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Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism edited by Gerald Mannion

03 November 2017

Christopher Hill finds out the conclusions of an analytical study

THREE days before Pope Francis’s first Apostolic Exhortation was published, the American commentator George Weigel informed a packed meeting in Baltimore that the new Pope’s first major teaching document would be in bland continuity with his two papal predecessors.

Gerard Mannion teaches at Georgetown University and is a senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is also founder of the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network. He and 11 collaborators from the United States, Australia, Austria, and Italy disagree with Weigel, and give their reasons. For those asking whether the current pontificate marks a real change or only one of style, this is an essential book to read.

Though Francis published an earlier encyclical, Lumen Fidei, it was essentially Benedict’s work. Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), is very much his own work. It does not set out a programme of reforms, but it does lay down the fundamental principles of his primacy. There are repetitions and overlaps in these essays, but all the contributors make distinct contributions. These cover Francis’s reception of Vatican II, his kenotic understanding of ministry, his ecclesiology, the reform of ecclesial structures, the unity of his social vision and evangelism, Francis’s global vision, and the renewal of both ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue.

A point made by more than one contributor concerns Francis’s debt to both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. Francis intentionally quotes Pope John’s speech at the opening of the Second Vatican Council on the substance of doctrine as being one thing and its expression another. Homage to Paul VI is given by reference to that pope’s encyclical on evangelisation, Evangelii Nuntiandi — a text that Archbishop Donald Coggan was particularly impressed by. Francis quotes Paul VI 22 times. The exhortation’s hybrid title is drawn from Paul VI and from Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes.

Francis quotes Vatican II 20 times, especially on the laity as People of God, the Church as a mystery, and the Church as sensus fidei (the sense of faith of the whole people), on scripture, on the legitimate autonomy of culture, on dioceses as the place of an evangelism proclaimed for everyone, and on the importance of inter-religious dialogue. Put together, they represent a clear shift from Pope Benedict’s more fearful internal ecclesial agenda, and a new emphasis on evangelism and the pastoral context of mission rather than the preservation of doctrinal purity.

The essayists argue that this is what the pre-conclave discussions asked for in a new pope, something also affirmed by the late Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. There are interesting discussions on the parallels between doctrinal absolutism and capitalistic absolutism, and Francis’s clear teaching that to make the market absolute is idolatrous. Social teaching is not a mere preliminary to preaching the gospel.

Francis is clear that the Pope must not take the place of the local bishop, and on the need for continuing reform. He emphasises that to be “dialogical” is not simply to listen to “who would like to tell him what he would like to hear” — all bishops, please note. Francis emphasises the need for true participation and for the conversion of the central structures of the Church, including the papacy itself — following John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint. He calls for the development of episcopal conferences and their standing (or lack of it). Significantly, he actually quotes them: a new thing for a teaching document.

Francis’s debt to liberation theology is also carefully analysed. On culture, he very specifically does not privilege the Graeco-Hellenistic European over other global cultures (here qualifying his predecessor). As for the future, Francis gives priority to time; that is, to process rather than quick results, to moving voluntarily, even with different voices, rather than the enforcement of uniformity.

This important book documents real change, not just style; but we will need Francis’s own patience (his priority of time) to experience the change that he invites.


The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford and President of the Conference of European Churches.


Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism: “Evangelii Gaudium” and the papal agenda

Gerard Mannion, editor

CUP £75


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