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The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis

Image of The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
May 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Garry Wills
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Historian Garry Wills, who won a Pulitzer Prize, is a professor emeritus at Northwestern and author of NYT’s bestsellers What Jesus Meant, Papal Sin, Why I Am a Catholic, and Why Priests?. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

The website for the Kindle edition is

I was given the paperback edition but I give the Kindle website because it has all of his 9-pp Introduction as well as the most important first part of his 11-pp first chapter – Inclusion. The home page has a good summary. I strongly recommend scrolling down the home page to read the first customer review by Gerald T Slevin, who also covers other recent popes – please click on ‘read more’ to get all of this excellent review. Then use the ‘Look inside’ option which, as usual for a Kindle edition, begins with the book’s front cover and gives everything in between the cover and where it ends. Where the Kindle preview ends is a well-chosen place in the first chapter. Omitted are the last three pages that discuss the use of Latin in Roman Catholic writings. I feel this omitted Latin part would have been better placed in an appendix.

The author mentions Pope Francis briefly in his Introduction. The he begins a long and thorough discussion in five Parts of the papacy and influential theologians. After the introduction Pope Francis doesn’t appear again until the end of Ch. 17 – Male God. I give this ending here, after a short setup about the place of women in the Catholic Church: “It was always against the Gospel for men to treat a woman as inferior, just because the surrounding culture was patriarchal. If we are all Christ, then how can one ‘pull rank’ on a woman? She is Christ.

“Pope Francis seems to sense this. Though he said a woman priesthood is settled, that probably just means he will let others bring it about. But that doesn’t mean he cannot nudge an outcome along. John XXIII had to let the council listen to Jewish Catholics before reversing the rejection of the Covenant – but he encouraged them to think about it when he turned the matter over to Cardinal Bea. In the same way, Francis is indicating his views on Catholic women by his dealings with them, as well as by what he says. He easily uses inclusive language, as when he calls the hierarchy – not the church, but the hierarchy – ‘Mother Church.’ He said, ‘I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.’ If he says that, how can he exclude women from any offices in the church?

“This pope shows by doing. He not only treats women as equals, and consults them. He befriends to this day a woman priest. She is the widow of the radical bishop Jeronimo José Podesta, who was hunted out of Argentina by the government and disowned by the Vatican. He asked to see Bergoglio, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and he reconciled with the church on his deathbed. But in his radical days he concelebrated Mass with his wife, Clelia. The pope became her friend and confidant, and he stills calls her from Rome. That would have been scandalous in Rome not so very long ago. We can take it, rather, as a sign of hope for the future. The official church has been one of history’s sturdiest bastions of patriarchy. But it seems to be listening again to Paul, and to Jesus. ‘Clothed in Messiah, [you are] no longer ‘male and female’.” This is how Garry Wills ends Ch. 17, with his strong hope that Pope Francis wants to include women in the church hierarchy.

Earlier in Ch. 17 Wills tells us he feels strongly that the words ‘let women be silent in the gatherings’ (from Cor. 14:33-35) were a later addition to Paul. Many share this belief. Wills states: “We know how later church practice corrupted the Pauline manuscripts from the change that made female Junia become male Junias in the letter to the Romans. There Paul praises Junia and her husband Andronicus as ‘eminent emissaries’ of the Lord (Rom 16.7) Emissary, the proudest title Paul gives himself, is ‘apostolos.’ It was unthinkable to some later Christians that a woman could be an ‘apostle,’ so with a simple change of an accent mark they turned her name in the objective case to a male form for Junias. Junia and Andronicus were a preaching couple who were very close to Paul.

Wills tells us more about this in Footnote 23 of Ch. 17: “Most church fathers, and all of the Eastern church, honored ‘Saint Junia’ as a female apostle. But manuscripts from the ninth century gave the masculine accent, and Giles of Rome in the thirteenth century argued that Junia could not be right.”

In the 15-pp Ch. 19 – The Duty to Forgive – the focus is on the Roman Catholic confessional box, Peter, and confessions in recent decades. (For many centuries the pope has held “the seat of Peter.") The last paragraph of Ch. 19 says: “Pope Francis calls him ‘Peter, purified in the crucible of forgiveness.’ …”God acts by pitying and accepting. One cannot expect a pope to endorse the abandonment of a sacrament, like that of penance. But the dark past of a confessional will just fade away if we ponder his statement, noticed in my Introduction: ‘The confessional is not a torture chamber.’ Sometimes church authorities do not explicitly renounce a former position – on, say, slavery, usury, interdicts, or contraception. They just accept the fact that the People of God have moved on. With regard to confession, they have voted with their feet. On the side if mercy. The pope’s side.”

The Epilogue, finally, focuses on Pope Francis. It begins: He “does not see the church as changeless, as permanent, as predictable, but as a thing of surprises. And he has, in his pontificate so far, surprises many by things he has said or done. Some were surprised, even shocked, when he answered a question about a ‘gay lobby’ in the Vatican: ‘When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?’ For several pages Wills discusses Jesuit seminaries, the disappearing in Argentina, and how he visited the poor in the slums. Wills says: “He went to the poor to learn, not to teach. He went to find God there.” But now: “The pope in Rome can no longer ride the buses and subway, as he regularly did in Buenos Aires,” but he has kept reaching out to others. “ …”He has appointed a committee to investigate the handling of the pedophile scandal. Justice must be done, but fairly and openly.

“Welcoming change does not mean dismissing the past, as if it does not exist. It means re-inhabiting it with love, a ‘sensus fidei,‘ a reliance on the People of God. …”For Francis, being heir to Peter does not mean sitting on a throne of power but following the penitence of Peter, the sinner. His favorite music of Bach is the ‘Erbarmedich’ from the St. Matthew Passion, asking God for mercy toward Peter’s repentant tears. That kind of pope bodes well for the future of the Catholic Church.”

It is obvious to me that Garry Wills has great expectations for what Pope Francis could do to change that church, mainly by keeping in close contact with the People of God. I was looking for more about Pope Francis. I didn’t enjoy all the preliminary histories of right and wrong things the Roman Catholic Church (hierarchy, priests, and theologians) has done since its beginning – all this was just way too much for me to think about. And it was not enough about Pope Francis to satisfy me. I first thought about two stars but I finally decided on three stars.

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