Skip to main content

Francis, open up the church

By Phillip M. Thompson, Special to CNN
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Phillip Thompson: The new pope will be getting much advice
  • He says the pope should build trust, introduce new transparency on range of issues
  • He says put lay experts in charge of sex abuse probe, eliminate Vatican Bank
  • Thompson: Church should empower laity, especially women, and restore faith, hope

Editor's note: Phillip M. Thompson is the executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.

(CNN) -- With the selection of Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, who will be known as Pope Francis, the cardinals have sent a signal to the Church about how Catholics should live in the world.

Bergoglio is known to be a good administrator. But he lives very simply in a small apartment and rides a bus. He's well known for his engagement in issues of social justice and in defense of the poor. Indeed, the very name Francis honors St. Francis of Assisi, a person of humility and deep caring. If he is anything like his namesake then this selection is good news indeed.

And now that he has been named pope, Francis will face a raft of advice. Some will call for improved administration, finding a way to draw new Catholics into the church where it is in decline, and increasing engagement with other faith traditions.

Opinion: The biggest moment in the world

Other pundits were thinking in grand terms. Among the progressives, some believe the church should adopt a bold revolution, with new acceptance of women priests, homosexuality, etc.

Phillip Thompson
Phillip Thompson

The Cubs have a greater chance of winning a World Series. Change on controversial issues, if it happens at all, will be slow and incremental, since the church is bound by the requirements of tradition and precedent.

From the traditional side of Catholicism, expressed in a Wall Street Journal column by George Weigel, hope was for a pope who will be "a charismatic, missionary culture warrior, challenging the world's democracies to rebuild their moral foundations."

The problem here is that in the United States many of the troops are not following the generals. For example, 90% of Catholics are using contraception and 82% think it is morally permissible. Moreover, many American Catholics are more devoted to liberal and conservative political positions than the teachings of the church.

This poses a serious problem. The church has conservative positions on human sexuality, bioethics, etc., but liberal positions on issues such as economic regulation, the death penalty and immigration. A church divided against itself seems unlikely to renew our political or cultural structures.

News: Cardinals elect first pope from Latin America

So, in lieu of grand but seemingly unworkable schemes, I would suggest a much more modest but doable set of proposals to address a spiritual crisis of declining confidence in the institutional church. In a recent Pew Foundation survey of Catholics in the United States, almost half listed the issues needing to be addressed in the church as the priest sex abuse scandal and a loss of trust.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Newly elected Pope Francis speaks to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Wednesday, March 13. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the first pontiff from Latin America and will lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Newly elected Pope Francis speaks to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Wednesday, March 13. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the first pontiff from Latin America and will lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
New pope: Scenes from St. Peter's Square
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
New pope: Scenes from St. Peter\'s Square New pope: Scenes from St. Peter's Square
White smoke indicates new pope
Cardinals once took 3 years to name pope
Obama reacts to new pope

What can the church do to resolve the trust problem? Why not begin a transparency and empowerment offensive? Transparency could be improved by placing in the Vatican Catholic lay experts in charge of the priest abuse investigations. Trust will not be restored by clerics investigating and judging clerics. We end up with Cardinal Bernard Law, who moved and protected pedophile priests, being granted a position of honor in Rome.

These kinds of decisions have seriously eroded trust in the pews. In the United States, the Catholic Church finally awakened and began a process of lay review. A female judge and lay investigators restored a degree of trust. Bring this model to Rome.

Opinion: Pope Francis, humble, authentic and credible

Eliminating the Vatican Bank, a source of scandals for many decades, would increase transparency and institutional focus. The church is better with the deposit of faith than the faith of deposits. Turn the funds over to reliable banks subject to international regulatory requirements.

Resolving these transparency issues is based in part on empowering the laity for a greater role. And there are other empowerment possibilities. The church could allow more flexibility to local bishops and parishes, who can respond creatively to local conditions. In a global church, this will assist effective evangelization.

And why not have women deacons? This would add more personnel for critical church functions in locations without sufficient priests. It would ensure greater access to the sacraments and bring an often-alienated constituency into a critical role offering new gifts to the administration of the church. Another role for women could be an advisory board to the pontiff on the role of women and women's issues in the church.

These proposals for transparency and empowerment are realistic ways to restore faith, hope and charity in the administration of the church. They would allow the church to pursue its spiritual mission more effectively and more fully use the gifts of its female members. These proposals can succeed because they will not require a radical change in theology, tradition or canon law. They require no major shift in doctrine.

I have one final suggestion to restore hope and trust. The church, starting with the example of Pope Francis, must embody the virtue of humility. It must listen as well as preach.

Consider also the example of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, who does not own a car and eats with workers. His words match his humble lifestyle. He has said, "(You) may be saying the right things but people will not listen if the manner by which you communicate reminds them of a triumphalistic, know-it-all institution." Amen.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Phillip M. Thomson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT