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The most radical part of Francis' papacy is his embrace of the liberalizing principles of Vatican II-from poverty and sexual ethics to church governance.

Pope Francis and the New Rome

The most radical part of Francis' papacy is his embrace of the liberalizing principles of Vatican II—from poverty and sexual ethics to church governance.

By Francis X. Rocca

Wall Street Journal

April 3, 2015 11:31 a.m. ET

One Saturday last month, Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Ognissanti (All Saints') Church in one of Rome's working-class neighborhoods. Little known to tourists or art historians, Ognissanti was the site of a momentous event in the modern history of the Catholic Church: Exactly 50 years earlier, Pope Paul VI had gone there to celebrate the first papal mass in Italian rather than in the traditional Latin.

In marking that anniversary, Pope Francis made plain his view of the vernacular Mass, one of the most visible changes ushered in by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The practice still pains Catholic traditionalists who mourn the loss of churchwide unity that came with a common language.

Allowing Catholics to pray in their local languages "was truly a courageous act by the church to draw closer to the people of God," Pope Francis told a crowd gathered outside. "This is important for us, to follow the Mass this way. And there is no going back…Whoever goes back is mistaken."

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In his two years in office, the pontiff has drawn attention for his unconventional gestures—such as personally welcoming homeless people to the Sistine Chapel last month—but those gestures matter most as signs of the radical new direction in which he seeks to lead the Catholic Church: toward his vision of the promise of Vatican II. Both the acclaim and the alarm that Francis has generated as pope have been responses to his role in the long struggle over the council's legacy.

For a half century, ordinary Catholics and their leaders have debated, often passionately, whether the changes that followed the council went too far or not far enough. Pope Francis' immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, devoted much of their pontificates to correcting what they deemed unjustified deviations from tradition in the name of Vatican II.


Now Pope Francis has effectively reversed course. In word and deed, he has argued that the church's troubles reflect not recklessness but timidity in interpreting and applying the principles of Vatican II, especially the council's call for the church to open itself to the modern world. "It usually takes half a century for a council to begin to sink in," says Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. "Now we have a pope who says, 'Look, we just had five decades of internal debates and controversy about the meaning of Vatican II, and now it's time to do it.' And that's what he's doing."

The pope's vision of Vatican II has translated into a dramatic shift in priorities, with an emphasis on social justice over controversial moral teachings and a friendlier approach to secular culture. This has alarmed those who fear an erosion of the church's role as the foremost bulwark of traditional morality in the West, particularly amid heated battles over same-sex marriage, bioethics, abortion and religious freedom.

Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council with the avowed intention of bringing "fresh air" into the church. In his opening speech, he called on the church to "make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity" or "condemnations." More than 2,500 bishops from around the world attended the four sessions, which produced 16 official documents bringing up to date the church's teachings on, among other things, scripture, worship, religious freedom and relations with non-Catholics.


The first session of Second Vatican Council in Rome on Oct. 11, 1962. Vatican II, gathered together by Pope John XXIII and finished by Pope Paul VI, took place in Rome from October 1962 to December 1965. Photo: Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

The changes were dramatic. Rome absolved the Jewish people of collective guilt for the death of Jesus Christ and declared that God's covenant with them had never been abrogated. Catholics began to hear Orthodox and Protestants described as "separated brethren," while church leaders spoke of a "fellowship" with non-Christians.

The years following the council brought cultural change to the church, blurring many aspects of Catholic identity. Women ceased to wear veils in church, and Catholics started eating meat on Fridays. Nuns moved from convents to apartments. Interfaith marriage ceased to be taboo. Priests moved from hearing confessions in darkened booths to more conversational settings.

At the same time, the church in Europe and the U.S. saw a steep decline in attendance at Mass and in adherence to traditional morality, with the sexual revolution and the spread of contraception and legalized abortion. A half-century after the council, the population of nuns in the U.S. has declined by more than 70% and the annual number of priestly ordinations by 50%.

Popes John Paul and Benedict, who had played key roles at Vatican II, concluded that the church had gone too fast and too far in innovations ranging from the abandonment of religious garb to the acceptance of liberal ideas on sexual morality. In response, they issued the first universal catechism since the 16th century, systematically laying out the church's fundamental teachings; they censured dissent among theologians and within religious orders; and they reversed moves to expand the role of bishops in the development of church teaching and practice.

They also emphasized the differences between Catholicism and other religions and made it easier to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. Their efforts were intended to reaffirm the church's distinctive identity amid what Benedict later called the "spiritual desertification" of secularism.

Pope Francis, the first pontiff to have received holy orders after Vatican II, is very much a son of the council. It took place during his years of study in the Jesuit order in Argentina—he was ordained just four years after it ended—and he enthusiastically followed the proceedings in Rome. On the eve of the 2013 conclave that elected him pope, then-Cardinal Bergoglio identified the main threat to the church: not the encroachment of secular culture but a tendency among Catholics themselves, especially within church institutions, to retreat into ghettos of their own making. The risk, he said, was of "theological narcissism."

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As pontiff, Francis has used the moral authority of his office to push a sharply different agenda, demanding a "poor church for the poor" and excoriating free-market ideologies. He has said that the church should show "mercy" toward divorced and remarried Catholics (whom church law forbids from receiving Communion), flouted liturgical rules to wash the feet of Muslims and women, and received a transsexual at the Vatican.

"This pope is very much a man of [Vatican II]," says Archbishop Blaise J. Cupich of Chicago. "He has an understanding of how the church ought to be positioned at the service of the world, in which we don't impose but we propose."

From the moment he was elected, Pope Francis' folksy manner and disregard for protocol in matters of dress and decorum have reflected his vision of a papacy closer to the people. His public persona has excited curiosity and goodwill, but some believe that his shift in priorities has removed pressure on secular society and political leaders over contentious issues of sexual and medical ethics.

Pope Francis' understanding of Vatican II was deeply shaped by his background as a Jesuit and an Argentine, according to Austen Ivereigh, author of a recent papal biography, "The Great Reformer." The Jesuits viewed themselves as occupying the front lines in the application of the council's teachings, with a particular emphasis on social justice and peace. A 1968 assembly of Latin American bishops adopted a program based on Vatican II that declared a "preferential option for the poor."

This emphasis has been clear in the pontiff's public statements. "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?" Pope Francis wrote in 2013. Days later, President Barack Obama cited the passage in a speech on income inequality.

According to Father H. Miguel Yañez, a Jesuit confrere of the pope and a fellow Argentine, Pope Francis takes Vatican II "for granted." "Instead of arguing about the past…he proposes a new kind of evangelization that is so radical that we forget about different interpretations and move on," the Rev. Yañez says. "Francis is more concerned with having a dialogue with the contemporary world…than he is concerned with certain points of tradition that mattered to Benedict."

The pope's relative silence on certain widely contested moral teachings has left some worried that these questions are now of secondary importance. The pope roused concerns in summer 2013, for instance, when he told the editor of a Jesuit journal that "we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods."

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Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis had not yet made a major statement on abortion, not even during his homily at a special Vatican Mass with antiabortion activists. "I'm a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn't…said much about unborn children, about abortion," said Rhode Island Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in September 2013. "Many people have noticed that."

Church leaders have privately complained that the pope's oft-quoted comment about gay priests—"Who am I to judge?"—has made their job more difficult in upholding church teachings. In November 2013, Catholic legislators in Illinois cited those words to explain their support for a same-sex marriage bill.

Another source of tension is the pope's approach to church governance, particularly the balance of power between the pope and the world's bishops. In the late 19th century, the First Vatican Council affirmed the primacy of papal authority, even declaring the pope infallible on select issues. Vatican II aimed to strike a new balance by teaching that the pope shares authority with the bishops under a principle of "collegiality."

Popes John Paul and Benedict were wary of collective action by bishops, especially on key church teachings. Pope Francis, by contrast, has called for the devolution of more power. "Excessive centralization," he has written, "rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach."

Just weeks into his pontificate, Pope Francis established a new body consisting of eight (later nine) cardinals, including representatives from each continent, to advise him on major issues of church governance, including a sweeping reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. "The pope is effectively telling [the bishops and cardinals], 'I need to hear your voices, not just the voices of the people who live in Rome,' " says Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.

The most ambitious—and disruptive—way in which Pope Francis has promoted collegiality is through the Synod of Bishops, a representative body established by Pope Paul VI in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. Pope Francis has called a two-part meeting of the synod—the first session was held last fall, and the second will take place this October—to discuss issues relating to the family, including such controversial topics as homosexuality, contraception and the eligibility of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

The synod excited controversy even before its start, when the Vatican sent the world's bishops' conferences a questionnaire and encouraged them to seek the views of ordinary Catholics. The bishops' conference of England and Wales even put the questionnaire on the SurveyMonkey site so that parishioners could fill it out online. Several conferences and individual bishops published summaries of the responses, generating complaints that church teaching should not be fodder for a public-opinion survey.

At the synod's first session, the pope told the nearly 200 members to speak "without fear" and "to say what one feels duty-bound in the Lord to say." The ensuing debate, inside and outside the synod hall, was the fiercest the Vatican had seen since Vatican II itself, with sotto voce accusations of heresy and racism and even warnings of schism.

A document issued at the gathering's midpoint set off a furor because of its conciliatory language toward cohabiting couples, divorced and remarried Catholics, and those in same-sex unions. Australian Cardinal George Pell, the pope's finance chief, was prompted to denounce the document. "We're not giving in to the secular agenda; we're not collapsing in a heap," he told Catholic News Service.

American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke went further, telling the Spanish magazine Vida Nueva that the church felt like a "ship without a rudder." He called on Pope Francis to end debate with an unambiguous restatement of traditional moral teachings, but the pope did not oblige.

"The public image that came across was confusion," said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia after the synod. "I think confusion is of the devil." Though he added, "I don't think that was the real thing there."

Such tension was very much in the spirit of Vatican II, which aimed to update the pastoral practice of church doctrine, says Cardinal Wuerl, who helped to draft a final document for the synod's first session that left the most disputed questions unresolved.

"If your starting point is 'We already have the answers,' this process becomes difficult to deal with," says Cardinal Wuerl. But the pope "is saying, 'We have the revelation, but we don't have the application for all times; don't presume that we know everything and that we have every answer.' "

Bishops will come together again in early October to resume debate and produce recommendations. Any changes in the church's approach to family issues will be up to the pope. Yet his word will not be the last.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper is the most prominent advocate of making it easier for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. He says that most Catholics and their leaders welcome Pope Francis' opening, but as he told an audience last fall (according to the National Catholic Reporter), a significant minority of bishops feels otherwise. They have been "exercising restraint and pulling their punches," he said, "in the hope of sitting out this pontificate."



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