Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Pope Francis must modernise church while maintaining the Catholic 'brand'

Brand issues: Pope Francis

With great respect, some of the commentators who have such strong views about the teachings of the Catholic Church seldom visit a Catholic church.

I am not a particularly good Catholic, but I am reasonably observant and I do listen to Sunday sermons quite closely.

And I can say, hand on heart, that I have seldom heard, for the last 25 years, a sermon focusing on abortion, gay marriage or contraception.

Most of the sermons I hear are on the theme of the day's gospel. And many of these, in recent years, have been about the poor.

That is perfectly orthodox. Both the Old and New Testaments are concerned with the poor and the marginalised. Most of these sermons are compassionate and thoughtful, even if I do occasionally ask myself from the pews, 'Are all priests Lefties nowadays?'

Very occasionally, I ask myself if the priest preaching against the evils of job-exploitation has ever, in the Cockney phrase, so much as run a whelk stall? Employers also bring benefits to humanity (as the gospels themselves show).

In the context of what I hear from the pulpit, I was half-surprised when Pope Francis said last week that the Catholic Church should stop banging on about abortion, gay rights and contraception and turn to other issues which should concern Christians.

Does he know that these questions touching sexuality are very seldom aired from the pulpit? On abortion and gay marriage, the campaigns have been driven by the laity. Any pro-life, or pro-traditional marriage, street demonstration will illustrate that fact.

In the Republic, there is some criticism among some pro-life activists that the clergy has been rather weak in support and the Association of Catholic Priests noticeably absent (even if bishops have made the odd statement).

In France, the anti-gay marriage lobby has a noticeably secular composition. In America, the anti-abortion movement has been galvanised by Evangelical Protestants, who bring their considerable energy to campaigns.

Does Francis know – has he been properly briefed – about the reality of the situation on issues touching on sexuality? Surely he must be informed?

But what he is doing, I think, in these speeches, is what a number of corporate bosses are seeking to do – modernise.

Every institution has to modernise – to use the language and invoke the ideas of the contemporary world, not the world of yesteryear. Yet this can be tricky. I've sat in on London media conferences where this was discussed at length by marketing experts and focus group leaders.

An institution has to appeal to new trends, without losing touch with its traditional base. If you lose touch with that, you lose touch with your 'brand'.

Like every other institution, the Catholic Church has to modernise and relate to the young and the contemporary. At the same time, to use the marketing lingo, it has to hold on to its well-embedded 'brand' – we're talking more than a billion people.

So a leader must give signals he is moving with the times and understands the preoccupations and chillaxing language of now.

But he must be aware that he is building on 2,000 years of history, which has survived an awful lot of upheavals, including a few popes who were even more wicked than bankers.

The New Testament enjoins Christians to be as "gentle as doves, but as wise as serpents".

Pope Francis is a Jesuit who will know exactly how to reconcile the serpent and the dove.

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