In the US newspaper National Catholic Register one commentator admits: “I’ll be honest; I was disturbed. While it’s clear that the pope is not changing church teaching, he is clearly changing the emphasis. The pope with a few words has unsettled so much.”
The pope’s interview is set to create tensions in the church’s right-left divide. The liberals, now with Francis on their side, argue that Catholicism should be collegial, pluralist, ecumenical, inclusive, and engaged with the secular world and other faiths. Their image of the church is of a pilgrim people on the move.
The conservatives promote a triumphalist church, which Francis clearly rejects. They deplore the loss of ancient liturgy and Latin; they are sticklers for the rules, especially on sexual morality, and prize top-down authority over individual conscience. They are quick to see the least criticism of the church as defamation. Francis clearly has the conservatives in mind when he says that the church “has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.”
The conservatives are unlikely to acquiesce without a fight, and Francis now risks criticism of his papacy up to the highest level, including the bishops — who have so far kept their counsel. However, Francis insists that failure to create a new emphasis threatens greater damage than inaction. “We have to find a new balance,” he says, “otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.” The image of the church — the Rock of Ages — as a “house of cards” is unprecedented in any era.
Should non-Catholics be impressed by a more compassionate and pluralist church? The power and scope of Catholicism’s moral voice — on issues as diverse as the environment, war, terrorism, world hunger and the homeless — has plummeted as a consequence of the clerical child abuse scandal. While priests abused their young sexually, bishops and even the Vatican often failed to act. At the same time, papal denunciations of the sexual sins of consenting adults gave an impression of hypocrisy right up to the papacy.
Pope Francis’ powerful admission that even “His Holiness” is a sinner, and that the Church of Rome is manifestly fallible and vulnerable to the point of collapse through its own faults and complacency, may shock the traditionalist faithful. It may signal the beginning of a slow and painful restoration of moral authority both within the Catholic Church and beyond.