Pope Francis' Sinful and Prophetic Church

Pope and Imam

Cambridge, MA. Last week Pope Francis made two remarkable statements. The first was a striking joint statement Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, issued on February 4 in Abu Dhabi: “Human Fraternity: For World Peace and Living Together,” a statement on the positive role of religion in society, and the necessity of interreligious collaboration and respect. This joint Catholic-Muslim statement, during Francis’ substantively and symbolically important visit to the United Arab Emirates, declared that religions must be a force for peace and that there must accordingly be reciprocal understanding relying on mutual respect, no religion undercutting or attacking others, and one impinging on the freedom of individuals to practice their faith as they wish:

Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.

Diversity is willed by God! The statement was something of a risk for both the Pope and the Imam, and all the more important because the two of them issued it together, as a common word. It will surely be quoted frequently in the months and years to come.

Enough for one week, one might think, but on the flight back to Rome, Francis had also to admit

that clerics have sexually abused nuns, and in one case they were kept as sex slaves. He said in that case his predecessor, Pope Benedict, was forced to shut down an entire congregation of nuns who were being abused by priests. It is thought to be the first time that Pope Francis has acknowledged the sexual abuse of nuns by the clergy. He said the Church was attempting to address the problem but said it was "still going on".

The fact that nuns have been abused had been reported for decades, but it was news that the Pope, and thus the Church as a whole, has now so directly admitted yet another systemic crime committed by clergy, men with power in the Church. And this coming to the fore shortly before the much (and by some skeptically) anticipated Rome meeting of Church leaders to discuss responsibility for the crisis at the highest levels of the Church.

The pope speaks twice in several days, and we see the Church at its worst and at its best. It is important to think about these two admissions together, the bold declaration and the sad confession. That the Church does much good in the world does not make up for the evils of abuse. But the importance of the good the Church can do when it looks beyond itself reminds us how important it is to insist that the Church be on mission, outward-looking, and not merely turned in on itself, hiding or self-accusing. The purification of the Church is not an end in itself, as if a quest to restore things to the way they are supposed to be, used to be. The end of clericalism and irresponsible power will not be achieved by Catholics who simply talk to other Catholics about how to make the Church good again. We need to keep recovering a greater sense of the mission to bring the new news of Christ into the world in a way that is vital and alive, faithful to Christ while yet reading the signs of the times in today’s world. Religious pluralism is a key feature of that mission today -  and so too, of course, the work for peace, on behalf of refugees, for the deepening of spiritual values in a secular society. There is no end either to the good works to which we are called.

Nor is there an end to the problems of the Church. Our sins will not evaporate or be forgotten any time soon, and major changes are needed. Similarly, every tradition has its own internal problems, failing to live up to its own ideals or even simple human ideals. Interreligious openness does not occur in a purely benevolent space, empty of the evils and scandals that beset each and every religion. Good but imperfect religious people need one another. Working together requires humility and honesty about the ways we have tormented other religious people for religious reasons, even while hiding our hypocrisies from the public eye. Dialogue without repentance would be far too cheap. It is sinners who are called to dialogue, not just saints.

That Francis could in so short a time face in both directions — confessing Catholic sins, confessing Catholic prophetic witness in a collaborate manner with Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb — can be a guiding light for each of us too. Being holy is never a private thing; it is also a matter of being a good neighbor, messenger of peace, a healer and servant, a builder of community, particularly across religious borders. Our failures should be before our eyes, but they should not paralyze us. As many of us heard in church on Sunday, February 10:

Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. But Jesus said to Simon, “Get up, do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people for God.” (Luke 5:8-10)