Anno Domini 2014 was a year filled with big stories for the Catholic Church, but for the rank and file it was a year of uncertainty, too, as they wondered what was going on with their new pope, elected only the year before after Benedict XVI decided to retire.
A member of the order of the Society of Jesus, better known as Jesuits, before being elected pope on March 13, 2013, Francis had likely imbibed that order’s more liberal brand of Catholicism before rising to become the archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. As archbishop and later as a cardinal, Benedict practiced a simple, unostentatious lifestyle with particular attention to the poor. All well and good, but after his elevation to the papacy a disturbing trend became apparent beneath other more commonsense actions he has taken over his first full year as head of the Church. This pattern has revealed a streak of political correctness beneath the concerns that are proper for a pontiff.
Political correctness is one of the most sinister threats ever to challenge Western civilization, worming its way into the vitals of every major institution and rotting them from the inside out. Until recently, the Catholic Church had managed to fend off its influence under Popes John Paul II and Benedict, but a well-meaning Francis could end up undoing some of that work. Comments on social justice, illegal immigration, and income inequality, for instance, threaten to cross over from religious concerns to the political.
On more hot button topics, Francis signaled a possible thaw on cultural issues early in his papacy when he called for a de-emphasis on such issues as homosexuality and abortion. Later, he sparked a love affair with the media when, registering an ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality, he said “Who am I to judge?”
Such comments sent handlers into high gear, trying to do damage control by putting the pope’s words in context, explaining how they weren’t in contradiction to traditional Church teaching. The same thing happened when Francis said complimentary things about the theory of evolution. The media acted as if it was a seismic departure from Church teaching when actually it wasn’t.
The combination of comments by Francis and misleading reportage in the media has led to some confusion among the faithful on exactly where the Church stands on issues long since thought settled. More seriously, the pope’s comments may also have given sinners a rationalization not to repent in the belief that they may not be sinning after all.
In addition to those issues troubling loyal Catholics on a socio-cultural level, the worldwide Church as an institution has not lacked for other important events in 2014 that will continue to shape it into the future, from the aftermath of sexual scandals to softening relations with China to reforms at the Vatican.
10) In a constitutional victory for religious-based colleges, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently abandoned its practice of measuring how religious a college appears to be before exempting it from federal oversight.
The belated move finally brings the board within virtual compliance with a 1979 Supreme Court decision that found the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) did not give the board authority to regulate employee behavior in Catholic education. Although the board’s new position limiting its involvement to considering whether individual employees perform religious functions still remained, it comes well within the purview of some future federal court ruling forbidding even that. Supporters believe that the board’s retreat will encourage Catholic colleges to include a Catholic perspective in every classroom so as to exempt the institution from government scrutiny.
9) Pope Francis ended 2014 with a lengthy admonition to members of the Roman Curia to clean up their act.
Listing 15 “diseases” of the mind and soul, including self-importance, gossiping, careerism, and worldly profit, the pontiff warned that they interfered with the clergy’s having a “vital, personal, authentic and solid relationship with Christ.”
8) The pope cleaned out the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank (officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion) with the appointment of Jean-Baptiste de Franssu as its new president.
After a review of the bank’s practices, Franssu closed thousands of accounts, increased transparency, and replaced laissez faire and out-of-date practices with those of modern banking.
7) As ethnic and sectarian fighting continued in the Middle East, especially in those lands controlled by the Islamic State, the numbers of Christians in general and Catholics in particular have dwindled under oppression and forced migration.
As the world more or less stood by while the violence spread, Pope Francis hoped to draw more attention to the crisis in a Christmas message to displaced and suffering Christians.
6) The last year saw the continuing battle between Catholic institutions and the Obama administration as legal cases such as that of the Little Sisters of the Poor moved through the court system.
Such cases have challenged federal requirements that religious employers provide health insurance coverage for birth control or face penalties under the new ACA health care law.
5) Courting danger, Pope Francis visited Turkey in 2014 making high-profile visits both with Muslim religious leaders as well as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Greek Orthodox Church.
According to Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi, Francis joined Bartholomew in “pushing with incredible strength toward union” of the Western and Eastern Churches which have been divided since 1053.
4) Among stories reported in the media that were inaccurate or just plain wrong, those dealing with the removal of Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Vatican’s highest court were among the most breathless.
Reports suggested that the conservative Burke had been “fired” by Francis; however, he was given the choice of taking over as chaplain for the Order of the Knights of Malta, one that he willingly took. “We needed a smart American who would know how to get around and I thought of him for that position,” explained Francis.
3) In a signal to China that the Vatican is open for some serious talks about normalizing relations, Pope Francis declined to meet with the Dalai Lama when the latter visited Rome recently.
Increased dialogue between the Vatican and China had raised hopes of an accord between the two that would find a way past China’s insistence that the government have a voice in the appointment of bishops. The two sides have not had formal relations since 1951.
2) The Vatican took an active role in helping the United States to recognize Cuba after 54 years.In particular, Pope Francis was credited for helping bridge the divide between the two nations by first sending letters to President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba and then having the Vatican host a diplomatic meeting between the two sides in October.
1) The top story in Catholic news for 2014 was the release of an interim report from a Synod of Bishops held in the Fall that seemed to suggest a softening of the Church’s position on sexual matters including homosexuality.
The report generated overheated comment in the media which made it sound as if the Church was about to change longstanding views on sin and morality. No such thing was ever contemplated. “Nobody mentioned homosexual marriage at the synod,” said Francis in an interview for the National Catholic Reporter. “It did not cross our minds.”
photo illustration via shutterstock / giulio napolitano