WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pope Francis received glowing reviews for his pastoral outreach and his public engagement of the Church in the modern world from a panel of Catholic experts convened at Georgetown University on Tuesday to review the last five years since his election — but they warned that it all risks being lost if he does not effectively respond to the question of sexual abuse within the Church.

“The Francis Factor at Five Years: Reflection and Dialogue,” was organized by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, which according to Georgetown President John DeGioia, has brought over 15,000 individuals to the university over the past 5 years to better understand the life of the Church.

The evening commenced with a reflection by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica and one of the pope’s closest advisors, followed by discussion among Greg Erlandson, editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and Kirsten Powers, CNN political commentator and USA Today columnist, and was moderated by John Carr, executive director of the Initiative.

A Global Diplomacy of Mercy and Vatican-Chinese Relations

Pope Francis talks with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, while meeting journalists aboard his flight to Havana on February 12, 2016. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

Spadaro began his remarks by noting that Francis rejects a “clash of civilizations” framework and offered an overview of what he described as Francis’s “field hospital diplomacy,” that is rooted in a global vision of solidarity between nations inspired by the language of mercy.

For Spadaro, Francis’s apostolic trips reveal his priorities as pope, noting that he travels to places marked by their “open wounds.”

“Apostolic journeys allow the pope to touch open wounds with his own hands, carrying out a therapeutic gesture,” he said, giving an overview of Francis’s travels to Cairo, Bethlehem, South Korea, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Addressing the most burning question of Vatican diplomacy at the moment, Spadaro weighed in on the much-discussed moves to normalize relations between China and the Holy See.

Since the 1949 takeover of the Communist party in China, the Church has been divided into what is referred to as “the underground Church” and the official government sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. While the Holy See and China have not had diplomatic relations since 1951, rumors are swirling that an agreement on the appointment of bishops is close to being reached.

Critics have said the Vatican is kowtowing to the Chinese state, while others have lauded the move as a historic opportunity for evangelism and a chance for more Chinese Catholics to practice their faith with greater freedoms.

“Francis is walking the same path of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, trying to find a way to dialogue effectively with the Chinese authorities,” Spadaro argued.

“Some are asking if it is acceptable to give the authority to ordain bishops to China’s government. This question is completely wrong. This is not the content of the agreement. To put it like that, would be a mischaracterization,” said Spadaro. “The Church doesn’t want to give away the authority to ordain bishops.”

“The history of the Church is the history of finding agreements with the political authorities about the appointment of bishops,” he continued. “In the present agreements with some Western democratic countries there are still rules about government’s veto power on the appointment of bishops. In about a dozen countries in the World, the civil government still has the right of consultation or even of presentation.”

“It is not, therefore, a matter of maintaining a perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures, but of finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context,” he said.

Spadaro said that under Francis, the Roman Curia is now functioning as an antenna, which is “able to reach out to people and nations for enabling the pope to listen to the world and its needs.”

Pastoral Outreach to the Peripheries

(Credit: photo courtesy to Crux)

One of the major themes of the Francis papacy has been an insistence that the Church focus on those in both the physical and existential peripheries, rather than those at the center.

Erlandson said that he believes Francis was selected by the cardinals in 2013 to reframe the Church’s engagement with the world around it.

He said the cardinal electors were looking for “a different kind of leader, someone who was not caught up in internal Church concerns and matters, but trying to push the Church out and engage the world,” following the papacies of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI that were yoked together.

Powers echoed those sentiments and said from her seat in the news media, Francis has “made the Church relevant in a way that maybe it wasn’t to secular people before.” She said her first reactions in those early days of his pontificate — while the world was trying to figure out Jorge Mario Bergoglio — was “like watching Jesus.”

Dubbed by Carr as “the pope’s favorite nun,” Pimentel spoke of how the pope’s emphasis on encounter reminds the Church that “we are one family.”

Francis singled out Pimentel during a 2015 virtual papal audience and he praised her work of welcoming immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I want to thank you,” said Francis, “And through you to thank all of the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States…is it appropriate for the pope to say this? I love you all very much.”

Pimentel said that given the nature of her work, it is essential for her to build strong relations with immigrants, as well as border patrol officers and city officials.

The Francis pontificate has confirmed, “we’re doing the right thing” in building bridges, Pimentel said.

“It feels validating,” she added. “People in the Latin community feel pleased to be a part of the Church through a pope that supports and encourages us and speaks to us.”

Sex Abuse, Reform, and Resistance

While the pope received high praise for his pastoral outreach, the issue of clerical sex abuse “hangs over Pope Francis’s legacy and really there is a risk of completely wiping everything out,” said Powers.

Following his trip to Chile last month, Francis has been plagued with allegations of mishandling the case of Bishop Juan Barros of the Chilean diocese of Osorno. Barros was a protégé of Father Fernando Karadima who has been found guilty of sexual abuse. His victims have charged Barros with knowing about the abuse and covering it up.

In response, the Vatican has sent its top sexual abuse investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, to Chile to investigate the case further.

“You have to listen to victims and take them seriously…if there is any choice there, the deference has to go to the victims,” Powers said to applause.

Erlandson said the Chile situation was a case of “PTSD” for many American Catholics still reeling from the sexual abuse crisis.

“I do think bringing in Scicluna…who has a phenomenal track record…was a good move, but it’s not going to be enough,” said Erlandson. “I think the pope who is a master of gestures and master of mercy and also forgiveness, I think is going to have to find a way personally to address the situation.”

Besides sexual abuse, Erlandson said the resistance to the Francis papacy “for better of worse, has swirled around Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation on the family, which includes a cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

He said that some of those concerns aren’t necessarily directed at the pope directly, but instead at “people that might be aligning themselves with the pope who may be going places where the pope doesn’t necessarily intend.”

Despite opposition, Erlandson warned against fears of schism, deeming it “frightening language” that Catholics “should be very afraid of.”

Powers said that many of Francis’s critics are conservative Catholics who have “confused their politics with their theology.”

She said Francis should challenge Americans of all political persuasions and pointed to his 2015 address to Congress as an example of this.

“If you’re truly Catholic, you’re not really going to be an ideologue, and so the Catholic Church doesn’t line up with either party. It just doesn’t,” Powers insisted. “That makes him someone who is going to sometimes be saying something offensive to Democrats and sometimes offensive to Republicans.”

Despite controversies — and an uncertainty over how particular doctrinal questions or the response to the sexual abuse will play out — the evening concluded where Spadaro began, with a focus on Francis’s theme of mercy.

Erlandson said that whatever the future of the Francis papacy holds, he hopes his message of mercy isn’t lost upon the Church.

“What I love most about Pope Francis is embodied in the year of mercy,” said Erlandson. “My only complaint is that it should have been two years.”