In some respects, the Catholic Church is like any giant, multinational organization. It has some amount of corruption, bureaucratic dysfunction, even crime. But it's also a religious institution, which we generally (and rightly) hold to higher ethical standards than, say, Coca-Cola or ExxonMobil. The Catholic Church is also different in that its chief executive, the pope, has more control over his organization than any CEO.
Since his election in March, and especially in the past few months, Pope Francis has really shaken up the tone and timbre of the church, particularly in its attitude toward controversial issues like gay marriage and abortion. And people have noticed. Even observers prone to be more critical of the Holy See, like The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, are cautiously welcoming a new morning at the Vatican. On Wednesday, President Obama shot some praise the pope's way, too. "I have been hugely impressed with the pope's pronouncements," Obama told CNBC, when asked.
Obama added that Pope Francis' open-armed "spirit, that sense of love and unity, seems to manifest itself in not just what he says, but also what he does." But that touches on one of the criticisms (or accolades, depending whom you ask) of the new pope: He says all the right things, but outside of his personal habits and interactions, he isn't really backing up those words with action.
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That may be changing.
On Tuesday, the 125-year-old Vatican Bank — formally called the Institute for Religious Works — released its first earnings report. Ever. That's not all Pope Francis' doing. He has cracked down on financial malfeasance and created a new commission to audit the bank, but Italian financial authorities got the ball rolling in 2010 by seizing $30 million in bank assets and investigating its (now former) president in connection with money laundering. Pope Benedict XVI set up a Financial Intelligence Authority to keep the bank honest in 2011.
Also this week, Pope Francis met with a special council of eight cardinals he has impaneled to make recommendations on how to reform the church, which possibly includes a big shake-up of the Vatican's infamous Curia, or bureaucracy. It was the group's first meeting. On Wednesday, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi called the summit "encouraging," but said the council wouldn't release any documents or public statements.
The same day, however, Andrea Tornielli at La Stampa's Vatican Insider got a pretty big scoop: The pope proposed to his gathered cardinals a revamping of the way the church litigates sexual abuse allegations against priests and other Catholic clergy. The idea is to set up regional or country-specific ecclesiastical courts that would handle sex abuse cases. This is potentially a very big deal.
"Although Pope Francis has earned a reputation for taking on tough questions and shaking up the status quo," says John Allen Jr. at the National Catholic Reporter, "so far he's been relatively quiet on at least one issue that's arguably done greater harm to the image and morale of the church over the last decade than any other: The child sexual abuse scandals." Allen explains what the new system would look like:
If, on the other hand, the pope takes a lesser step, like transferring authority over sex abuse cases from the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the sometimes inefficient Roman Rota court, says Allen, "insiders might read it as downgrading the importance of the effort" to combat child sex abuse. Francis could also take bolder measures, like creating a new Vatican department focus on sexual abuse, or start tossing out bishops who mishandle abuse cases.
But that might be a step too far, even for this pope. "He has only been in the job for six months, and his promise of reforming the Curia may just be the tip of the iceberg," says Barbie Latza Nadeau at The Daily Beast. His moves so far — replacing Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, stopping the practice of granting elite priests the title of "monsignor," and suggesting that divorce and abortion may not bar contrite Catholics from taking Communion — have already "upset many of the Vatican's traditional insiders," Nadeau adds.
Still, in the church, words and tone matter. Giving wide-ranging, unguarded interviews to atheists and Jesuits makes a difference. For conservatives dismayed by Francis' freewheeling papacy, says Matthew Schmitz at First Things, "it is no use pretending there's nothing significant in this new approach."
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