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Opening windows onto a closed Church

Pope John XIII is famous for opening the windows to let fresh air into the Church at the beginning of Vatican II, but in his own way, Pope Francis is also opening windows to the breath of the Spirit to blow through the musty corridors that describe and define life at the top of Church authority.

One of the major hallmarks of the pontificate of Pope Francis is his encouragement of open discussion. Although he has not come down on one side or the other of often heated debates, frustrating those at one extreme who say he is eroding Church teaching and those at the other extreme who complain he has not pushed progress, he is definitely in a listening mood.

The biblical parables he selects to illustrate his homilies and letters encourage dialogue and push people to listen intently to what they may not agree with, urging diligent attention to a variety of opinion.

Even theologians like Father Hans Küng, who has been pushed to the silent perimeters of Church life over recent decades—his licence to teach theology was revoked in 1979—has been welcomed back into discussions on the touchy topic of papal infallibility.

On March 9, Father Küng wrote an open letter to the pope asking for what he termed a free and impartial discussion on papal infallibility and the authority of bishops.

The 88-year-old Swiss theologian received a reply from the pope on March 20, saying that the debate is to be encouraged and, although Father Küng did not release any details from the letter, he did say that it does not set any restrictions on discussion.

Father Küng describes his work as promoting understanding among Christian denominations, addressing the question of divorce, women’s ordination, mandatory celibacy and, above all, leadership in the Catholic Church.

In addition, Father Charles Curran, who in 1985 was told that he could no longer teach theology in the name of the Church, is once again back on the Catholic circuit in the United States of America, addressing ministry to the same-sex attracted on campuses of Catholic universities.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, in April this year the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in conjunction with the international Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, held a symposium at the Vatican to challenge an old sacred cow—the Just War Theory—which in various forms the Church has used to justify wars for well over a millennium.

Pope Francis sent a highly supportive letter to the symposium imparting his blessing on its deliberations. This is not surprising, as he has also made peace a trademark issue of his pontificate, but it is a daring move for a pope who receives much of his support from countries which are highly militarised, with their armies involved in almost every bunfight the world has to offer.

Pope Francis is doing his utmost to open windows in the Church and is meeting with massive opposition, as the synod in October last year evidenced.

It seems that without a constructive re-visioning of papal leadership, it will not be possible for Pope Francis to lead the Church on a path of real renewal and, without fresh insight into the dogma of infallibility, his windows may only open onto a closed Church. JiM