An unexpected side effect of Pope Francis’ trip to United States came out when the news broke that he had secretly met Kim Davis in Washington. Kim Davis is the Kentucky county employee jailed in the last month because she not only practiced the conscientious objection by refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex marriages, she also forbade her staff from issuing them.
The several interpretations – and over interpretations – that followed the news of the meeting show a general concern about Pope Francis’ pontificate. It has been depicted as a revolutionary pontificate, but how does this image square with the fact that the Pope is also committed to fostering religious freedom and conscientious objection, and that is not willing to recognize same-sex marriage? Weren’t these the very topics that Pope Francis put to the side?
The truth is that these topics were never put aside by Pope Francis, as the trip to the United States made evident. Always in keeping with his personal style, he let it be understood that those topics really matter to him. During the trip in the US, he never clearly referred to particular issues, but spoke in general terms. The message was clear however.
On the other hand, the meeting with Kim Davis carried with it the risk that he would go beyond giving legitimate support to conscientious objection. The meeting could be interpreted as support for the fight to prevent the registration of same-sex marriage. With the Synod of Bishops approaching, this interpretation could be devastating to some in the secular world who want to adapt the doctrine of the Church to reality.
The Synod of Bishops on the Family starts in earnest today, and many consider this the showdown. Certainly, after the Synod the Pope’s position will be clearer. Will the Pope be so courageous as to take a strong stance at the end of the Synod’s discussion? In his final speech will the Pope clarify the Church’s direction, or will he carry the discussion on further? And how will the Pope maintain the unity of the Church?
Questions accumulate. In the meantime, each party is working actively to shape the Synod’s discussions. Meetings have multiplied, and so have interviews. On the side of the doctrine adapters, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the “chief” of the promoters of the agenda of mercy, spoke with the prominent Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera.” He underscored the need for a change, and proposed the same narrative as always: whoever is against his agenda of mercy is against Pope Francis.
On the other side, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra – whom Pope Francis holds in great esteem, and whom he recently appointed member of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints – made a different proposal. One of the contributors of the “Eleven Cardinals Book,” he called for a pontifical document, “a catechism,” to clarify Catholic teaching on marriage and family. Who knows whether the Pope will take this proposal into account or not?
Beyond the “Eleven Cardinals Book,” there is another one that will play a fundamental role in the discussion. Titled “Christ’s New Homeland,” the book collects the contributions of ten African prelates – 5 cardinals and 5 bishops. The book not only focuses on the issues at stake, it also deals with some typical African problems, such as polygamy.
One section of the book is exclusively dedicated to the analysis of the text of the Synod’s working document. This latter is depicted in all of its weakness.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship, and Bishop Barthelemy Adokonou, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, authored that part. They both found gaps in the working document.
Bishop Adokonou noticed that “the fundamental methodological limitation that we observe in the document lies in the fact that it utilizes the resources of almost all the human and social sciences to put into context the topic of the family today without bringing to light the most important background, namely, the historical choices that led to this disaster.”
Cardinal Sarah, on his side, lists some of his incomprehension over a gradualism that reached “unacceptability” when the working document seemed to endorse civil marriage as a step in a couple’s preparation for Catholic marriage.
Cardinal Sarah questions: “To what population does the document address this reality of civil marriages as a preparation for sacramental marriage? To the baptized members of the Church or to sympathetic pagans in areas where an initial evangelization is being conducted? Unless it applies to the neo-pagans in the countries of former Christendom!”
The real issue is to be clear when proclaiming the faith. Still, Cardinal Sarah maintains that “the lack of a clear position and all the confusion that we note in the “Relatio synodi” are obvious signs, not only of a deep crisis of faith, but also of an equally deep crisis in pastoral practice: pastors hesitate to set out clearly in one direction.”
On his side, Bishop Adokonou provides the example of St. Benedict, who, while civilization was collapsing in Europe, retired on a mountain, and from there he built a new civilization, whose main goal was “quaerere deum”, seeking for God.
“For the sake of attracting people, we do not want to put ourselves into situations that would compromise our values, under the illusion of being open to the world in that way,” underscored Bishop Adokonou.
This last sentence highlights one of the main limits of the Synod. The Catholic Church is committed to a profound work of renewal. One of the main concerns is reviving the Church’s image, and not by chance under Pope Francis communication has become so important that there is an ad hoc Secretariat for it. The Secretariat for Communication is charged with reducing the expenses and unifying the contents of the several Vatican media branches. The notion of “going toward the peripheries” grabs the audience’s attention. In fact, the notion even suggests the need to reach out for the maximum audience possible.
