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Vol. 77/No. 45      December 16, 2013

Pope leads shift to expand church
influence in world wracked by crises
(front page)
Pope Francis is leading a fight within the Catholic Church to recast itself with a more inclusive image and breathe new life into its activities around the world. The goal is to head off the decline of an institution that is increasingly out of step with the changing social attitudes and concerns of millions — including adherents of the church — and to be in a better position to co-opt working-class struggles and block any revolutionary movements that arise.

Francis has been pressing to de-emphasize conformity among adherents of the Catholic faith with church doctrine against contraception, women’s right to abortion, homosexuality, divorce and other social issues.

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the new Pope, selected in March, said in an interview with the Italian Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica in September. “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.”

The shift is a response to changing attitudes among working people around the world, reflected in the long-term decline of the hold of religious doctrine and the weakening of divisions among workers based on religious intolerance.

Regardless of Francis’ motives, the shift is good for working people because it provides more openness to discuss and act together for their social and political needs.

“The first reform must be attitude,” Francis told the Jesuit journal. “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.

“We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church,” while ordaining women as priests was still “a question not open to discussion.”

Isaias Miguel Ortiz, a university professor in the Dominican Republic, applauded the pope’s statement on not judging gays in a Sept. 22 article by Associated Press interviewing church members around the world. “All people should be accepted the way they are,” Ortiz said.

“The church has to catch up with changes in society, even if it still doesn’t admit divorce,” 22-year-old student Aria das Gracas Lemos in Brasilia told AP.

End ‘witch hunt’ against contrary views

On Nov. 24, Francis issued his first “Apostolic Exhortation.” In it he calls for an end to “the veritable witch hunt” against those with views contrary to the Catholic hierarchy. He sharply criticized clergy in the U.S., who have refused to give Communion to politicians who have taken political positions at odds with official church doctrine. “Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?” he asks.

In leading this shift Francis has initiated a fight against the most ossified elements of the church hierarchy, whose moral authority has been further weakened by the church’s attempt to cover up sexual abuse by priests. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials,” he told the Civilta Cattolica.

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” he says, “rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

And he has been speaking to the economic and social pressures bearing down on toiling humanity under the impact of the world crisis of capitalism.

“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? This is a case of exclusion,” Francis writes. “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.”

According to the 2013 Pontifical Yearbook, there are 1.2 billion Catholics, one of every six people in the world. The countries with the largest number are Brazil with nearly 127 million, Mexico with 96.5 million, the Philippines with 75.5 million and the United States with 75.4 million.

The selection of Francis by the church hierarchy is also a shift of focus from Italy and Europe, where the number of Catholics are stagnant or declining, to Africa, Latin America, Asia and the U.S. From 1978 to 2012 the number of Catholics on the African continent grew from 55 million to 175 million.

The Catholic Church is a capitalist institution that lends its moral authority to ruling classes around the world. According to the Economist, the church and church-owned businesses and charities spent some $170 billion in 2010 and employed more than 1 million people.

Opposition to liberation theology

Some conservative writers have expressed concern that Francis’ statements criticizing the evils of capitalism are a concession to liberation theology, which arose in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as revolutionary struggles in Latin America found an echo inside the Catholic Church. Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the best-known proponents of liberation theology today, has said that “Authentic liberation will be the work of the oppressed themselves” and has called for “a social revolution that breaks up that dependence, will allow a different society, a socialist society to come to pass.”

Francis is a well-known opponent of liberation theology “even when this stand left him isolated among the Jesuits” in Argentina, the U.K. Catholic Herald recently said, and has criticized those who “anachronistically, would like to propose it again.”

Francis is not anti-capitalist, even if he criticizes the “tyranny” of “the new idolatry of money.” He told La Repubblica in an Oct. 1 interview that “if necessary,” he is for “direct intervention from the state to correct the more intolerable inequalities.”

Leaving no room for doubt, in the exhortation Francis says that while the church favors “a preferential option for the poor” it is not for “an unruly activism.”  
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