September 21st, 2013
11:41 AM ET
By John L. Allen Jr., CNN
ROME (CNN) - Pope Francis has sketched a vision of a Catholic Church that’s more welcoming – to women, to homosexuals, to divorced and remarried believers, to pretty much everybody –- and less invested in the culture wars.
In a now famous interview published Thursday, the pope said he knows some militants want him to toss around more fire and brimstone. But he insists that Catholic positions on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage are already well known, and anyway, “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
None of that implies a change in church teaching, but it does suggest a fairly serious shift in tone. The question now becomes, is this just the pope talking? Or is he capable of bringing the rest of the church along with him?
Despite the mythology of Roman Catholicism as a top-down monolith, the truth is that it’s actually one of the most decentralized institutions on Earth.
There are only about 3,000 personnel in the Vatican directing the affairs of a church that counts 1.2 billion members, which means that Rome doesn’t have the manpower to micromanage anything but exceptional cases.
Probably 90% of the decisions that matter – what pastor will be assigned to which parish, or what tithes will be used for –- are made at the local level.
Popes trying to steer this colossus in a new direction, therefore, need middle managers as well as the rank and file to pull in the same direction, and experience suggests they don’t always fall in line.
Pope John Paul II, nearly 27 years, exhorted the church to be more evangelical, more daring about taking its message to the streets, and while he unleashed powerful new energies – think about World Youth Days, for instance – that missionary aspiration still remains a work in progress.
Similarly, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI desired a church more appreciative of tradition and more focused on its core identity, and again most observers would say the end result over eight difficult years was a mixed bag.
If Francis is to bring the Catholic Church into line with his more pastoral and compassionate vision, two fronts seem especially critical.
First is personnel. Nothing a pope does to shape culture in the church is more important than naming the roughly 5,100 bishops of the world, who set the tone in their own backyards.
A new papal direction may be invigorating, but if people don’t pick up the same vibe from their local bishops and pastors, over time it will only seem like sound and fury signifying little.
To date Francis hasn’t made many flagship picks except for his own successor in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but he’ll have to do so soon, since archbishops in critical locales such as Madrid, Cologne and Chicago are all older than 75, the normal retirement age.
Popes typically rely on their nuncios, or ambassadors, around the world to recommend new bishops.
In June, Francis gave his nuncios their marching orders, saying he wants bishops who are “close to the people, fathers and brothers” as well as “gentle, patient and merciful.” He also said they shouldn’t have “the psychology of princes.”
How well he spots talent to fit that profile will help determine whether his dream of moving past what he called “a church of small-minded rules” becomes reality.
The other key test is structural reform, beginning in the Vatican and radiating outward, perhaps especially on financial transparency and the fight against child sexual abuse.
Scandals in those areas have plagued the Vatican and the wider church in recent years, making it difficult for many people to see Catholicism as a vehicle for compassion.
Francis has set up three commissions to ponder reform, including a body of eight cardinals from around the world set to hold its first meeting in Rome from October 1-3.
If those groups don’t deliver significant recommendations, which are embraced and implemented by the pope, once again his rhetoric about reforming the church may ring hollow.
Popes play many roles, including prophet and CEO. Francis has delivered a stunning debut as the church’s voice of conscience and spiritual guide; now he has to get down to the brass tacks of management to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.
John L. Allen Jr. is CNN’s senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.