"Francis . . . is attuned to the needs of the impoverished, perhaps more than any of his predecessors since John XXIII. If [he] first addresses . . .social justice, it may be the result of his pent-up frustration with the increasing gap between rich and poor"
--John Moody, Fox News and former TIME Vatican correspondent and Rome bureau chief
“Francis, Go and rebuild my Church, which you can see has fallen into ruin."
--God to St. Francis
The Catholic church’s renewal and reform effort is in its 55th year, having begun with the papacy of John XXIII in 1958. Francis will continue this renewal, which weaves between reform (John XXIII: 1958-63 and John Paul II: 1978-2005) and consolidation (Paul VI and Benedict XVI), with Francis' elevation suggesting another surge forward. That is good.
The 1.2 billion-member church faces what secularists believe to be its terminal crisis, the one resulting from the scientific progress sweeping religion aside in Europe, North America, and even Latin American cities. Relevancy is important in the Catholic fight for survival; empty churches symbolize approaching death.
The previous great Catholic renewal effort--the 100 year Counter-Reformation which began in 1545 with the Council of Trent--rebalanced Europe between Catholics and Protestants, and kept the church relevant through the next three centuries. In the present renewal, John XXIII (and Paul VI) democratized the faith with vernacular language masses, greater reliance on scripture and the life of Jesus, devolution of greater authority to bishops (over 5,000 today), and greater participation by lay people.
John Paul II is remembered for drawing developing world Catholics into full church participation. But John Paul’s greatest contribution was precipitating the Soviet empire’s collapse, which began in Poland with his 1978 selection as pope, an event that led directly to the rise of Lech Walesa, Solidarity, liberation of the Eastern Europe satellites the following decade, and finally the U.S.S.R.‘s complete break-up in 1991.
Now Francis will be going after poverty--the developing world’s greatest problem by far, however little the issue grips a Western elite fixed on birth control, abortion, and gay rights. (To those arguing population growth is bad for the economy, my response is: Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource.) Will a Catholic war on poverty restore the church’s relevance?
I would think so.