It’s easy to understand why the eyes of Chile are on Rome this week, watching a remarkable summit unfold between Pope Francis and the country’s bishops on the dramatic series of clerical sexual abuse scandals, as well as abuses of power, which have been such a cancer for the Chilean Church.
From a media point of view, the most compelling question is whether “heads will roll,” meaning that Francis will impose discipline on bishops most identified with the circles around Father Fernando Karadima, the country’s most notorious pedophile priest, or even on Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, the former Archbishop of Santiago, who’s cited by Karadima survivors as presiding over the fiasco and who still sits on Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers.
What may be less clear, aside from simple curiosity, is what the rest of the Catholic world has at stake. Here it is in a nutshell: Pay close attention to Chile over the next six months or so, because, by dint of circumstance, Francis has been handed virtually a blank check to execute the same “pastoral conversion” there all at once that he’s constrained to pursue piecemeal pretty much everyplace else.
“Pastoral conversion” is the phrase Francis used in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, essentially the magna carta of his papacy, to describe his broad vision for the Church. In turn, it has its origins in the 2007 Aparecida document of the Latin American bishops, of which then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was a primary drafter and editor.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis referred to the need to walk a “path of a pastoral and missionary conversion, which cannot leave things as they presently are,” as well as a “renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion.”
As with so many things, it’s easier to say “pastoral conversion” than to define it, but in broad strokes, what Francis seems to have in mind is a church that’s close to ordinary people rather than living in splendid isolation, which cares more about the struggles and concerns of real people than its own internal obsessions, which embraces a broad agenda of “integral human development” rather than getting stuck on one or two idée fixe, and which blends doctrine with discernment and a capacity to adapt to specific sets of circumstances.
There are plenty of ways for popes to pursue such an agenda, from teaching documents to their own personal example, from amendments to canon law to how they deploy their political and diplomatic capital. By far the most effective way a pope has at his disposal for shaping culture in Catholicism, however, is through the appointment of bishops.
In the Church as in many other walks of life, ultimately, personnel is policy.
Normally, popes are compelled for reasons of both respect and good politics to go fairly slow in reshaping the episcopacy of a given country. Generally, they wait for bishops to retire rather than simply wiping the slate clean and rebooting.
To take one example, of the 34 archdioceses in the United States, after more than five years Pope Francis still has only named nine of their archbishops, despite the fact that he clearly does want the idea of “pastoral conversion” to reach our shores – as reflected, needless to say, in a couple of the names that are on the list of Francis appointees, such as Cardinals Blase Cupich in Chicago and Joseph Tobin in Newark.
However, in Chile right now, those usual constraints don’t really apply.
Well before this week’s summit opened, there were calls for the dismissal of at least four of Chile’s 32 currently active bishops most directly linked to the circles around Karadima, and who’ve been publicly accused of covering up abuse committed by him: Juan Barros, Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic, and Horacio Valenzuela.
It also seems unlikely that Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati Andrello of Santiago, who at 76 is already beyond the normal retirement age for bishops, has much shelf life left, and arguably that’s the single most important job in the country in terms of providing leadership for the Church. Further, there are at least five currently active bishops already over the age of 75, so Francis’s opportunity for a root-and-branch makeover is even broader.
At this stage, it’s not clear if other resignations or replacements may be in the works. What is clear, however, is that whatever housecleaning Francis might choose to perform would not only be welcomed broadly in Chile, but it would be seen internationally as a sign of resolve on the pontiff’s part to deal forcefully with the country’s abuse scandals.
In other words, Francis has a fairly unique opportunity in Chile not to wait in remaking the country’s leadership class, but to do much of it in one fell swoop.
This is not to say, of course, that Francis would be looking to cynically manipulate the sexual abuse scandals in order to pursue some unrelated agenda. No doubt in his mind, doing justice to victims and survivors, staying close to them in their suffering, is a core element of what “pastoral conversion” is all about. It means putting people, rather than concepts, at the heart of the matter.
Of course, Francis recently felt compelled to apologize for “grave errors” in his handling of the Chilean situation based on a “lack of truthful and balanced information.” Presumably whoever was giving him that information no longer has the pope’s ear, but going forward it’s an open question whether the pope will be able to gather better intelligence to inform any overhaul.
It’s also worth saying that popes can’t just design new bishops in a factory and ship them off to desired locations. He’s got to draw from what the local clergy offers, and it remains to be seen how many “pastoral conversion”-style clerics are just standing by waiting for the phone to ring.
In any event, Catholics all around the world would be well advised to keep their eyes on Chile, a country that history’s first Latin American pope obviously takes seriously, and where Francis even lived for just under a year in the early 1960s during his Jesuit formation.
Chile may be poised to experience the pastoral conversion push in especially concentrated form, but it’s not as if the pope’s diagnosis, or his cure, ends there.