Francis a complete break from predecessors, conference says

Washington — With his papacy passing the one-year mark last month, many Catholics are already asking how Pope Francis stacks up against his predecessors -- particularly Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

They ask, for example, how Francis' special focuses -- his continued references to a "poor church for the poor" or his simple, direct manner of communication -- fit into the wider scheme of the papacy. Is Francis just another pope or truly a new phenomenon for the 1.2 billion member Catholic church?

Among different perspectives at a theological conference Friday at Jesuit-run Georgetown University that featured more than a dozen academics evaluating Francis, one theme was constant: Francis, the experts said, is a complete break from his predecessors, especially Benedict and John Paul II.

In the words of Gerard Mannion, a theologian who helped organized the one-day event centered on Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"): "There is no sugar-coating [it.]"

Calling the exhortation "ecclesiological dynamite," Mannion said "it is difficult for anyone working in fields such as ecclesiology to reach any conclusion other than the simple fact that on so many of the most important issues, there is very, very little substantive continuity with the ecclesial agenda of Pope Francis' predecessors."

"We have entered ... a moment of cognitive dissonance in the church where things are changing rapidly and yet many fear change more than anything else," said Mannion, a senior research fellow at the Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

The Berkley Center organized Friday's event -- titled "A new vision for the church: Pope Francis' agenda for the church, world, and social justice" -- to draw together experts in the three separate areas to help evaluate the impact of Francis' exhortation in each.

The first session, focused on the apostolic exhortation's ecclesiology, or vision of the shape and structure of the global church, brought the most agreement among the experts present.

While they all did not put it in as sharp relief as Mannion, who at one point said Francis "wants to radically change how the church goes about its practice and business," they all agreed the shift in emphasis is real.

"This shift is new and substantial," said Dennis Doyle, a professor of religious studies at the Marianist-run University of Dayton in Ohio, who said Francis is bringing about a new "synthesis" between theological ideas and pastoral practices in the Catholic church.

Doyle said a small but key change you can see in Francis' exhortation is his repeated references to the church as the "People of God" -- the phrase used most frequently during the Second Vatican Council -- rather than the "Mystical Body of Christ," the phrase often preferred by Benedict or John Paul II.

Francis' focus on the "People of God," Doyle said, evinces "a church on a journey ... a church as yet unfinished." It is a church "that includes everyone, not just the clergy and the vowed religious," he said.

Sandra Mazzolini, a professor of missiology at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, said Francis' writings are having "profound ecclesiological implications," particularly in his focus on the possibility of decentralization of church structures away from the Vatican.

At one point in Evangelii Gaudium, for example, Francis mentions the Second Vatican Council's call for bishops' conferences to contribute more concretely in governing the church, writing: "This desire has not been fully realized."

Such decentralization, Mazzolini said, would imply a "new way" of exercising the pope's role as the leader of the church focused on the relationships local bishops have with their people.

Francis, she said, is encouraging those local bishops to have a commitment to "encourage and develop the means of participation" among their people in the church. The pope particularly wants them to partake in "pastoral dialogue out of a desire to listen to everyone and not only those who would tell him what he would like to hear," she said.

In other areas, Mazzolini said, the pope "rejects the identification of Christian doctrine with a monolithic doctrine guarded and leaving no room for nuance."

The pope recognizes that situation of the church in the word "demands that we constantly seek ways of expressing truth in a language that brings out their abiding newness," she said.

Another focus of Friday's event was on how Francis and his exhortation have shifted Catholics' focus toward the poor and marginalized in society, particularly in his repeated critiques of the global market capitalist system.

Speaking during a panel on that subject, Mary Doak, an associate professor of theology at the University of San Diego, said Francis critiques an "economy of exclusion, using up and discarding people as well as goods."

"He most certainly is addressing the United States of America" on this subject, said Doak, who also said Francis is identifying capitalism as an idol that "is distorting culture and society as all false gods do."

Among others taking part in Friday's event at Georgetown were: Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center and former editor of Jesuit-run America magazine; Fr. Virgilio Elizondo, a professor of Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame; Maureen O'Connell, an associate professor of religion at LaSalle University; and Mercy Sr. Maryanne Loughry, associate director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia.

Organizers of the event say they plan to make videos of the presenters' talks available at their website.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR national correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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