..."He was quickly adopted by liberals in the Catholic Church as potentially the greatest harbinger of change since John XXIII who had died in 1963. At the same time, those on the church’s right caught their breath, fearing their long run of untrammelled dominance in Rome since the late 1960s might now be slipping away.
But the conservatives’ worries were misplaced. Pope Francis may be an informal leader, but he is most assuredly Catholic. There have been no significant changes in church teaching or discipline since he was elected to office – and it is now hard to see any taking place under him.
What he has done is allow a certain ambiguity around the margins – for example on such issues as whether divorced and remarried Catholics may receive Communion. He has allowed more room for the complexity of human life.
The institution has begun to breathe more easily these past five years in applying church teaching to specific situations, and there has been a greater emphasis on compassion than on the letter of the law.
This has alarmed certain conservative Catholics who prefer red lines rather than fuzzy ones, but it does not nearly go far enough for those liberal Catholics. Their expectation of rapid change in an institution as old as the Catholic Church suggested a certain naivety.
The week just gone may have restored, somewhat, their fading faith in Pope Francis. The announcement last Wednesday that he had approved the canonisation of Archbishop Oscar Romero was a much needed fillip for the liberal wing.
Romero was assassinated by a death squad while saying Mass in El Salvador on March 24th, 1980 after criticising the regime in that country. (Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict had resisted calls for Romero’s beatification, lest that be interpreted as a nod towards the more radical liberation theology of South America.)
Last Wednesday Francis also announced that Pope Paul VI was to be canonised. Paul VI is most remembered, possibly unfairly, for his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which sustained the church’s ban on the use of artificial means of contraception. One saint to the left in the church then, and one saint to the right.
Another point of interest for the Catholic Church’s liberals this week was news from America. Survey findings published on Tuesday by the respected Pew Research Center in Washington found that 84 per cent of American Catholics retain a favourable view of Pope Francis “virtually identical to the share who expressed a positive view of the pope after the first year of his pontificate. Roughly nine-in-ten US Catholics describe Pope Francis as ‘compassionate’ and ‘humble’.”
Such confidence, though, is not in response to any significant change brought about by Pope Francis. The fundamentals of the Catholic Church have not altered since that damp evening of March 13th, 2013.
Vocations are still decline in the western world and the priesthood itself is in danger of disappearing. Ireland exemplifies the shift. In the late 19th century St Patrick’s College Maynooth was the largest seminary in the world. Now it is the only one in Ireland, and has just 36 seminarians. The average age of an Irish priest is almost 70. Pope Francis hasn’t slowed this trend.
Weekly Irish Mass attendance continues to drop, towards the more typical low 20 per cents of the rest of Catholic Europe. Attendance has almost disappeared in working-class urban areas and is dominated by older people.