Last year proved beyond all doubt that journalists are terrible at predicting the future. Few commentators foresaw Brexit, the emergence of François Fillon in France or Donald Trump’s presidency. With that in mind, we offer this guide to 10 topics that are likely to feature prominently in coverage of the Catholic Church in 2017. They are in no particular order and do not pretend to be exhaustive.
1) Dubia drama When Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on the family, last April the reaction was relatively muted. But as sharply divergent readings of the text emerged, a group of four cardinals submitted five dubia, or “doubts”, to the Pope. Cardinal Burke, the most vocal signatory, says the cardinals will issue a “formal act of correction” if they receive no reply. This is a dramatic development that threatens to destabilise this pontificate and heighten polarisation within the Church.
2) Hyper-extremism Aid to the Church in Need’s Religious Freedom in the World report, issued late last year, made for chastening reading. According to the charity, religious liberty has declined even further in almost half of the world’s 23 most oppressive nations. Minorities are facing a new phenomenon of “Islamist hyper-extremism”, which has the effectively genocidal aim of eliminating religious diversity. The civilised world – including, of course, many Muslims – will continue to struggle to contain this evil in 2017.
3) Debating deaconesses One of the biggest papal surprises of 2016 was Pope Francis’s decision to create a commission to examine the role of female deacons in the early Church. The Study Commission on the Women’s Diaconate, as it is known, consists of six men and six women. Some members want the Church to appoint women deacons, others think this is impossible. It’s hard to see the commission finding much common ground.
4) Looking east This year Pope Francis is expected to make his third trip to Asia, a continent where just 12.6 per cent of the population is Christian. He is expected to visit India and Bangladesh, where Catholics comprise 0.2 per cent of the population. The trip should bolster inter-religious relations and encourage vulnerable minorities.
5) Diplomatic overdrive Pope Francis made an unusually direct personal intervention in another country’s politics last month when he brought together Colombia’s president and his main opponent in an effort to seal a peace deal. He is also seeking to end the crisis in Venezuela and keeping a watchful eye on his home country of Argentina. He may also renew his efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If things go well, it could be a landmark year for papal diplomacy.
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