Skip to main content

Francis, open up the church

By Phillip M. Thompson, Special to CNN
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT