Francis has allies in this task but the majority of them come from the very areas where the faith is weakest, where mass attendance is abysmal, and the "faithful" seem not to believe much of the faith. This pope has artfully dodged bullet after bullet of accusation and somehow seems to remain the central force of power with the Roman Catholic Church. Those opposed to his moves seem united in their disarray more than as a real and powerful force to challenge his moves. Francis may end up as the pope who breaks the central rod that holds up the umbrella that was and still is Rome. While Rome has always had theological factions and a certain measure of conflict, unyielding fidelity to the papal office has transcended those divisions -- at least until now. Furthermore, the moral authority of the papacy itself is under challenge because his cronies are accused of everything from the very sexual abuse once thought in the past to rampant homosexuality to drugs to financial improprieties. Who would have thought that a few decades after the death of John Paul II the Vatican would find itself captive to such a leader?
Book after book is being published on the situation in Rome and article after article displays the prospect of Rome in unstoppable decline. How long can it go on? As long as Francis is pope and as long as he has allied himself with the very stances that have undermined confidence in the doctrinal integrity and moral authority of Rome? Or until the rift erupts in such way that the machinery comes to a complete stop? I have no idea.
But Lutherans should not look with too much delight at the situation in Rome. Our own house is not in order. We have Lutherans who find it no problem to have someone with a Calvinist history as a Lutheran seminary president but who insist that one without a perfect record with regard to GLBTQ issues cannot be tolerated. We have Lutherans who preserve forms but they have emptied them of content and dogma has become a four letter word to them. We have Lutherans who think the Gospel means contending against climate change, poverty, and oppression of sexual desire. We have Lutherans who think that you can do what you want on Sunday morning and still preserve a theoretical doctrinal confession. We have Lutherans who believe the Confessions suggest and Scripture presents myth and legend more than fact and history. Our own Lutheran identities are under siege in the same areas in which Rome finds decline.
It would all cause us to despair. But as William Buckley often said, despair is a sin. So in the face of despair, what are we left with? With confidence in God. With faith in His Word and Spirit. With certainty that the structures may come and go but the Word of the Lord endures forever and not even hell can prevail against the Church. With courage that God will not forsake us in our struggle to be faithful -- even if forces in culture, government, and church structures work against that faithfulness. Our cross to bear may be our prosperity, our preoccupation with happiness at any and all costs, our confidence in technology to answer all our problems, our peace with death, and our acceptance of scientific theory over Scriptural history and fact. . . But though this cross be ours to bear in this time, God will not abandon those whom He has given new birth in baptism, spoken to through the voice of the Word, absolved of their sins, and fed and nourished with the flesh and blood of Jesus. We take no delight in Rome's problems nor in our own mess, but we trust in the Lord and He will sustain us, bring all things to pass according to His gracious will and promise, and finish His new creation in His own time and way. All that remains to us is to be faithful and to rejoice that our names are written in the Book of Life. Built on the Rock [Christ] the Church will stand.