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September 21st, 2013
11:41 AM ET

Can Pope Francis make his vision a reality?

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.

MORE ON CNN: Pope Francis: Church can't 'interfere' with gays

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.

MORE ON CNN: The pope said what? Six stunners from Francis

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. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Leaders • Pope Francis

soundoff (2,596 Responses)
  1. Chris

    This is the PC/PR Pope for the 21st century. He offers eternal life with no faith needed; just be good. He offers peace with God to those who do not want to acknowledge that their lifestyle might be offensive to a Holy God. He offers milk toast for any type of doctrine. This world will love him.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      As an atheist I say, "hardly." He's reminding/reviving what love is all about.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  2. Ed T Duck

    Pope and Change

    September 22, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  3. Tallgrass05

    The core tenets of Catholicism remain unchanged. Same male domination, bigotry, and backwards thinking inside a shallow but prettier package.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Mr. Duckworth

      Thank God – yes the core principles spoken by Jesus and directly handed down to us thru the Popes remain unchanged. You either believe in Jesus or you don't – I'll stick with the Church and Jesus thank you and good luck – we'll continue to pray for people who need to see the light.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:39 am |
      • TheScienceEnthusiast1130

        @Mr. Duckworth

        Are you THAT ignorant?

        September 22, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Buddy

      Anti-theists remain the same lying bigots they've always been. I'm not Catholic.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      They do, but change takes time. People have to learn to accept new things. It won't happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere. Another side of this is that a larger number of "nones" have gotten used to practicing what they believe are loving ways, as opposed to what the church was teaching them (have to include all christians in this).

      September 22, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  4. Marcos

    The pope is just a politician, and not a men of God. If he was a men of God he would follow Godly principles found in his bible that clearly go against what he is doing.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      Oh my, not at all. He is practicing the true love he has and knows in his heart. As an atheist I say, "Good for him!"

      September 22, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • truthprevails1

      You mean joining the 21st century? Can't have that now, it might break down the craziness and cause people to stop following the bible...silly human's, what are they thinking...advancing in this world-how dare they!

      September 22, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Mr. Duckworth

      Hi Marcos, The Pope is the bearer of the torch that goes directly back to St Peter to Jesus himself. The Pope passes on the main beliefs that Jesus said – that's all. Of course he's just a man also and a humble sinner (like Pope Francis said) – but he simply passes on the torch and light of Jesus said directly. No one has, or can prove this fact wrong. Those opposed to the concepts Jesus taught fight most harshly against the Pope and lie about the Church. This has been going on for 1000's of years and the Church survives in this fallen world – because of Jesus. We will pray for people mislead like you – God-bless.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:47 am |
      • Richard Cranium

        "No one has, or can prove this fact wrong"

        Nor can anyone prove it right, making it not a fact.

        September 22, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • TheScienceEnthusiast1130

      Oh wait...

      The purpose of "religion" IS "politics".

      September 22, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  5. judith

    How about an effort to eradicate poverty? A good start would be changing the ridiculous antiquated view about contraception. Advocating for a redistribution of wealth would also be a a wonderful idea.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Mr. Duckworth

      Hi Judith and all like Judith – The Church is the largest charitable organization in the world serving the poor thru sisters and priests worldwide (this is the huge good the Church that's the main thing and everyone loses sight of, when they focus on the minor mistakes). The Church ministers to more HIV people than any other organization in the world also. We already do a tremendous amount to eradicate Poverty. How about you ask other organizations in other religions and agnostic orgs to join us and also help on a large scale?? Join us to help, instead of standing by and pointing the finger – be real.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  6. Richard Dale

    Some american right wingnut is going assassinate this pope.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  7. God

    This Pope is kinda cool. I'm agnostic and I still like him. If he really practices what he preaches, maybe he can make the world a better place.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      I'm and atheist, but I agree with you, I think he can make this world a better place.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  8. Bill

    So much guessing about the Pope. Popes (in general) have been pretty consistent in practising what they preach. Francis is a great Pope and is doing already great things for the Church and beyond the Church.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • beatstockpromotersdotcom

      The pope is not good and the Catholic religion along with other religions should be banned from the US

      September 22, 2013 at 10:05 am |
      • snowboarder

        thanks for the comment comrade.

        September 22, 2013 at 10:09 am |
        • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

          I think you've been misled. Atheism does not equal communism. But, the need for some religious folks to turn the U.S. into a christian nation does deserve our attention.

          September 22, 2013 at 10:40 am |
      • Keith

        RELIGION is without doubt the greatest scourge that there has ever been, it has caused more slaughter and suffering to mankind than anything else.
        The mindless sheep are coming out of their holes to insult and demean you, IGNORE THEM.
        They are no different from the brainless idiots who vote for the GOP when the GOP is taking food out of their mouths

        September 22, 2013 at 10:23 am |
        • AtheistsareMorons

          Wrong, atheism have also killed millions of people thru centuries, therefor it makes you as bad as any other group of people.

