03/18/2013 03:33 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Church Reform Priorities

Since last week's election of Pope Francis, I've been fielding media calls that all seem to have the same theme: Does the election of a Jesuit pope with a humble style and pronounced devotion to the poor mean that women will be ordained and priests allowed to marry?


The Church's immediate reform concerns are much different. But the rapidity with which Americans immediately try to cram someone else's narrative into their own world view is one of the important side stories in the current wave of fascination with the new Catholic leader. The narrative is not at all about faith, or even about a specific religion, but a tale of our modern struggle with cultural signs, symbols and sacred authorities whose influence goes well beyond their own unruly flock. We want religious leaders to bless our behaviors and opinions, or at least not to condemn them.

Religion is one of the great pillars of human civilization, along with politics, culture and education. Quite often, religion's role in the secular society is to serve as the serious counterweight to destabilizing trends fostered in the other fields of play. Moral rules are objective and timeless; social preferences are subjective and often "in the moment." Religious authorities preach morality; political and social leaders preach satisfying the will of the people. We live in a constant state of argumentation and great tension among these competing forces, finding equilibrium somewhere in the middle.

Poverty is an abstraction in too many places in the First World where the most urgent economic question seems to be whether a family can afford to send their children to Ivy League schools. In those global communities, where the children have to go out on "service trips" to encounter people who are genuinely impoverished, the expectations placed on the religious institution may be quite different from those places on earth -- the vast majority of places in the southern hemisphere -- where the local priest, nun or missionary actually provides food, clothing, shelter and some small relief from the horrors of physical and psychological violence. People who expect their church to satisfy their own expectations on various issues can find the call to work for social justice quite baffling, if not infuriating.

In the United States, religion has, too often, become a battleground over moral rules and secular law, rather than a common cause for justice. "Economic Justice for All," the groundbreaking bishops' pastoral letter of 1986, now seems like some ancient artifact, and the courage the bishops showed in challenging the corporate elite is now muted. The questions today about "Church reform" for Catholics in this country seem to be more self-reflexive, focused on doctrine rather than service and justice. In this context, there's an immediate leap of logic from the election of a pope named Francis, with all of the humble signals he is sending, to an assumption that questions about women's ordination, celibacy, gay marriage and other moral rules are now all in play.

Such assumptions are naive. We all may think that various forms of doctrinal change are worthy of consideration, but expecting such discussions to be a priority, if they can occur at all, reveals a lack of understanding of the real issues on Pope Francis' agenda.

On a radio news program this week, I heard a reporter say (paraphrasing here) that Pope Francis has already made it clear that he will focus on the Church's ministry to the poor, but for the "more important" questions like women's ordination and celibacy, only time will tell. The reporter has the sense of priorities backward.

Nothing is "more important" than refocusing the Church's ministry on global poverty and, at the same time, changing the Church's overt style and deep-seated culture from one that glorifies the rituals and realities of power to a style of humility and culture of service.

From a posture of humility and service, not hubris and self-protection, the Church can then more sensibly engage the faithful in dialogue about those issues of doctrine that are neuralgic, accepting that most parts of the Magisterium are unlikely to change, but a change in tone can provide great healing along the fault lines of recent decades.

Just last week, prior to the election of the pope, as the conclave was gathering, several bishops in the United States denounced the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Their concern resided in the law's specific recitation of protections regardless of sexual orientation, which the bishops claimed was not necessary to achieve the law's goals, but that created a form of secular legal recognition for gay marriage to which the Church is opposed.

I doubt very much that the Church will ever relent on its opposition to gay marriage. But a Church with a different style, one that is more humbly pastoral and more focused on human beings rather than its own power, would not want a headline announcing that the Catholic Bishops oppose efforts to protect women from violence. Like the investigation of the nuns and the Girl Scouts, the bishops are hopelessly obtuse when they speak of issues affecting women. The bishops could have applauded the law while pointing out that they will not change the moral teaching on gay marriage. But slamming the entire law because of the objectionable provision only sharpened the perception of irrelevance.

Even as lay people often focus too much on their own issues, so, too, the clerical hierarchy's instinctive response of self-protection to any challenges created the most appalling scandal the Church has ever known. Shortly after the child sex abuse scandal broke wide open in the U.S., I listened to a bishop whom I admired very much give a long and vigorous defense of priests, including a statistical statement to the effect that the incidence of pedophilia among priests is no more, and perhaps lower, than in the general population. Wrong answer! The people in the pews wanted to hear confession, grief, profound penance for the terrible sins the priests committed. We're still waiting.

American Catholics, bishops and laity, need to get over themselves, open their eyes and look outward, become more attuned to the real needs of the world. This community of faith needs to stop bashing each other, stop trying to prove who is more powerful, stop making our own issues the only issues that count. This struggle is going absolutely nowhere. We need to set aside our own desires and preferences and look out to a global village that we could help so much more constructively with our considerable wealth that is not only material, but also intellectual and spiritual.

The American cardinals in Rome demonstrated a refreshing style and level of leadership that I hope they can bring back to their brother bishops here. They called for "transparency" in the closed face of the Curia. Rumor has it that they were quite influential in the selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope. During their weeks abroad, individually and collectively, they gave witness to the Catholic faith's imperative to live and work for social justice.

Let's pray that this new style is durable, that it's not just about red shoes or black shoes, but that the election of Pope Francis is truly about transformation of the Church culture. His focus on the poor of the earth, his desire to make the Church stand in solidarity with the poor, will bear fruit longer-term in many other kinds of reform, from the Curia to the toxic residue of the sex abuse scandal to the treatment of women who feel excluded and dismissed. Let's not pile-on our issues; let's walk with him on this new road to a humbler, more service-oriented community of faith.