Spirituality and ethics are now in the hands of the people. What difference can the new Pope make?




How wise commentators are after the event. How they continue to project their own hopes on the new Pope Francis. Give the man a chance for Heaven’s sake!  On the balcony he certainly displayed a confident MC’s touch. But talk of the huge burden of responsibility may be misplaced. Apart from vague goodwill, do many people really expect much from him?  Too low expectations will dismay the upholders of the Church’s authority more than too high.

The Pope’s attitude to the poor and ordinary people may warm hearts but Catholic social teaching on economics is no more reliable than it is on sexuality. He may show more charity over sexual behaviour and women but a real shift to bring understanding of sexuality into line with human experience seems unlikely . This softening may turn out to be more disillusioning than the old bonkers hard lines -“ I love you but you’re still wrong.”

Whatever touch on the tiller of the Vatican “barque” the new Pope may make, the old days have gone forever, not only the era of John Charles Mc Quaid  but even of  JP 2’s visit to Ireland 33 years ago.  The Irish Times spells it out:

In the 2011 census 84 per cent of the population of the Republic ticked the “Roman Catholic ” box. Yet weekly Mass attendance is as low as 30 to 33 per cent and falling. Still good by Europe an standards, but look at the age profile of those attending church services.

Further, in urban areas, that attendance is as low as 2 or 3 per cent. More and more Catholics in Europe and the developed world are only nominally so. They attend church for funerals, first Communions, and weddings – and less of this last, as upwards of a quarter of marriages now take place in civil settings. That figure, too, is rising. So Europe, Ireland, the developed world is becoming mission territory where the Catholic Church is concerned.

The crisis extends far beyond what “ mission” can address. The dark stain of the abuse scandals exposed endemic  immorality and has destroyed the presumption of authority of the Church’s leadership to pronounce on human behaviour. What therefore are they for?

Even though judgment must charitably be suspended until he makes his opening moves, nothing the Pope is likely to do will make much difference. The tipping point has arrived.  The old complacent talk of the Church thinking in centuries is redundant.  The Catholic Church – Christianity as a whole – is now irreversibly a minority pursuit. But can the pace of decline be halted?

My USP such as it is, is that for as long as the Vatican insists on having the last word on discipline and appointing bishops through its diplomatic service, the contemporary crisis in Catholicism will drag on. On the other hand a more “collegial” approach – more power to the bishop’s conferences in each country – risks the decline of the Church through fragmentation rather than shrinking.  An idea of a permanent United Nations of the Church of laity clergy and  the Vatican like a permanent Vatican Council sitting in Rome to replace the Curia is too unwieldy and expensively unrealistic

How amazing it is that instant communications threaten centralised power like the Papacy’s rather than strengthening it. The life of the Church will continue to shift towards its people whatever the old men in red may decide and will survive more and more outside its formal structures.

An example for the future lies in the life and work of Fr Alec Reid the Redemptorist priest who was the subject of a recent BBC NI documentary 14 Days.  His awareness of protestantism and unionism was limited  but he was surely right when he said that the  Church took the easy route by talking about liturgy all the time. “You have to get involved.”  The message I took  from Reid for today was less about  his involvement  in a horrendous episode of the Troubles but  his reiterated message: ” I did what I could.. I did my best.”

Any assumption  of authority was blessedly absent, apart from the priestly function to administer last rites.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London