Pope Francis proved to be a dependable newsmaker—again—throughout 2015. But Francis' travels weren't the only big church news events which kept both the secular and religious press busy this year. Here is a rundown of the top stories in 2015 (and please feel free to let us know what you think we missed in the comments section!):
1.) Papal Visits to the Cuba-United States/South America/Africa: Pope Francis made news wherever he traveled in 2015. In South America, he blasted a global economic order that left too many of the world’s poor and vulnerable behind. His visit to Cuba and the United States was crowded with historic moments, including unprecedented speeches before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. In perhaps the most dangerous visit ever undertaken by a modern pope, Francis ended his visit to Africa by meeting with the embattled Muslim community in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. He urged peace and brotherhood between Christian, traditional and Muslim neighbors, and at the Bangui cathedral in this destitute and conflict-ridden nation Pope Francis first opened holy doors initiating a Jubilee year of Mercy.
2.) Christian persecution in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, sadly remains a top story throughout 2015. The Holy See implored the world’s major powers throughout the year to do more to protect Christians and other religious minorities from the menace of ISIS. At year’s end U.S. Christians were pressuring the State Department to declare the continuing attacks on Christians in the region a genocide.
3.) In June Pope Francis released an encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’,” that implored a global examination of conscience of humankind’s relationship with and responsibility to nature, especially in terms of building a framework for an appropriate response to global warming. He explored the notion of “integral development,” calling for a just and sustainable global economy. In the aftermath of the encyclical, throughout the year leading figures of the church globally urged stronger action against global warming. The church’s endorsement of those measures continued at the UN climate talks in Paris in December when a number of church figures and agencies encouraged practical, measurable commitments to restrain greenhouse gas emissions.
4.) A Synod on the Family convened in Rome in October produced lively headlines and an unprecedented openness among participants drawn from all over the church world. The remarkable synod produced frank talk about a host of issues that trouble modern family life, culminating with the release of a synod statement that, according to some participants, presented an opening to discernment and the possibility of eventual absolution and Communion for some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. The event was precipitated by a remarkable decree on annulments from Pope Francis meant to streamline what has been for many a too-arduous and costly process.
5.) U.S. unrest and violence: Throughout the year U.S. bishops had to respond to local civil unrest provoked by a number of incidents of alleged police brutality, including large scale civil disorder in Baltimore. The church is continuing to grapple with how to best respond to the associated rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement. The year was also crowded with 22 mass shooting incidents—from Oregon and California to Louisiana and South Carolina and more—that demanded local pastoral responses. In October Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago issued a powerful call for tougher gun control laws in a move that may push the volatile issue further up the Catholic hierarchy’s agenda than it has been before.
6.) Oscar Romero Beatified: The canonization process for the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero became “unblocked” under Pope Francis, a fellow Latin American. On Jan. 8 a panel of theologians advising the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes voted unanimously to recognize the late Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero as a martyr and on May 23 in a ceremony attended by thousands from all over the world, the murdered archbishop was beatified in the nation’s capital of San Salvador.
7.) Planned Parenthood videosreleased throughout 2015: These undercover videos captured Planned Parenthood officials in disturbingly cavalier discussions of a previously little understood trade in fetal tissue. The conversations provoked national outrage and calls for the end of federal money flowing into Planned Parenthood affiliates.
8.) U.S. bishops pushed backagainst anti-refugee sentiment following attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. A initial response among some U.S. political leaders to acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslims and the possibility that refugees routes out of Syria could be infiltrated by terrorists was to demand the end of refugee resettlement efforts. That position was roundly denounced by Catholic leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who urged the general public and politicians alike to continue to welcome people seeking to escape conflict or persecution in the Middle East.
9.) A Supreme Court Decision on June 26 confirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry in the United States, overturning statewide bans, despite strong resistance from Catholic church leaders. Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore said understanding the implications of the ruling will take time. He worried that it could affect "hundreds, if not thousands" of laws at all levels, creating, he said, ”a difficult road ahead for people of faith.”
10.) The resignation of a number of bishops worldwide suggests new expectations for accountability on child sex abuse scandal: Throughout the year the Holy See accepted a number of resignations from bishops, including two in the United States, who had become the source of local scandal because of inaction or poor judgment in responding to accusations of child abuse against priests within their dioceses. In June Pope Francis approved new procedures for the Vatican to investigate and judge claims of "abuse of office" by bishops who allegedly failed to protect minors and vulnerable adults from sex abuse. The procedures will include a new "judicial section" within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that has a papal mandate to "judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.”
Other big stories:
As calls to end the death penalty nationally and globally grew louder in 2015, Pope Francis urged its complete abolition.
The so-called right-to-die movement achieved a legislative success in California.
Vatileaks II: Released in November, two books on financial malfeasance at the Vatican were based on leaks of confidential reports produced by reform campaigns ordered by Pope Francis. The Vatican ordered five people to stand trial, including three Vatican officials suspected of giving material to Italian journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi.