Bridge Builder

Anyone who followed media coverage of the papal conclave that elected the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, couldn’t help noticing that the same breathless questions were raised again and again by commentators assessing the future of Catholicism. Will the church ever allow priests to marry? Will it ordain women? Will it change its teaching on homosexuality or birth control? Will it permit the divorced and remarried to receive Communion? Is clergy sexual abuse still a problem? Will bishops ever be held accountable for covering up that abuse?

When it comes to these persistent conflicts it seems the scrum has barely budged over the past forty years. While most American Catholics think the church should change its positions—or at least moderate its tone—on these neuralgic issues, the hierarchy and a group of conservative Catholics influential in Rome remain intent on stressing the “countercultural” aspect of Catholicism, its power to push back against the overwhelming secularity of American life. The result is a church nearly as polarized as the U.S. Congress.

Meanwhile, the church in the United States has lost a third of its members and many doubt such losses can be stanched as long as certain teachings—say, about sexual morality or the role of women—do not change. Conservative Catholics respond that in comparison with the even more dramatic decline of mainline Protestant churches that have embraced supposedly more enlightened attitudes, the Catholic Church is doing fine. Any church that accommodates itself to our individualistic, egalitarian, and morally promiscuous secular culture, they say, is doomed to irrelevance. Better to stay the course; that way, even if losses are high, there won’t be a complete collapse. This often seemed to be the default position of Benedict XVI. If Francis’s initial remarks and actions are any indication, he promises to engage the larger culture from a less defensive posture.   

Inevitably Catholics at both ends of the ideological spectrum look to a new pope for encouragement. And from the moment he made his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s, Francis seems to have given nearly everyone a reason to cheer. But whatever the direction in which the new pope steers the church, American Catholics struggling to make a life of faith in what is admittedly a vertiginous moral and cultural landscape will continue to take surprising turns, confounding the usual categories. Most practicing Catholics reject the teaching on contraception. At the same time, more than a few younger Catholic women eschew the pill in favor of the church’s “natural” approach to family planning. Home-schooling is more popular than one might imagine, and not just among the politically conservative. Some younger Catholics are also intrigued by the solemnity of the Latin Mass. Religious “seekers” of all stripes happily mix and match what were once predictably conservative or liberal political and theological positions. This is a Catholic strength, not a weakness. Catholicism has never quite made peace with capitalism, for instance, and here all sorts of esoteric Catholic objections to modern liberalism merge with a rejection of the materialism and crass commercialism of American society and the hegemony of Wall Street. The Catholic critique of the modern economy may be needed now more than ever before, and Francis’s promise to make concern for the poor central to his papacy could confound the powerful in surprising ways.       

The philosopher Charles Taylor has written that, although Catholics will continue to disagree on many questions, they still “ought to be able to reach out to each other.” And in order for that to happen we must look to those among us whose zeal does not merely confirm our biases, but rather the opposite. What we need, each one of us, is to be thrown off balance by the self-sacrificing example of others. For some it might be the devotion to family shown by a Latin Mass enthusiast who home-schools her children. For others, it could be a same-sex couple intent on raising their children Catholic. “The church, by which I mean all of us, has a very challenging task,” Taylor writes. That task is how to hold “together in one sacramental union modes of living the faith which have at present no affinity for each other, and even are tempted roundly to condemn each other.”

Yes, the church must preach the gospel, but it must also live it. That is something Pope Franics has done to wide acclaim in his native Argentina. Popes are a sign of unity, or so the Catholic tradition teaches. (“Pontiff” is from the Latin word for “bridge builder.”) Francis will have to be a master builder if the church is to make its message heard in a time of great discord. Bringing a divided flock together, after all, is the first responsibility of a good pastor.



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It is impossible to presume the direction the actual curial operations of the church will take under Pope Francis. Will annulments and forgiveness for divorce and remarriage, even a declaration of 'jubilee' on the issue bring many broken-hearted people back to the faith? Will smart girls find it better to avoid pregnancy instead of lives barefoot, pregnant and broke as 'mistresses' instead of respected life partners? Will the poor find a turn-around in an increasingly mean spirited society that refuses them basic health, education, housing and living wage employment? Will we continue to silently approve of multiple wars, conflicts, oneupsmanships and wrangling disputes as the normal course of things? The church needs to be a real presence of Christ in the world, strongly preaching and supporting the preferential option for the poor and just treatment of everyone. If it remains aloof and retreats to its fortress in Rome, it will soon decline into irrelevance and become simply a museum of the past.

To quote GK Chesterton:

There are a lot of reasons to leave the Catholic Church but only one to stay:  It's true!

Why in the world would the Catholic Church (the revelations of Jesus Christ), ever change core teachings (not that she could if she wanted to).  The whole point is to change US.



When we say that Francis will "steer" the church, we should mean that he will first listen to the whole church's sensus fidelium and then teach what the whole church believes.  Today's moral positions should not be "conservative" or "liberal," theyshould be the result of the faith discernment of the People of God.  Nor should they be capitulations to today's secularism.  They should be expressions of our faith in conformity with the best contemporary understanding of our evolving human nature.

  The problem is that we are at least 50 years behind the times when it comes to understanding our faith and our evolving human nature.

Bravo, Mr. Massimini, for reminding us there ought to be no "liberal" or "conservative" in the Church, but rather the faith of the People of God.  But when you and I expect Pope Francis to teach what the whole Church believes, we have to remember that this includes not only the sensus fidelium but also the already-standing Doctrine of the Faith as the Magisterium has handed it on to us.  Much of what liberal Catholics want finds no echo in the sensus fidelium--among truly faithful Catholics.  Divorce?  The sensus fidelium clearly seems to oppose it. Abortion?  Ditto, even more strongly opposed.  Much of what reactionary Catholics want finds no echo in the sensus fidelium either.  So what is it that you think we ought to have caught onto 50 years ago?  I've been an adult for nearly 50 years and I cannot for the life of me think of any theological or liturgical or moral notion of the past 50 years that hasn't been eagerly embraced by one group of Catholics or another.  Some fads are now increasingly being rejected, especially by young people--hootenanny Masses, for example.  Others have produced modest fruit but are not growing especially strong in any obvious way--the Charismatic Movement, for example.  Others have come to little fruition through no fault of our own --Ecumenism, for example.  It has been torpedoed by the embrace of unacceptable moral positions by so many mainstream Protestant Churches, especially their acceptance of abortion and homosexual activity.  Have I missed some earth-shaking alteration in human nature?  I suppose it evolves, slowly as it is wont to do, but I haven't seen much change in human nature over the past 50 years.  Same old greed.  Same old egotism.  Same old disregard of the poor and of the natural environment.  Same old wars.  Same old materialism, though it seems to be increasingly popular among the cafeteria Catholics who want us to lurch to the Left.  Same old pride and spiritual arrogance, though these qualities seem especially alive and well on the Catholic Right.  Both the Left and the Right are destined to be crushingly disappointed in Pope Francis, simply because he will, I'm confident, preside in harmony with the sensus fidelium and in utter fidelity to the Doctrine of the Faith.

"--hootenanny Masses'  ??Thanks for a stop reading signal.

Just as one President cannot fix all the ills of our civil society, no one Pope can fix all the things people want to change about the Church. Pope Francis will have his work cut out for him no matter what he does. Yet he has not been called by the Holy Spirit to please people but to guide us all as the Body of Christ. Every believer can do their part by being less judgmental and divisive, and more prayerful, compassionate and respectful of one another in loving service.     

Signs of Hope

This is further to my commentary "The Weary People of God: Three Cogent Insights" that was inspired by Mary Friedel-Hunt, Joan Chittister, Pat Howard and the two questions posed by a dear Franciscan (FSPA)-nun friend. Her questions centered on our ability to express concerns to Pope Francis; to wit: "1) who is contacting him ? and 2) how will he ever know what the people are saying?”  The commentary has been posted at ( following Paul Moses'   Short Take "Why ‘Francis’? -- What the Pope's name signals." Moses’ piece and the Commonweal’s “Bridge Builder” editorial reveal signs of hope that can be added to those discussed in my commentary.  It is my fervent hope that the messages embedded in all of this material will be promulgated with dual aims. The first would be that of launching a message wave toward Pope Francis via every available means. To this end, a request has been made to the editors of The National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and America magazines, as well as to the principals at Call to Action, The American Catholic Council, Voice of the Faithful, The Women's Ordination Conference, and FutureChurch.

The second aim would be to wake up the sheep-like Catholic laity to the fact that they are the church – the People of God – who are a critical component of the Sensus Fidelium in the sense that the wisdom of the laity is necessary to the church as a whole and is not to be circumscribed by the juridical dictates of the hierarchy. 

And so, the obvious solution: call for a new ecumenical world council - Vatican III. Invite everybody not just cardinals and bishops. Perhaps then we can really discern the 'sensum fideli' and begin to address and discuss the role and theology of our church. Please invite all the other Christian denominations in particular - there is an opportunity to included these churches, whether local, national or world-wide as 'rites' of the catholic faith, allowing them to keep their liturgy, prayer forms, celibate or non-celibate, male or female clergy. We all pray the same Nicene Creed - there is but one baptism and one faith. Wouldn't that be a world game-changer?

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