Pope Francis fires a warning shot at church’s ‘top-down’ bureaucracy

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c. 2013 Religion News Service

(RNS) Pope Francis has once again given a startlingly candid interview that reinforces his vision of a Catholic Church that engages the world and helps the poor rather than pursuing culture wars, and one “that is not just top-down but also horizontal.”

The pope’s conversation with Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist and well-known editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, took place at the pope’s residence in the Vatican guesthouse on Sept. 24 and was published on Tuesday (Oct. 1).

His newest bombshell come just two weeks after the publication of the pope’s lengthy, groundbreaking interview with a Jesuit journalist in which Francis said the church was “obsessed” with a few moral issues, like abortion and homosexuality, and needed an “attitude” adjustment if it hopes to strike a “new balance” in its approach to the wider world.

Issues of sex and gender were absent from the newest exchange, although at the end of the interview the pontiff, unbidden, asked Scalfari to return again so that they could “discuss the role of women in the church. Remember that the church is feminine,” Francis told him.

Instead, the pope and Scalfari focused on two main themes that could have a revolutionary impact on the papacy and Catholicism: the need for the church to reject its own defensive and even sinful practices, and the imperative to listen and learn from others — including nonbelievers like Scalfari.

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us,” Francis said.

“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God. There is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation,” he said — phrases that are likely to further raise the ire of traditionalists who have been flummoxed and often infuriated by Francis’ willingness to upend the church’s long-standing customs.

“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good. … Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

Francis also made it clear that a chief evil in the church was the “narcissism” of its leaders and the command-and-control way of operating from Rome, even calling the papal court a “leprosy of the papacy.”

It is likely no coincidence that the latest remarks came just as Francis convened the first meeting of his new council of eight cardinals, often called the “Gang of Eight” — who he appointed from beyond Rome to advise him on revamping the crisis-plagued Vatican government. That was a priority for the cardinals who elected Francis as pope last March.

“This is the beginning of a church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal,” Francis said, words that may be the organizing principle for the Gang of Eight, which began three days of closed-door meetings on Tuesday. The advisory board is led by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras and includes Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.

The problem in the past, Francis told Scalfari, is that the church has been run from the Vatican, and the Vatican pursues its own interests.

“This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I’ll do everything I can to change it,” he vowed. “The church is or should go back to being a community of God’s people, and priests, pastors and bishops, who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God.”

“Heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers,” he said at another point. “The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”

Francis reiterated that the “most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old” and he castigated the “savage” economic system that creates “intolerable inequalities.”

He added that he trusted Catholics in political life to “carry the values of their religion within them” and to exercise them without undue interference from church leaders — an approach that could signal a divergence from the political activism of the U.S. hierarchy in recent years.

“The church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here,” Francis declared.

How far Francis will be able to go toward realizing his goals is unclear. He is 76 years old, and appears to be in good health.

But he needs time to accomplish what he admits will be a lengthy process of reforming the church, and with each pronouncement he risks alienating cultural conservatives in the hierarchy or those who want to preserve the institutional church’s traditions.

But Francis also made it clear that if he is beloved by the public for his pastoral approach, he is also no pushover: “I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.”