The real issue is: which are the peripheries? According to Cardinal Sarah, this is clear.
“The beautiful Christian families that are heroically living out the demanding values of the Gospel are today the real peripheries of our world and of our societies, which are going through life as though God did not exist.”
Considering the discussion at stake, Cardinal Sarah’s words show that the “Emperor has no clothes.” Until now, media discussion focused mostly on “disciplinary issues,” such as access to sacramental Communion for the divorced and remarried. But there has as yet been only a poor focus on the families that need to be preserved and defended against “ideological colonization” (this is one of Pope Francis’ favorite expression).
This lack of focus on families will certainly be considered by Pope Francis. Pondering the pontifical appointments to the Synod, it is easy to think that the Pope wants the balance to swing toward the adapters’ side, more than toward the defenders’. This impression also gained traction when Cardinal Godfried Daneels’s biography was published in the last weeks. The cardinal is the former archbishop of Brussels, well known for his overly bold positions in terms of doctrine, and number 2 among Pope Francis’ pontifical appointments to the Synod.
What stands out is that Cardinal Daneels admitted he was part of a “mafia” to overturn Benedict XVI, and revealed that meetings of this group took place in Sankt Gallen, Switzerland. This mafia would include Cardinals Carlo Maria Martini, Achille Silvestrini, Basil Hume, Adrian Van Luyn, Walter Kasper e Karl Lehmann.
The meetings ended in 2006. So the media frenzy concerning the issue should also chill. More than a plot, these were private meetings. Cardinals often meet to discuss issues. They do so even in view of an upcoming conclave, in order to find out who is the best candidate and propose a direction for the Church.
That this “mafia” had really had any real impact on Pope Francis’ election is yet to be demonstrated. Cardinal Hume died in 1999, Cardinal Silvestrini never made it into a conclave. However, it is no mystery that groups of cardinals identify their candidate. And it was Austen Ivereigh, Pope Francis’ biographer, who explained that there was a ‘team Bergoglio’ who backed Francis’ election.
More than a “mafia” we are talking about groups that naturally take shape around certain issues. When they identify a candidate, they think about their candidate’s possible agenda. Or they provide the candidate the agenda themselves.
This last hypothesis has seemingly come true with Pope Francis. Behind Pope Francis’ back there is the agenda of those who are trying to revive their old theology which sought to overturn of the doctrine of marriage and sexuality. This agenda is strongly supported by media.
Not by chance, any critical take on Pope Francis is labeled as “traditionalist” or “against Pope Francis.” Books like “Remaining in the Truth of Christ”, or “11 Cardinals Speak” and “Christ’s New Homeland” are considered books drafted by opposers. Conferences on these books, or discussions about their topics, are described as “cliques against Pope Francis.”
The idea of a pro-Francis plot at the conclave represents a kind of forced interpretation of reality, just as much as it is a forced interpretation to paint those who defend traditional marriage and sexual ethics as critics of Pope Francis.
In this pontificate, the presumed papal will has been used as a stick to free oneself of his enemies, or at least to discredit them. The debate is anything but serene. It is mostly imbalanced by an over-interpretation of Pope Francis’ words, and on an over-evaluation of the Pope himself.
The desired narrative of each side is that the Church has really changed its face under Pope Francis. But in the end this is a narrative that works against the Church, because although individuals can make an impact on history, they are never more than the institution. Popes pass away, the institution remain. The focus should be rather set on the history, evolution and continuity of the institution, and not on a single individual, as if the individual is in contrast with the institution he leads.
Now that Pope Francis is seemingly showing his wish to return to the traditional issues – the same issues it was taken for granted had been put aside – the media frenzy rises up again.
Here’s the reason why the meeting with Kim Davis is important. The meeting was probably managed clumsily. Immediately afterward, the media tried to minimize the meeting by interpreting it in the most accurate way, that is, by stressing that the Pope did not know in depth the case he was going to end up endorsing. Instead, the meeting with Kim Davis has been depicted as one of the most unexpected meetings the Pope had in the US.
Both of these takes are legitimate. As it is also legitimate to emphasize that Pope Francis is often over-interpreted by those wanting to back an agenda, even in spite of the Pope’s will.
Now that the Synod is approaching, Pope Francis will be called to take a stance. If his position is not the expected one, he will probably face what we can call the “Humanae Vitae” effect.
When Paul VI issued the encyclical “Humanae Vitae” in 1968, he did not meet the world’s expectations since the encyclical backed natural law and rejected contraception. The media played their role by fostering expectations in favor of change. The same media who were ready in the end to crucify Paul VI. Pope Francis praised his predecessor for his courage. And now perhaps he will follow in his footsteps.