          September 22, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Bob

      Banning is not the way to go. This country stands for free speech. Instead, we should continue to expose just how ridiculous and self-contradictory Christian dogma is, such as for example the wacky belief that an omnipotent being would need to "sacrifice" a son to save anything.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  9. qwqw

    CNN is having a party misinterpreting the Pope's actual words.

    September 22, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Doan

      Funny that "god" can't help his messenger get his message out accurately, then. Another indication that the god does not exist.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  10. cccynic

    Pope joins LGBT.....Will march in next years GAY PRIDE parade.......Dream on.

    September 22, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  11. socalpimp

    The liberal media is falling over itself misinterpreting the popes words...hoping for deviants to be allowed in the church

    September 22, 2013 at 9:51 am |
    • Weasley

      If the Church let you in, then why not the "deviants?"

      September 22, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  12. Cassarit

    Yeah we Catholics definitely need change. We need to change the Pope.

    September 22, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  13. bostontola

    As an atheist, I don't see any change in position, just a change in emphasis. This pope is saying he is not a one or two issue leader. He is not going to get wrapped around the axle by a couple of social issues that the US is obsessed with. That sounds like a leader that won't be manipulated by interest groups or the media. I think the RCC is finally being led by a person with their eye on the ball and they will benefit from that (the RCC will likely win the membership drive in Asia and Africa over the other Christian sects).

    September 22, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      But you have to remember, change takes time. Apply a small force to a glass rod and you can bend it into the shape of a pretzel. Apply too much force and it snaps. The hardline conservatives in the Church don't like this, but many (with money) who have left the church, do like this. A change in emphasis is still change.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:49 am |
      • bostontola

        You may have assumed that was connoted something negative with no change in position, I wasn't. He really can't change position because the position is defined in fundamental dogma. I read his comments as saying; "Sure hom.ose.xuality is a sin, but we are all sinners, don't single out that sin as worse than other sins."

        September 22, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • dikelmm1

      Exactly. He just doesn't want the church to be a one or two issue church involved in electoral politics.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  14. Veritas

    Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken. It's the same old anti-rational, parasitic dinosaur with a new paint job. The Catholic Church is declining for the same reason Scientology is in decline: its bizarre dogmas & rituals can't stand the bright lights of the information age. Knowledge is the enemy of religion. Once you break the spell of tradition and indoctrination, the whole thing starts falling apart. Becoming a geriatric 2nd & 3rd world religion is the last stop before oblivion.

    September 22, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      Oh, I think you are wrong there. The church embraces evolution – Southern Baptists do not. If they get this right, the Southern Baptists are in trouble. But this is near term. In the long run, I think common sense will prevail.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:45 am |
      • Ted

        No, in general he's right. The "church" you refer to used to oppose evolution and other scientific understanding, even to the point of punishing the scientists, but has changed its position repeatedly and had to back down.

        Religion really is on the way out. Say goodbye to your foolish superstitions. They don't hold up in the light of scientific progress and knowledge.

        September 22, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  15. wow

    I think the idea all along is follow the leader. He has spoken, so you best be changing your views!

    September 22, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      Only if it makes sense.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  16. jag

    What is CNN looking for the Pope to deliver?? he has spoken his mind is that not good enough?? it is the people who have to change and make changes!!

    September 22, 2013 at 9:31 am |
    • David

      That's exactly what the article said...

      September 22, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  17. Dan

    Why does anyone listen to the guy in the funny hat who thinks there is an invisible guy in the sky?

    September 22, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • wow

      Yes Billions

      September 22, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • Bwain

      His hat is funny looking. He has never said there is an invisible guy in the sky, though.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      "the guy in the funny hat who thinks there is an invisible guy in the sky"

      As an atheist, I have to say, this is a tired old, hateful statement. Please retire it, it doesn't help our cause.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  18. Cues who

    Pope and Change–I certainly hope it's better than what we've had from the current US Administration!

    September 22, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  19. Merlin

    Unless your are a practicing Catholic, why does it matter?

    September 22, 2013 at 9:26 am |
    • Tell it like it is

      Did you read the part about "pretty much everybody"?

      September 22, 2013 at 9:28 am |
    • cccynic

      Do you feel the same as myself?...I neither need,want nor welcome their approval.

      September 22, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  20. Ken

    Pope Francis is living his life and steering the Catholic Church in a direction that he feels follows the teaching of Jesus. A direction the Catholic Church bureaucracy lost a long, long time ago. I hope he continues to change the Catholic Church and accomplishes all he can. He may well turn out to be the best Pope since St. Peter himself.

    September 22, 2013 at 9:24 am |
    • Tell it like it is

      Pope Francis is steering the church in a direction that will put more cash in the coffers. Nothing more, nothing less.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:28 am |
      • Ken

        I don't believe that's his motive, but if you believe that, then don't put any of your money in the offering plate at your local Catholic Church when you're attending Mass.

        September 22, 2013 at 9:35 am |
        • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

          Agree. I don't believe that's his motive, either. I think he's turned out to be a refreshing view towards embracing more, and not less.

          September 22, 2013 at 9:42 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.