In Pope Francis’ ongoing reform campaign, the last day of January and the first day of February brought fresh drama on two key fronts: the Church’s sex abuse scandals, and the role of the “new movements” in Catholicism.
On Friday, Jan. 31, Francis held an audience for prelates and officials from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal watchdog agency, taking part in a plenary meeting.
Among other things, Francis confirmed that a new papal commission to lead the fight against sex abuse announced last December will be located within the doctrinal agency. That’s considered important, because it’s been the doctrinal office that’s had responsibility for handling abuse cases since 2001.
In the internal politics of the Vatican, it’s been seen as upholding a strong reform position.
The challenges the new commission may face were confirmed the same day, in a session with reporters held by the new secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, who among other things insisted that bishops should not be obligated to report abuse allegations against priests to the police.
“A bishop is not a public official or a public minister,” Galantino said. Instead, he said, a bishop must be a “father” to the both the victim and the accused priest.
Recently, two senior Vatican officials assured a United Nations panel in Geneva that it is now the policy of the Church to cooperate with all civil and criminal investigation s of abuse charges.
The Vatican has not imposed a universal requirement on bishops to relay abuse complaints to the police, but has said bishops are obligated to follow the law in societies with mandatory reporting requirements.
On Saturday Francis held another audience, this time with members of the Neocatechumenal Way, one of the “new movements” that grew up in the late 20th century.
Founded in Spain and known for its zealously missionary ethos, the Neocatechumenate has long admired by some and seen with suspicion by others. Among other things, critics charge that it can be a divisive force in parishes by forming a separate subculture, that it exercises excessive control over members, and demonizes ex-members who chose to leave.
Over the years, some bishops have denied permission to the Neocatechumenate to operate in their dioceses, including prelates in the U.K., Japan, the Philippines and Nepal.
While applauding the Neocatechumenate for its “generosity” and service to the Church, Francis also said he wanted to lay out three “simple recommendations.”
First, the pope said it’s more important for the group to be in communion with the local church than to uphold all the particulars of its own spiritual path.
“Communion is essential,” Francis said.
“Sometimes it can be better to renounce living in every detail what your own path demands, in order to guarantee unity among the brothers who form the one ecclesial community, of which you must always feel yourself a part,” he said.
Second, Francis urged the Neocatechumenate to respect the local cultures in which the group wants to put down roots.
Learning foreign languages is helpful, the pope said, but “much more important will be your commitment to learning the cultures that you meet, recognizing that the need for the Gospel is everywhere, but also [recognizing] the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and the history of every people.”
Third, the pope asked the Neocatechumenate to foster internal freedom and to respect those who decide to leave the group.
“Everyone’s freedom must not be coerced,” he said, “and the eventual choice of anyone who decides to seek other forms of Christian life … outside the [Neocatechumenate] must be respected.”
All told, the pope’s encounters with both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and with the Neocatechumenate illustrate the direction in which Francis is trying to take the church, while the context illustrates some of the challenges he’s likely to face in getting there.
(John Allen is an associate editor with the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr)