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.
6) Duterte dilemma Rodrigo Duterte secured the presidency of the Philippines by openly promising to kill tens of thousands of the country’s criminals. Since he was sworn in last June, he has kept his word. The Church is in a precarious position: it wants to halt Duterte’s excesses but recognises that he is overwhelmingly popular and seemingly impervious to criticism.
7) Courting China Last year the Holy See and China seemed on the brink of a historic agreement on the appointment of bishops. Then things became murky: the Vatican was alarmed by the presence of an excommunicated bishop at episcopal ordinations. Then at a meeting of official Church leaders, a high-ranking Chinese official urged believers to maintain independence from Rome. It is unclear if the deal is dead or just on hold.
8) Vatican downsizing At the stroke of midnight on December 31, four pontifical councils disappeared – absorbed into a new body known as the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. In 2017, other Vatican departments may be consolidated.
9) Battle of the ministates Late last year there was an extraordinary standoff between two of the world’s smallest sovereign states. In December the Order of Malta deposed its Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, for the alleged concealment of “severe problems” from the Grand Magistry. Boeselager claims that his dismissal violates the order’s constitution. Pope Francis has created a commission to investigate the matter, but Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing says the move would violate the order’s sovereignty. With the Vatican seemingly determined to press ahead, there is likely to be a showdown this year.
10) Pro-life openings This could be an encouraging year for the pro-life movement, with the appointment of at least one sympathetic new US Supreme Court judge. In Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly will report to the government by the end of June on the country’s abortion law. There are tough skirmishes ahead, but pro-lifers could make major advances in 2017.