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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT