Pope Francis called on the Catholic church on Tuesday to stop clinging to conservatism and fundamentalism as a defensive response to the problems it is facing, and said the church ought to be “bruised, hurting and dirty” instead of obsessed with money and power.
The sweeping remarks before an audience of Italian bishops at a conference in Florence were a stark reminder of the way in which Pope Francis is trying to shake up a church that in many ways is losing relevance around the world, and continues to be battered by allegations of financial mismanagement and greed at the heart of the Vatican.
“Before the problems of the church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally,” the pope said.
“Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives. But it is alive, knows being unsettled … it does not have a rigid face, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”
The comments come at a critical juncture for Francis. Last month, a high-level group of bishops from around the world met at the Vatican and engaged in a vigorous debate over how the church ought to respond to changes in the modern family, including the prevalence of divorce.
While Francis has cast himself as a reformer who is seeking to portray the church as a less rigid and less dogmatic institution, which stands with people who live on the margins of society, there are factions in the church that are vigorously resisting his plea for the church to be more flexible and open.
On Tuesday, he asked for the Italian church to be protected “from every pretence of power, image and money” and said Christians ought not to be obsessed with power even when it was power that was “useful to the social image of the church”.
“I would like an Italian church that is unsettled, always closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect,” said Francis. “I desire a happy church with face of a mother who understands, accompanies, caresses.”
Austen Ivereigh, the papal biographer who wrote The Great Reformer, said Francis was clearly aiming some of his message directly at the Italian church, which receives a subsidy from the state and could be seen by Francis as being too conformist and pro-establishment.
“The Italian church is very large and wealthy in terms of property. This was a call for the Italian church to be more missionary, less dependent on status and wealth, and more radical and pro-poor,” Ivereigh said.
Before his speech to bishops, Francis visited the city of Prato, where seven Chinese nationals were killed in 2013 following an industrial fire in a factory where they lived and worked. Francis criticised the “inhuman” conditions they lived in.
“The life of every community requires that we fight the cancer of corruption, the cancer of human and labor exploitation and the poison of illegality,” he said.
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