doubts when it comes to aspects of the Church’s teachings that do bear on their lives quite immediately."
What this should remind us is that it’s problematic to treat the church as if it’s just another political organization. It’s not. It’s a community of faith — and that means that the things that are most essential about it ultimately don’t depend on poll results. "The church is the ongoing ministry of Christ in the world," says Michael Sean Winters, a commentator with National Catholic Reporter newspaper. "When we say someone is a good pope or a bad pope, we mean that he’s someone who would’ve been a good friend of Jesus when he walked on the earth. And that’s not up to a vote."
Winters applauds the pope’s move towards greater consultation as exemplified by the new survey — a practice, Winters says, that is already well-established in the Latin American church. (Francis was a cardinal in Argentina before he ascended to the papal throne.) But Winters cautions that no one should be expecting Francis to change fundamental church teachings — that, he says, just isn’t in the cards.
What the new pope is trying to do instead is to move away from the political and ideological squabbles that those teachings have sometimes inspired in the past and to re-focus on the church’s core mission of proclaiming the "good news" of Christ — as the pope has tried to do with his public demonstration of love for the poor and the deprived. And that, says Winters, is what the papacy should be about: "There is Peter — healing the world."
I’m not a Catholic, and I don’t agree with all of the church’s positions. But I’m glad that it exists. We live today in a world that’s often degraded by greed, waste and reckless consumption. We all too often demonstrate our contempt for outsiders, the weak, the poor. So I’m glad that there’s someone out there who’s prepared to offer a fundamental spiritual critique of our mores — so that we don’t have to leave it to the bankers, reality TV stars or posturing politicians. A reinvigorated Catholic Church, confident in its own sublime mission but tolerant and inclusive, could serve as a powerful force for good in the world. So I wish Francis well. Let’s hope he can pull it off.
Caryl, the editor of Democracy Lab, is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy. He is also the author of "Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century."
— Foreign Policy