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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. JM

    He who is w/o sin, cast the first stone.

    God IS love.

    Jesus 'hung out' w/the people the self-righteous religious hypocrites looked down on. He came to 'seek the lost' like a shepherd going after a lost/wayward sheep. That is why the Bible is GOOD news. The parables are all about God seeking after each one of us, His condemnation of those who think that they are better than others, His great love for all of us.

    This world is not the end of the story. That is good news indeed.

    September 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • emmanuel

      You seek God not God seek you..Parabable are for those who cannot see and understand..Like most of the world cuz the devil blind people from the Gospel to stop them from coming to Jesus

      September 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  2. Karloff

    Next, the pope will absolve all the pedophile priests of their crimes again children. The catholic church is a vile, evil, and criminal organization.

    September 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      No, that's what a puppet pope would do. This guy's no puppet.

      September 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
      • Karloff

        Bull twinkies

        September 22, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
        • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

          That's why the Church's administration has had to issue follow-up press releases to "explain" what the Pope mean. He has no strings.

          September 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  3. Bag Boy

    Mecca
    Blankety blank out about to catch ya

    Rollin it up, got my paper
    L.A. is a friendly neighbor

    Don’t put on the upities and yuppities
    I like my dogs better

    Raised on religion, living on stealin’
    Mecca’s in my head buy not in my religion.

    September 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  4. Bag Boy

    Go now and tell the fools the truth of their misplaced worship.
    Speak loudly that religion is the true great evil on this Earth.
    This Evil affects every plant and animal the Mother gave us.

    Tell them and care not if they are vulgar, for you are the light.
    The Atheists must rise now and prepare the planet for the future.

    September 22, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • Steven Gold

      FYI this guy does not speak for secular people, and as an atheist he certainly does not speak for me. I don't believe in deities or much of the stories/writings, but to label all of religion as evil is a name calling and emotional statement. Not very good example of logical discussion. But maybe that's just me.

      September 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
      • Irony

        So, when the bible calls all that do not believe fools or swine, that's ok, since someone wrote it down...in a book. That's ok?

        September 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  5. Bag Boy

    God exists because a Grandma said so in 1952.

    God exists because kings covet great wealth and power.

    God exists because evangelists say so.

    God exists because you have a feeling.

    Evidence is not needed to establish the reality of God, only tradition.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  6. What is going on? FREEDOM

    AtheistareMorons must be a devout follower of the Westboro Church.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  7. JohnTheCatholic

    I'm a Baptist, but this Pope makes me want to convert! I like this guy.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Cover your mouth. Cover your breath.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      He does have a good message, and as an atheist I respect his move to change things for the better.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
      • Bag Boy

        I agree, my message is important.

        September 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  8. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    AtheistsareMorons is trolling with, among other things, the assertion that the causes of AIDS and the spread of AIDS should be attacked. Well and good, but the troll includes the people who have AIDS as a target. My reply was removed along with his vitriol.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  9. bostontola

    Facts:
    The bible says the earth was created before the sun, birds and whales came before land animals, bats are birds...
    The bible doesn't mention anything about bacteria, viruses, any organism smaller than the naked eye can see, no mention of solar system, galaxies, etc. no mention of atoms, periodic table, warped space-time, quantum effects, etc.

    Hypothesis 1: the bible is poetic and you can deduce these correct things if you interpret properly. God wants man to work for understanding, some wont get there unfortunately. Faith is the ultimate test anyway.

    Hypothesis 2: the bible was concieved and written by man and hence was constrained by the limit of man's knowledge at that time.

    Hypothesis 2 is a lot simpler, and there isn't any fact to the contrary. There are mountains of facts that greatly strain Hypothesis 1.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  10. Bag Boy

    You, child
    Crossing the line without knowing
    Just for being who you are
    What confusion was hard wired?
    A developing brain, healthy and ready
    Sabotaged as a child
    To the inevitable end.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  11. the AnViL™

    in regards to the roman catholic chuch:

    the vatican should be razed, its adherents scattered, and the entirety of its clergy should be burned alive on great pyres of the roman catholic canon.

    tolerance of religious idiocy is worse than religious idiocy itself.

    enough is enough

    September 22, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      There will always be these people. If we could just get them to shut it.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  12. Bag Boy

    Great servitude will pour forth from the orifices exposed by the gaping wounds left by bombs and cigarette lighters.

