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Why Catholicism matters

All roads lead to Rome: that ageold saying is as true today as it was when pilgrims walked in droves from Canterbury to the Eternal City. Next time you watch a news bulletin or browse headlines online, try counting how many of the stories touch on the Catholic Church. Ebola? Yes, countless Catholic doctors and nurses are fighting the epidemic in West Africa. Protests in Hong Kong? Absolutely: Catholics are leading figures in the prodemocracy movement. ISIS? Of course: their leader boasts that his ragged troop will one day march on Rome. What accounts for the Church’s wide influence? Simply its size, critics say. It’s true that the numbers are staggering. There are an estimated 1.228 billion Catholics worldwide, served by 414,313 priests, 42,104 permanent deacons, 55,314 religious brothers and 702,529 female religious. All these figures (except the last) are growing. In 2012, the last year on record, the Church gained 14 million new members – disproving the surprisingly widespread notion that Catholicism is in overall decline.

But Catholicism’s secret is not its scale. The Church, founded by Christ on the rock of St Peter, is a rich repository of 2,000 years of prayer, thought and action. Catholics have already encountered, in analogous form, most of the moral dilemmas that we face today. Our finest minds have pondered the complexities and offered striking conclusions that often challenge the status quo.

To understand the world today you need at least a basic grasp of the Church

That is why, all over the world, Catholics stand at the forefront of debates about bioethics, marriage, poverty and immigration. Wherever human dignity is being trampled on, you are likely to find a Catholic protesting about it, sometimes at considerable risk to their lives.

Anyone who wishes to understand our world today needs at least a basic knowledge of Catholicism. But it’s not always easy to understand the Church’s inner workings. This is especially so in the age of Francis, a riveting and enigmatic pontiff who is disrupting the media’s cynical narrative about the Catholic Church. Even veteran Vatican watchers are struggling to keep up with a pope who is given to making sudden, dramatic and sometimes perplexing gestures.

That’s where we can help: for 126 years, the Catholic Herald newspaper has served as an authoritative guide to all things Catholic. Today, we renew our commitment to this role in our new magazine format. With our recently relaunched website bringing you breaking news every day, the Catholic Herald magazine aims to tell you what’s really happening in the Catholic Church. We will also strive to offer you fresh, hopeful and authentically Catholic commentary on current affairs.

This is the start of a great journey. We are delighted to have you as our travelling companions.

Taking a buzz saw to bureaucracy

We are very proud that the first major article to appear in the Catholic Herald magazine is by Cardinal George Pell, appointed by Pope Francis to overhaul the Vatican’s finances. The piece itself gives us a clue as to why the Holy Father chose the former Archbishop of Sydney for this task – daunting not just because the financial operations of the Holy See have been so complex, but also because the cardinal is fighting vested interests (vested in the robes of senior prelates, we might add). What stands out is the absolute clarity of Cardinal Pell’s language. “The Vatican is not broke,” he says simply, adding that the reason for this is that “hundreds of millions of euros were tucked away in particular sectional accounts and did not appear on the balance sheet”. Departmental heads behaved like popes, he suggests, “and very few were tempted to tell the outside world what was happening, except when they needed extra help”.

Such plain talking reflects the cardinal’s clear sense of purpose. The absence of jargon is significant, just as the presence of jargon in so many statements by bishops and functionaries around the world reflects indecision, complacency and a willingness to keep the faithful – that is, the people who put money in the collection plate – firmly in the dark.

Cardinal Pell’s radical simplification of the finances of the Curia, coupled with the independent scrutiny demanded by Pope Francis, offers a blueprint for the development of local churches everywhere. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI long ago recognised that national bishops’ conferences (and therefore their congregations) carried the burden of suffocating bureaucracy. Surely it is now time for the curial reforms initiated by his successor to be rolled out globally.

In England and Wales, some small progress has been made in this direction, notably by Bishop Egan of Portsmouth, who has dismantled much of his elaborate curia. We hope that all our bishops will pay close attention to the work of Cardinal Pell and slim down their operations so that money is spent on one thing only: putting into practice the teachings of Jesus Christ.


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