The Strained Papacy of Pope Francis

I have friends who were raised Catholic and have remained in the Church for all the years that leadership was highly conservative, rule-bound, stifling and condescending toward women. My women friends remained because they had hope that someone like Pope Francis would eventually come — someone more pastoral, more welcoming, more hopeful and loving than scolding.  A couple of my dearest friends were Catholic nuns, now dead, that I met at the College of St. Elizabeth, and who dedicated their lives to ministry in a church they believed was the embodiment of a loving God on earth.

In some ways the Catholic church seems to be imploding in the long-overdue reckoning for its past sins, and the damage is falling at Pope Francis’ feet — fairly or not. The pedophilia scandal, at least in the United States, is finally being treated as the criminal matter it is and has always been. Increasingly state attorneys general are announcing investigations of both the crimes against children and the cover-ups. You can’t go much higher in the church roster of powerful men than Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the recently disgraced cleric to the powerful and the rich who forced seminarians into his bed, or Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whose resignation was accepted by the Pope over the issue of shielding priests who had committed abuse.

No less horrific is the aftermath of the mother and baby homes in Ireland run by Catholic nuns, or the Magdalen laundries where girls who became pregnant out of wedlock or who simply seemed too flirtatious to their local priest were held in conditions of brutal slave labor, some for life. Their babies were taken and sold to wealthy Americans, the proceeds going to the local church.

The most notorious of the mother and baby homes, perhaps, is the one in Tuam. The Irish government has just approved the excavation of the property, now closed, where hundreds of fetal remains and those of infants and toddlers who died there of malnutrition, disease, and brutal treatment were thrown into an old septic system. Those remains that can be identified through DNA evidence will be, and all of the remains will be given a dignified and respectful burial.

I think the mounting scandals, along with intrigue in the Vatican spearheaded by conservative clergy who have never liked this Pope, might be enough to take him down. There is no one remotely in his shadow, having a similar philosophy of the Church as a pastoral body, waiting in the wings. The next Pope is likely to be back in the conservative mode, and I don’t know what my still-Catholic friends will do then.

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