PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis’ five-year pontificate has not only had a broad impact on the Catholic Church, but it has also had widespread implications across human society, said speakers at a recent Villanova University conference.
Catholic prelates, theologians and lay experts in fields as diverse as economics, church history, social justice and the environment examined the pope’s vision for the church, how he is expanding the goals of the Second Vatican Council and how those efforts are being received during the April 13-14 conference.
It’s not that the pope is changing church teaching, but that he is challenging Catholics to undertake a “radical embrace of a church for the poor” in calling for a “return to the values of the Gospel, the values of mercy, justice, love and care for God’s creation,” said Barbara Wall, whose Office for Mission and Ministry at Villanova organized the conference.
The gathering, “Pope Francis, a Voice Crying Out in the World: Mercy, Justice, Love and Care for the Earth,” featured 60 speakers and an audience of 150.
Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova and a conference co-organizer, said the pope’s interpretation of Vatican II “is the most important event in church history in the last four centuries.”
Rather than rolling back Vatican II, the pope believes it is essential to orient the Catholic Church “in the world of today,” and to recover “the missionary dimension of the church,” Faggioli explained.
He said Pope Francis already has left “important legacies,” although the popular pope has faced opposition, most acutely from within the United States.
Faggioli cited issues the pontiff has raised over the past three years, including care for the environment and pastoral practices concerning married couples and family life. These have met with resistance, which Faggioli attributed to “a very active Catholic media system” in the U.S.
Francis’ writings — including “Laudato Si, on Care for Our Common Home,” “Amoris Laetitia,” “Evangelii Gaudium” and “Gaudete et Exsultate” — have generated criticism, but they need more extensive study by Catholic scholars, Faggioli suggested.
Some of the uneasiness about Pope Francis may be traced to his use of unorthodox and often folksy language to reach his audience, especially young people.
“With young people, he’s a visible embodiment of something that they still care about, more than the (institutional) church,” Faggioli said. “I’ve heard many times people say the church is ‘that,’ but he is … different.”
In Pope Francis’ view, the church’s mission of helping a person develop a mature conviction of Christian faith is more important than perpetuating a “punishment and reward system,” Faggioli said.
He echoed the presentation of Jesuit Father John O’Malley, professor of theology at Georgetown University and an expert on Vatican II.
Historically, church councils developed doctrine based on Roman legislative procedure, setting out laws and penalties for noncompliance with them. Church laws, or canons, dealt with Christians’ behavior, not the motivations for their actions, or the formation of their consciences.
At Vatican II, no new canons were issued, which was “a clue that something extraordinary was happening,” Father O’Malley said.
Rather than developing new laws to “isolate the church from external contamination,” the council gathered bishops from around the world who were “more intent on offering guidance for all … in the pursuit of holiness,” the Jesuit said.
The universal call to holiness, which respects the dignity of conscience and engages with the world, resonates strongly with Pope Francis, he added.
Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey opened the conference framing the pope’s connection with Vatican II, asking whether the church should flee the world or become its field hospital. He said the latter is the church’s true mission, using the pope’s popular image of a church that mercifully cares for those wounded on the world’s battlefield.
Cardinal Oscar Rodrigues Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, spoke about Pope Francis’ impact as the world’s first Latin American pope, an aspect explored by several conference speakers from Africa and other points in the global South.
The conference also examined the pontiff’s theological insights on medical and sexual ethics, Catholic social thought, the media and Christian discipleship.
Catholic author Austin Ivereigh weighed in on Pope Francis’ vision of ecclesiology, or theology of the church. He outlined three ways the pope is developing his vision for the renewal of “God’s holy and faithful people.”
The pope has frequently denounced clericalism, which Ivereigh defined as a “self-isolation and alienation from the people of God” by clergymen and some lay people, whom he called an “ecclesiastical lay elite.”
The pope also is trying to evangelize popular culture as an “expression of faith,” Ivereigh said. The pope stresses the need for the church to be in touch with the faith of ordinary people, and he “is inviting the church to do this, especially with the poor, and to put them at the center of the church.”
The pope also expresses, Ivereigh said, the “missionary potential of people who have accepted God’s mercy rather than a program of the institutional church.”
Gambino is director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.