Pope Francis’ Plan for Catholic Renewal: Drawing Insights for the Jewish Community

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

In one of the most significant statements in modern times authored by a religious leader, Pope Francis’ “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel) provides a road map for the Roman Catholic Church. This statement, released this past week, is the first official papal document written entirely by the new Pope. Many of the structural elements that he is proposing for the Roman Catholic community have significant implications as well for the organization and management of the Jewish enterprise.

While primarily focused on the internal challenges facing the Church, the Pope is intentional with his references to Islam and Judaism. “Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples.” He would continue: “The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians.” The Church holds “the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked.”

The substantive message found within this document addresses the larger themes of poverty, the family, science and religion, and the role of women. But strikingly beyond a social agenda of engagement, the Pope speaks of a Church that must “go out” of itself if it is to meet others. This outreach agenda reflects a conversation now present as well within the Jewish community. For the Church, this takes the form of conveying its ideas about faith and action, as the Pope writes: “She (the Church) does not tread this path in fear since she knows that she is called ‘to go out in search of those who are far from her and arrive at the crossroads in order to invite those who are excluded.”

Reflecting the concerns of many of our own institutions, the Pope noted: “The existence of stagnant and stale pastoral practices obliges us, therefore, to be boldly creative in order to rethink evangelization.” The Holy Father calls for the Church to concentrate on what is essential and to know that only a systematic approach, i.e. “one that is unitary, progressive and proportional to the faith,” will make an impact. Warning that if the Church fails to address these challenges, “the moral edifice of the Church runs the risk of becoming a house of cards, and this is our biggest danger”. “A faith which is authentic always implies a profound desire to change the world.”

In exploring the core issues facing Roman Catholicism, the Pope acknowledges that “new religious movements are challenging the Church”. He bemoans as well the following notions “that Mass must entertain; that the Church is a means to personal, worldly gain; and that the Gospel must make no demands on one’s life.”

Acknowledging the divisions within the Church, Francis offers the following:

Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.”

The Holy Father moves to address what he describes as the “daily uncertainty, with evil consequences”. These consequences are identified as “social disparity”, the “fetishism of money and the dictatorship of a faceless economy”, the “exasperation of consumption” and “unbridled consumerism”. In short, the Church must respond to the presence of a “globalization of indifference” and a “sneering contempt” towards ethics. Such a message clearly transcends the world of Roman Catholicism and has implications for the larger society.

The current culture, he would argue, creates a form of “narcissistic elitism” which must be avoided; and in turn the question of “who do we want to be?” is introduced. Pope Francis explains the necessity of the promotion of lay people and women. In this section, one reads the call for a renewal of the Church’s mission and its structure; a message that has currency for the larger faith community.

On the policy side Pope Francis demands that the Church address the problems of migration and new forms of slavery. “Where is the person that you are killing every day in his secret little factory, in networks of prostitution, in children used for professional begging, in those who must work in secret because they are irregular?” The Pope introduces four principles which serve as a basis for engaging the issues before the Church and society. He reminds us that “time is superior to space”, “unity prevails over conflict”, “reality is more important than ideas”, and that “the whole is greater than its parts”. These principles, he would argue, ought to be applied to a dialogue that includes science, ecumenism, and non-Christian religions.

So, in the end, what might the Jewish community take away from this landmark initiative?

  1. Exciting a constituency about your vision and drafting a plan for institutional renewal demonstrates leadership.
  2. Thinking broadly and boldly: “A faith which is authentic always implies a profound desire to change the world.”
  3. Offering an essential and exciting global social and economic message.
  4. Learning to reinvent itself by going beyond its doors to engage others.
  5. Acknowledging that if there are no fundamental changes, the institution will collapse.
  6. Recognizing dissent and division within the Church and seeing it as an opportunity for creative engagement.
  7. Managing change in this instance must be designed from the top down.
  8. Reaffirming your key relationships: “Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel…”

With the release of this most dramatic church document, we are witnessing the unleashing of a conversation being carried forward within the largest religious institution in the world that will have profound implications not only for Roman Catholicism but for religious thought and communal practice for all faith traditions.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. You can find more of his writings, at www.thewindreport.