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Pope Francis is slowly dragging the Catholic Church back from the right to the centre – but he still has a way to go

2016 October 14
by Paul Vallely

The lineaments of the papacy of Pope Francis became even clearer this week with his announcement of the kind of men he has chosen to become cardinals – and the electors who will determine whether he is succeed by someone who cements his reforming instincts or by someone who steers the Roman Catholic Church back to the conservative ground to which it was shifted by his most recent predecessors.

The priority he accords to courageous conflict resolution was clear from his placing at the top of his list Mario Zenari, the dauntless Vatican ambassador to war-ravaged Syria. It will be the first time in recent history a papal nuncio will have the rank of cardinal. Also prominent was the youngest candidate, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, who has worked with resolution for an end to the bloody conflict in the Central African Republic. Bangladesh’s new cardinal, Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario, has been intensely involved in interreligious dialogue though he has spoken out against radical Islamic indoctrination. And there was a testament to bravery too in the appointment of the only-non bishop on the list Father Ernest Simoni, the priest who brought tears to the Pope’s eyes with his account of his 30 years of prison, torture and forced labour in atheistic Albania.

His preference for the peripheries was evident as Francis makes the College of Cardinals less European. The new men represent all five continents and 12 different countries with 11 coming from places like Bangladesh, New Guinea, Malaysia and Lesotho which have never before had a cardinal.

All the new men are pastors who “smell of their sheep” rather than theological ideologues. From Madrid he has chosen Carlos Osoro Sierra, a man nicknamed the “Spanish Francis” who walks around his diocese and has a devotion to Our Lady of La Paloma whose feastday celebrations attract thousands of non-church attenders who live “on the spiritual outskirts”.

The new cardinals favour collaboration over confrontation and put mercy before judgemental condemnation. From his native Latin America, Pope Francis has picked men prominent in the continent’s conference of bishops, CELAM, rather than those conspicuous for their conservatism. In Belgium he has chosen Archbishop Jozef de Kezel who was twice put forward by the papal nuncio to take over the country’s primatial see and twice rejected by Pope Benedict XVI in favour of a hardline conservative.

The Franciscan shift is most clearly seen in the three new American cardinals. The Pope has passed over those who had been lined up by Pope Benedict by being placed in sees when the incumbent expected an automatic red hat to follow. (Francis has decoupled hats and sees across the rich world – in Venice, Turin and Toledo). But most pointedly the leaders of the ideological Right among the US bishops have all been disregarded. Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles have paid the price for resisting the pope’s desire to open up communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, combatting the Obama administration over contraception and entrenched theological conservatism.

Instead one American red hat has gone to Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, a key Francis ally on welcoming into the Church those in irregular family situations. Another has gone to Bishop Kevin Farrell, recently moved from being Bishop of Dallas to head the new Vatican on the Laity, the Family and Life, and an outspoken advocate on US gun control. And a third has been given to Joseph Tobin, the former superior general of the Redemptorists, who was demoted from a top Vatican job in the Benedict era for criticising the Holy See’s controversial investigation of US nuns. He was relegated then to the small diocese of Indianapolis where he did battle with the Governor, Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, and refused to obey the politicians instructions not to welcome Syrian refugees to the city.

What it all boils down to is an attempt by Francis to take shift the Catholic Church from the right back to the centre. It will mean that this Pope has appointed more than a third of the electors for his successor. The majority however will still by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI men. So if the reforms of Francis are to be cemented by the next papacy it will require intervention once again by the Holy Spirit.

A truncated version of this appeared in the Church Times


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