Pope Francis’ Decade-Long Reign Removes Church From Crucial Moral Debates

On March 13, 2013, I stood among the thousands gathered in Saint Peter’s Square who witnessed the moment when Jorge Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, walked out onto the balcony following his election as the 265th successor of Saint Peter as the bishop of Rome.

As I left the square that evening, I was happy. From the limited knowledge I had of this new pope — who had taken the name Francis — it was reasonable to be hopeful. His purported remarks to the College of Cardinals, which emphasized the need for the Catholic Church to not be self-referential and bogged down in internal debates that distract from its central mission, seemed very much on point.

Alas, eleven years later, things have turned out quite differently. Over the course of Francis’s pontificate, the Church has become decidedly self-referential. Since the end of 2013, it has been consumed by endless attempts to relitigate questions that are effectively settled matters as far as doctrine is concerned, from who may be ordained a priest to issues surrounding sex. Segments of the Church — or at least the progressives who dominate those parts in visible decline — are keen to relive the chaos and experimentation of the 1970s.

This approach reflects a very different agenda from that of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Both of Francis’s predecessors aimed to establish a definitive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council so as to equip the Church to evangelize the world bequeathed by modernity. The nature of that evangelization is best characterized as “critical engagement.” This requires both taking the post-Enlightenment world seriously and pointing out its deficiencies, demonstrating how the answers to each person’s ultimate questions are found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Integral to that critical engagement was an examination of Enlightenment notions of reason and an acknowledgement that, for all their strengths, their tendency to reduce reason to empiricism leaves humans unable to substantively answer moral questions. Likewise, John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s emphasis on the necessity of arriving at sound answers about the nature of the human person reflected their recognition that the question “Quid sit homo?” — “What is man?” — lies at the core of the highly charged questions that divide humanity, especially Western societies, today.

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