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Unresolved issues that plague an extraordinary pontificate

by Robert Mickens
One of the most remarkable characteristics of Pope Francis is his capacity—demonstrated throughout his lifetime—to carefully listen to viewpoints different from his own and, in the end, be willing to change his mind and even his entire way of thinking about a particular issue.
This is all the more notable for a man in his 80s, a time of life when most people are already deeply set in their ways and not exactly receptive to opinions that threaten their own well-established certitudes.
But on at least two important issues that pose a challenge to the Roman Church’s credibility and its future, many Catholics feel the pope has been less willing to listen to other points of view. More precisely, they see him dragging his heels as others try to force him to deal with these items.
The first issue is the worldwide clergy sex abuse scandal, most specifically how to hold to account those bishops who have ignored, attempted to hide, or failed to report such clerical crimes.
The second is the role of women in Church and society, specifically how to address the injustice of a global Catholic community (especially the Vatican) that continues to treat women largely as second-class members and excludes them from almost of all of the Church’s most important decision-making positions and structures.
Recently, an international Catholic women’s group called Voices of Faith announced that, for the fifth year in a row, it was holding a big event in Rome to mark the March 8 celebration of International Women’s Day.
Since its beginnings in 2014, the gathering has always been held inside the Vatican. But this year the venue has been moved to the nearby headquarters of the Society of Jesus.
That’s because Kevin Cardinal Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, refused permission for the group to hold the event inside the Vatican walls unless it disinvited special guest, Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, and two other women.
Voices of Faith organisers, the Goetz Foundation and several other Catholic family foundations (especially from the United States), refused the cardinal’s demand and sought refuge with the Jesuits, who have been supportive of their Rome meetings over the years.
But, ironically, history’s first Jesuit pope has been much less so. In fact, he’s been invisible. The first-ever Voices of Faith event in 2014 was held just across the street from his residence in a small cinema at the former offices of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. 
Although organisers had openly invited Pope Francis to join the some 200 people (mostly women) who were taking part in that historic event, he did not even respond.
The pope’s snub of one Catholic women’s organisation—even on the highly symbolic International Women’s Day—is not sufficient evidence to cast a negative verdict on his policy or viewpoint on women in Church and society. But it is indicative of a problem that many people believe he has on this issue.
And it can be summed up in this comment that a participant at that very first Voices of Faith gathering made to me: “One thing we really hope is that (Pope Francis) will sit down with women theologians—there are many—and listen to them, rather than base his thoughts on stereotypes of feminist theology that some in the Church have successfully perpetuated.”
To date he has not done so. And that is a problem.
Yes, he has established a commission to study the role of women deacons in the early Church and, as some have pointed out, this has allowed people to speak more freely about the possibility of at least some sort of ordained ministry for women. 
Pope Francis has opened, even if only slightly, a door that had been slammed tightly shut.
However, on appointments, he has done little to advance women to prominent positions with the Vatican. He certainly has done nothing to surpass milestones set by other popes.
Quite frankly, there’s not much more to say. Pope Francis uses old-fashioned and sometimes misogynist language when referring to women. This is probably a result, at least in part, of his Latin American upbringing and is also thanks to the ecclesiastical and clerical formation he received—even if he has tried to bravely denounce the negative aspects of both of these influences.
Women make up at least half the membership of the Catholic community. And they surely outnumber men significantly in terms of their participation at Mass and other liturgical events, as well as their active involvement in Church-sponsored charities and service projects.
They cannot and should not be denied their rightful voice in the Church’s decision-making structures at any and all levels. 
The men in the Church—even the pope—need to listen more carefully to their voices, including their calls to explore an expanded ministerial role for women.
Pope Francis has to do more to gain the trust and confidence of Catholic women and can do so by meeting regularly with them. Up to now it does not seem he has done so to any significant extent.
There is no need to re-hash the shortfalls of this pontificate when it comes to sexual abuse. Pure and simple, and despite the trope parroted by papal apologists, Pope Francis has not made dealing with this issue a major priority, either. It took him 10 months as pope before he even made public mention of the phenomenon of sex abuse—and that was just in passing.
But he has come a long a way, albeit having been dragged to deal with an issue that bogged down his Bavarian predecessor’s pontificate. Credit goes to at least two cardinals in his C9 council of advisors—Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Reinhard Cardinal Marx of Munich—who have been among the Church’s most pro-active senior bishops in dealing with clergy sex abuse.
While they have tried to push or pull Pope Francis to also be more pro-active on the issue, the pope has shown ambivalence. He has basically followed the protocols that were already in place before his election to the papacy and has taken little initiative to strengthen or expand upon them. His biggest failure, though, has been his lack of ability or will to devise a mechanism for holding bishops accountable for their misdeeds. 
He almost got there in June 2015, when he accepted a recommendation from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, chaired by Cardinal O’Malley. The pope agreed to form a judiciary section within the tribunal of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which would have the authority to judge bishops “with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.”
But as one page of the calendar gave way to another, suddenly a whole year had gone by and the judiciary section was still non-existent. Finally in June 2016, a full 12 months on, Pope Francis scrapped the whole CDF-tribunal thing and issued a motu proprio putting the onus of judging negligent bishops on the Congregation for Bishops and three other congregations that  deal with bishops in other areas—Eastern Churches, religious orders and mission territories (Propaganda Fide).
None of these offices has shown even a small sign of transparency or has released any information on the cases against bishops they presumably have been asked to handle. Thus, the issue of bishop accountability has once again faded into the shadows. That is, it had until the pope’s recent travels to South America.
In off-the-cuff comments to reporters in Chile, he single-handedly put the issue back on the front page of newspapers when, with a flash of irritation, he staunchly defended Bishop Juan Barros, who has been accused for years of covering up the sexual abuse committed by a priest-mentor.
In no uncertain terms Francis insisted that the accusers were slandering the bishop. He then told journalists on his flight back to Rome that he would stand by Bishop Barros until he was shown evidence to support the accusations of cover-up.
A week later the Vatican press office issued a statement saying the pope had “recently received some information” regarding the Barros case and had decided to send Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the Vatican’s most credible investigator of clergy sex abuse cases, to Chile to look more deeply into the situation.
Why the sudden about-face? What was this “some information” the pope received and how recently did he receive it? The Vatican statement, as usual, was vague. It did not say whether this was new information, just some information.
Pope Francis and his aides obviously felt the his credibility in dealing with sex abuse had taken a beating. By sending Archbishop Scicluna to Chile, the pope has shown willingness to be vulnerable and even to be proven wrong in his assessment of Bishop Barros. He is to be applauded for this. It is another important step in his slowly evolving approach to dealing with the various facets of the clergy sex abuse phenomenon. But it should not be the last.
Dispatching a Vatican envoy to investigate the actions or inactions of a South American bishop is only a personal, sovereign and administrative act. It is a one-off that stands in isolation from any permanently established, transparent and clearly structured mechanism to investigate and judge the Church’s bishops. Such a mechanism is urgently needed. Perhaps Pope Francis will finally unleash (or is already unleashing) a process that will eventually achieve that. 
In an otherwise extraordinary and hope-inspiring pontificate, it is disappointing to have to admit that Pope Francis has shown a lack of energy and initiative in dealing with sex abuse among the clergy and in exploring ways to better integrate women into all facets of life in the Catholic Church.
This pope is much better that. And he can do better on both fronts. UCAN