    This is why the nose to the statue was bent and everyone mistakenly thought it had been broken.

    That man will go to hell and so will the atheists if they don’t smell the sacrament of God in the wash basin of sacrifice. Be not afraid of the foul stench.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Seriously?

      Yeah, Quetzlcoatl will be very angry with you for worshipping the wrong god.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Polish your teeth. Remember your fish.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  13. Bag Boy

    Water your feet. Polish your teeth.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Cover your mouth. Remember your breath.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
  14. Grouch

    Hope and Change, when did Obama become the Pope?

    September 22, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  15. What is going on? FREEDOM

    Someone stealing my profile name yet again. That shows how insecure those I have talked are on here. I am quite certain that AgnosticKids (aka John P. Tarver) or AtheistareMorons stole my profile name. They just keep proving who are the insecure ones on here and who are narrowminded.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  16. bostontola

    Given that Catholicism is the biggest sect of the biggest religion in the world, I think this pope is leading them in a positive direction. As an atheist it's strange to say, I like this guy.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  17. chanruss

    The Pope is full of crap and any smart people knows this but there is a lot stupid people out there thinking he speaks to God. He does not speak to God this man is pure evil and has a very dark pass. The Christian leaders will sell the rapture to the stupid and tell them they will have to take something so the rapture will happen but that's a bunch of crap. The stupid people that consumes the substance, that the Pope along other religious leaders will pass our, will be dead. Then us smart people that are not Christians believe in the rapture will have throw your dead bodies in mass graves and bomb fires. Maybe I should get some marshmallows for the fires.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • bostontola

      "any smart people knows this", you had me right there.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Irony

      "smart people knows"
      "there is a lot stupid people"
      "a very dark pass"
      "The stupid people that consumes "
      "that the Pope along other religious leaders will pass our, will be dead"
      "Then us smart people "
      "will have throw your dead bodies"
      "bomb fires"

      Seriously? Learn to write in English...that would truly be helpful.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  18. What is going on? FREEDOM

    I get it! I admit that I'm an overweight, undereducated millennial living in my parents basement. Yes, I am being treated for multiple disorders of the mind. But I have a right to say what I believe!

    September 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  19. tc

    The church is huge and is mostly dependent on how good of a leader the local bishop is but if Francis keeps preaching the love and mercy while holding sub par people accountable, I think we can get there.

    September 22, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      I agree. I think he'll bring good change if he can serve long enough (he is old, you know). But his openness is welcoming and a move in the right direction.

      September 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  20. lewtwo

    new pope, same pedophile priests being protected ... nothing changes.

    September 22, 2013 at 11:54 am |
    • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      Not every priest is a pedophile, but it is an immense failure in trust. And it keeps going on. Still, in view of this, why do people keep going and giving money to support this kind of establishment? Makes me wonder. Is being socially connected so important that parishoners won't stand up to the church?

      September 22, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
      • doobzz

        I don't think anyone is saying all priests are pedophiles. The OP was referring to the Vatican's continued conspiracy of silence and coverup.

        The gist of Crimen solicitationis is that you must go first to the RCC if you or your child has been abused by clergy and NOT to the police. The RCC then decides whether the allegations should be pursued. This is the point at which the RCC typically reassigns the priest and hushes up the victim however they can.

        Anyone who fails to follow this procedure is at risk of excommunication. That's a huge deal to a Catholic, and that's how they keep people scared and silent.

        September 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
        • Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

          Yeah, that makes complete sense. Excommunication is a social death sentence.

          September 22, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
        • doobzz

          It also keeps priests and nuns who may have knowledge of crimes quiet.

          September 22, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
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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.