Stratton and Sawhney: Will Pope Francis’ legacy leave behind a new Church?

Abigail Stratton and Asha Sawhney

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The Catholic church has been criticized for its hierarchies and organization. More recently, there has been international outrage over sexual abuse scandals associated with members of the clergy. Pope Francis has taken on many of the issues of the Church and is arguably the most controversial pope the Catholic Church has had in decades. Many praise him as being the most progressive-minded Pope the Church has ever seen and hope he will reform and modernize the current system. Others are less enthusiastic. They are skeptical of Francis and believe he is a transitional figure unlikely to bring significant reform. The world continues to watch, waiting to see how and if he will effect change.

Abigail Stratton:

Before I address the larger topic at hand, I must acknowledge my personal bias: I am a Catholic. By no means do I agree with all aspects and opinions of the larger Church, but I do practice the faith, although I have actually lost confidence in the Vatican and Catholic Church as an institution. That said, I believe Pope Francis has already and will continue to bring positive change.

In general, the Church and Catholics have developed a negative reputation in the past few decades. Much of this criticism stems from opinions that the Catholic Church has not changed with the times. Many believe the Catholic Church is archaic and cannot be relevant in the modern era. I disagree. The Church is not a “modern” institution – it has existed for hundreds of years and is steeped in tradition, but it is not irrelevant. The world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are all affected by Francis’ decisions.

If he stands by his word, I am confident he will restore my confidence in the Church as an institution. Already he has diversified the Vatican by recently appointing 20 new cardinals from all over the world, including South America and Africa. This international diversity is a drastic change from the usual mix of European and American men appointed. Catholicism has been a global religion for decades, but only recently have changes such as these been made to represent such diversity in the governing body and leadership of the Church. Not all the appointed cardinals are as liberal as Francis, but their fresh voices will be valuable for debate within the Church. Their installation is the beginning of structural changes and reform within the inner circles of the Church.

Many see the Pope’s actions as bold and remarkably liberal in comparison to his predecessors. For example, Francis has spoken publicly about the role of women in the Church. Women largely serve the Church quietly and from the sidelines as they do not hold any significant leadership positions. However, Francis has advocated for a “more widespread and incisive female presence,” stating that they “must have a greater role in the decision-making areas of the Church.” Although women will most likely not be allowed to serve in the priesthood during Francis’ lifetime, he is laying a groundwork for far-reaching change.

I appreciate Francis’ willingness to upset the more conservative Catholic population or cause controversy within the Church. His comments on homosexuality, one of the first curveballs of his papacy, did just that. He famously said “Who am I to judge?” when asked about his stance on homosexuals in the Church, saying homosexuals should be “accepted with respect, dignity and compassion.” His first teachings to the Church are of acceptance of previously shunned groups such as the homosexual community and divorced couples.

Thanks to Francis, the general perception of the Vatican as a lavish, elevated institution is diminishing. Francis, known for his humility, carries his own baggage, refuses to use the popemobile and has washed the feet of those in detention facilities, including a Muslim woman. He champions the idea that the Catholic Church is a Church for the poor and has taken on the role of an advocate for those without power. He has urged his followers to donate to the poor in lieu of pilgrimage to Rome. His gentleness, transparency and generosity bode well for the future, and groups of Catholics, myself included, are responding with excitement to the change in tone.

Francis is working against tradition with numerous obstacles in his path. However, Francis is beginning a change in tone and reform. Will groundbreaking reform such as priests being allowed to marry or women becoming priests happen during his papacy? Most likely not, but he is laying a groundwork to be built upon by his successors. The past two years of Francis’ office give us a look into the revolutionary reform and progress he will begin or advocate for in the future, giving me confidence that the Catholic Church will look and sound very different when he leaves it.

Asha Sawhney:

For the first year of his papacy, I too saw Pope Francis as an agent for change. During that time he showed an unprecedented and controversial tolerance for homosexuality and abortion. He has supported the poor and exercised humility to bring the Catholic Church back to its core ideologies. Large amounts of money have been donated on his behalf, and he refuses to live the same flashy lifestyle as his predecessors. He also resonated with the younger generations with a surprising twist in his background, that he moonlighted as a bouncer in Buenos Aires. The revolutionary spirit of his first year that captivated both Catholic and non-Catholic audiences alike, led him to be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013.

Recently however, many of the Pope’s statements I admired have taken a complete 180. The same man who preached acceptance of homosexuality told an audience in the Philippines that gay marriage is the “ideological colonization” of the family that will “disfigure God’s plan for creation.” He then coupled these statements with action by giving his blessings to those banning gay marriage in Slovakia. His statements about the transgender community were even worse, as he compared the fight for transgender rights to nuclear weapons that threaten to destroy the Earth and creation. Although he still speaks out about how women’s role in the Church should be expanded, his strict adherence to traditional roles in marriage indicate he has patriarchal views regarding the domestic and reproductive duties of a woman. Lastly, after his earlier claims that Catholics spend too much time fighting abortion, the Pope called abortion a “sin against God.”

Francis has turned his back on the initial statements of his papacy in similar fashion to U.S. politicians who make grandiose promises they soon forget as the excitement of election season fades away. The radical shift in the Pope’s statements is disappointing because he has a lifelong appointment and no threat of losing a re-election. However, it was wildly optimistic for people to think that an inherently political figure such as the Pope could sustain viewpoints that went against the dominating ideologies of the clergy.

This inevitable political pressure is a huge sign the Catholic Church is not on a pathway to radical change. Even if a large portion of adherents to the faith want to shift ideology, the conservatives at the top of the hierarchical structure ultimately call the shots. This is evidenced by the Pope’s conflicting statements on homosexuality. At first he seemed to preach tolerance, but when the political entity of marriage came into play, he quickly reverted back to the reigning ideology. Likewise, despite the vast majority of Catholic women in the United States using some form of birth control, the dominant political narrative Catholicism plays in the United States is entirely against these family planning methods.

No Pope will be able to truly be a figure for change in the Catholic Church until the system moves away from its traditional hierarchy and becomes more democratic. The Church has existed for centuries, and a few progressive statements by one Pope cannot undo an insurmountable amount of contrary statements from history. Evidence of a shift toward a more liberal ideology in Catholicism comes from its followers, not clergy. Roughly 54 percent of Catholics in the United States support same-sex marriage, which is legal in five predominantly Catholic countries such as Spain and Argentina. Similarly, 65 percent of Catholics surveyed worldwide think abortion should be legal in some cases. If we see radical change in the next few decades in the Catholic Church, it is going to come from ordinary followers of the faith finding their voice rather than their leader employing his.

Abby Stratton is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at abigailstratton2018@u.northwestern.edu. Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at ashasawhney2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com

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