07/10/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

Advice for Pope Francis as He Heads to Rio

Right now, the United States government is doing all it can to capture a young man who leaked sensitive information that embarrassed it. They are probably justified in trying to capture Edward Snowden. But Catholics are still wondering why the U.S. government hasn't insisted that the Vatican send Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston back to face charges for knowingly harboring and supporting a criminal priest who raped more than 150 boys in his archdiocese. After fleeing Boston in late 2002, Cardinal Law was appointed by Pope John Paul II to a prestigious position in Rome, where for a decade he recommended the appointment of new bishops and helped to investigate American nuns. Today, he sits in happy retirement behind the Vatican walls. Matthew Fox is angry about this sort of thing, as well he should be. So, too, are millions of Catholics.

It is from such a place of anger and frustration, but also hope for the future, that Fox's Letters to Pope Francis: Rebuilding a Church with Justice and Compassion (July '13, 152 pp, ebook and printed book editions) comes. Just published, the book is a welcome set of missives, echoing themes that are at once familiar and well argued. Surely, the new Pope will never read these letters, but one wishes that he would, particularly before planning what he will say to millions of Catholic youth in Rio de Janeiro later this month. (Look for millions of young people glued to the Pope's every word, July 23-28.)

Fox reinvigorates a term from the Second Vatican Council, sensus fidelium, "sense of the faithful," in these letters to Pope Francis. It is a beautiful phrase and a powerful reminder that the Catholic Church is larger--much larger--than the Chair of Saint Peter. The Second Vatican Council said that the Church was supposed to listen carefully to the sensus fidelium, and Fox makes the point that the performance and perspective of Pope Francis's two predecessors shows that, not only hasn't the Church done so, but it is actually in schism as a result. The last two popes have deliberately gone about undoing the reforms and teachings of Vatican II. Fox explains, "Quite simply, in Catholic theology a Council trumps a Pope but a Pope does not trump a Council." What we've essentially had since 1978 is two popes turning their backs on reforms that were decided by a valid Council, leading to a schismatic Church.

This is a fascinating claim. If true, it would mean that the people in the pews who carry the faith, and who are so often disappointed by what comes from their popes' mouths and pens, are not only right to be disappointed, but they are often in the right. It would mean that the last two popes have left the Church, not that the people have.

If you are under the age of forty, you may not have heard of Matthew Fox. A popular theologian, he ran afoul of then-Cardinal Ratzinger back in the 1980s for what were deemed heretical teachings contrary to the faith. He was silenced in 1989, meaning that he was forbidden to teach and preach, and then when he failed to do so, he was expelled from the Dominican Order in 1993. With the election of Pope Francis this past March, who has offered the world terrific signs of hope for reform and renewal of the Catholic Church, Fox has opened up his own old can of worms, but also, put an agenda that is shared by millions of Catholics back on the table for discussion.

He offers advice to Pope Francis on dozens of hot-button issues that were mostly silenced by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Imagine an issue that you might care about and it is here. Birth control. Pre-marital sex. Ordaining women. Married clergy. Liberation theology and theologians. The silencing of opposing voices. Looking to more than the Bible and Church tradition (nature, science, creative arts, imagination) for God's revelation. At every turn, Fox quotes Thomas Aquinas, the finest theologian the Church ever produced, which makes it difficult to easily dismiss his progressivism.

The issue most important to me is how the Church's coin will be used now and in the future. What will Pope Francis do, for instance, with the Vatican Bank, the vast treasures in the Vatican Museums, and the riches of the Church worldwide? What would his namesake, Francis of Assisi, have done with them? I am looking for dramatic turns on this front that could change the world and the world's perception of the Church.

I have a few quibbles with Fox, but most of all is this: he occasionally gets carried away with himself, and a haughty perspective sometimes prevails in these letters that isn't helpful. Also, some passages read more like mini-sermons than true correspondence, which would have been more respectful and circumspect. (No one ever accused of Matthew Fox of circumspection.) For example, despite the undisputed wealth of the Catholic Church, it comes across as foolish to speak to the new Pope as one who needs to "break with the fathers of Wall Street and titans of power who espouse an oligarchy of wealth and power to dominate others by means of economic and political injustice the world over." That sort of thing comes across mostly as rant, but the bulk of this thought-provoking book is sanely reasoned and profoundly important. I hope that Catholics will read it.

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of The Pope Who Quit, which was recently optioned by HBO.