The biggest challenge for the Church under Pope Francis is likely that of unity. Not ecumenical unity, but within the Catholic faith. There is, indeed, no path towards unity with others if there is no unity within herself.
How can Pope Francis face the challenge of unity? Until now, Pope Francis left everyone free to discuss issues until he finally reached a conclusion. Pope Francis’ conclusions, however, have never been closures. They mostly led to openings for new discussions. Pope Francis loves to make decisions himself. At the same time, he does not like to close the arguments.
This modus operandi was evident with the publication of the Apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The document did not touch any doctrinal truth, and yet it had some openings that could eventually affect the doctrinal truth.
Pope Francis used the same modus operandi for the women deacons issue: he established a second commission after the first commission did not reach unanimous conclusions. The only agreement was that there had already been a study on that.
Pope Francis also used this modus operandi regarding the viri probati, men of proven faith who could be ordained priests. The issue seemed to be at the center of the Special Synod for the Panamazonic region. Pope Francis did not even mention it in the post-Synod exhortation Querida Amazonia. Indeed, this was not a central issue for the Pope. At the same time, it is true that he just left things open, and now many are pushing for doctrinal innovations based on some alleged implicit meaning on Pope Francis’ decision.
Pope Francis’ Church, in a state of permanent synod, risks failing to be united. The bishops, in the end, keep working according to their particular situations. They do not even wait anymore for a word from the Pope. If they get any, they sometimes keep on doing what they want.
It happened in Germany. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, kept the Synod for the Church of Germany the way he designed it, even though Pope Francis’ letter invited the Synod to be mindful of its local prerogatives, which cannot be binding on the universal Church.
The Synod continued, and so proposals of changes in terms of sexuality, women’s priesthood, and contraceptions were discussed. Only after the publication of the Querida Amazonia, Cardinal Marx said he was going to live the presidency of the German Bishops’ Conference. He reiterated his point of view in a book he authored, Freiheit (freedom), out May 25, 2020.
Cardinal Marx is “obsessed” with the theme of freedom. He thinks and laments that the Church lacks behind in embracing the notion of liberty. He complains that there are many, in the Church, who “fundamentally teach pure obedience to God and so they do not integrate the notion of freedom in their beliefs.” Those people, bishops included, “are still too strongly oriented towards strategies of self-preservation.”
His words sound like a frontal attack against those who object to reforms. And according to Cardinal Marx, these reforms mean giving more power to women, allowing them to be ordained, at least ordained deacons.
Is the female genius honored just by giving to women essential positions? Pope Francis says no, but at the same time, he winks at those who expect some revolutionary initiative. This is the reason why he once said, during an inflight press conference, that he had also considered a woman for the position of prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.
Valuing women is not proven by appointing more of them to significant positions. However, this is the way it is interpreted now. The diocese of Fribourg, in Switzerland, just named a woman as “episcopal delegate”, that is, in the end, a sort of “vice bishop,” like the general vicar. Bishop of Fribourg Charles Morerod, who made the appointment, is, in general, well-known for his conservative point of view. This is one of the reasons why his decision is striking.
Bishop Morerod’s decision must be understood in the problematic situation of the Church in Switzerland, rather than in an opening to women. Appreciation for women does not depend on their getting essential positions. Women ordinations are not possible because of theological matters, but this does not affect the importance a woman can have.
All of these small pieces of news show some cracks in the Church’s unity. And the lack of unity became evident when the local Churches responded to the outbreak of coronavirus and to the fact that there was no possibility of public celebrations.
Pope Francis asked all to follow the government’s indications. The local Churches also had to listen to their faithful, who pushed for public Masses, because some of the provisions just seemed unreasonable. The Church in Italy committed to a negotiation with the Italian government. The Church in France protested against President Macron’s decision not to reopen churches until June and sued the State. The French Church won the case.
If the Church in France can be pitched as an example of defending freedom of worship, in other places the Church did not speak up and followed the Pope’s line. Was this line good for the Church? Or did this line create a precedent detrimental to freedom of worship?
These signs of lack of unity must not be underestimated. They don’t emerge in opposition to the Pope; they are the result of particular situations. Sometimes it is about exploiting the Pope’s image or openings; other times the Pope is ignored. Every time there is a design behind them.
We should also watch out for the narrative that says that the Pope is surrounded by enemies. This narrative was created by those who are pushing for a change and want to claim the Pope to their side.
Pope Francis will hardly drift from the Church’s tradition. His modus operandi, however, opened many possibilities for those who want to exploit them. The situation is favored by the fact that the Pope’s appeal to unity among people is based on their shared concrete values, like welcoming migrants, while neglecting spiritual values.
This is how the Church took on a secularized mentality. So, the Church is not looking for an interior communion anymore. It is divided between a majority and an opposition. Pope Francis will win only if he can go beyond this situation.