The start of the Synod of bishops last week coincided with a definitive paradigm shift in the pontificate of Pope Francis. After ten years, having almost completed the generational transition in the College of Cardinals and Roman Curia, Pope Francis emerged without a mask, projecting his ideas and mentality. He no longer needs to make compromises or find balance. He says and does what he thinks is right without worrying about the consequences.
The signs of this paradigm shift had already become evident with the Traditiones Custodes and then the responses to the dubia on Amoris Laetitia. In that case, Pope Francis was not afraid to make a radical break with what had been done previously and with the past, almost imposing his vision of the Church even on realities that perhaps bore much fruit. Then, there was the decision to reform Opus Dei, which effectively abolished the institution of personal prelatures as John Paul II had envisaged them and radically changed the structure of Opus Dei. And even before that, it is worth remembering that the Praedicate Evangelium, the constitution reforming the Curia, had been published suddenly, without warning, without translations, and with a press conference that only later explained its scope.
Last week, however, the paradigm shift became complete, as demonstrated by three developments that seem separate but are instead intimately connected:
- The response to the dubia of five cardinals, representing the five continents, on some doctrinal questions that have recently arisen;
- The response to the dubia raised by Cardinal Dominik Duka, archbishop emeritus of Prague, on applying the exhortation Amoris Laetitia;
- The publication of the exhortation Laudate Deum, which is an update of Laudato Si.
The responses to the dubia were written by Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and submitted to the Pope. The Laudate Deum is a text that is written entirely by Pope Francis, so much so that the original is in Spanish, and there is not even, at least for now, a so-called editio typica in Latin.
These three developments show that the Pope is no longer afraid of coming out into the open and that he intends to say precisely what he thinks. Ultimately, the decision to call his friend Fernandez to Rome was also born from the need for help to carry forward his agenda of renewal of the Church.
Pope Francis had never wanted to answer the questions posed to him on doctrinal issues, avoiding generating controversy.
The dubia of four cardinals presented in 2016, which complained of a generic, vague, and non-unitary application of Amoris Laetitia, had remained unanswered, suspended while the interpretations of the exhortation multiplied. But the Pope himself said how to interpret the exhortation, responding to the guidelines of the priests in the Buenos Aires area by saying that that was “the only possible interpretation” and asking to insert the Pope’s letter and the guidelines sent to him in the Acta Apostolicae Sedi, the official documents of the Holy See.
Pope Francis no longer cunningly avoids responding directly by sending signals instead. In contrast to the texts (sometimes very vague, if not ideological) of the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Francis states a clear position, shows his idea of the evolution of the doctrine, puts aside any interpretation that differs from his own and indeed reiterates the independence of the bishops in managing some situations.
The Pope does not take responsibility for making fundamental changes in the doctrinal field. However, he accepts a rhetoric that is neither a yes or a no, and refers everything to personal discernment. It was an approach, after all, already practiced in parishes and local Churches, evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Now, however, Pope Francis also removed a doctrinal reference. Discernment must be made in concrete situations, which means that there are openings that, ultimately, also affect the doctrine of the Church.
The Pope says no to the blessings of any form of union that is not a marriage between a man and a woman and open to life, and also reiterates his “no” to homosexual unions. But then he underlines that grace acts mysteriously, so a blessing cannot be denied. He, therefore, opens the door to the blessings of homosexual couples, if the local bishops deem it appropriate.
And then, the answers reiterate that divorced and remarried people, to have access to communion, are called to live “as friends” and in “continence.” Still, Cardinal Fernandez notes that, in some cases, this continence is complex and this must be taken into account. In short, Reconciliation cannot be denied because, in the end, not everyone manages to live a fully Christian life.
What is striking is precisely the meaning of Christian life. It is described as an ideal, not a vocation, and an ideal risks not being concrete and not responding to the needs of some, if not many. But this notion of ideal – and of mercy applied to difficulty – somehow puts the very structure of faith at risk. In the end there are no more martyrs, nor heroes, because it is accepted that the Christian life cannot be lived fully.
Instead, the Pope wants the Christian vocation to be lived fully in the social sphere. Witness the exhortation Laudatum Deum, which publication represents the third of this week’s noteworthy events. How does the exhortation relate to responses to the dubia? The exhortation is Pope Francis’ most political document. Relatively short (14 pages), it upends the traditional order in Catholic documents of moving from the general to the particular.
For Pope Francis, however, we start from the particular, that is, from the environmental data, and it matters little whether this data is primarily from often contested international documents which, by their very nature, present variables. The Pope instead underlines that this data represents the truth and should not be dismissed. Those who contest the data, in the end, do so for economic reasons, not scientific reasons.
The Laudate Deum is Pope Francis’ most political exhortation because the Pope no longer needs to hide behind the framework of tradition. He says directly what he wants to say, without filters. The Pope chooses to write an exhortation because, unlike an encyclical, it is a more personal document. It can also circumvent the various dicasteries that verify theological consistency.
Laudato Si was also a political document, born from a particular contingency wanting to influence the debate. It was not, however, as political as the (not defined apostolic) exhortation Laudate Deum, intended for all men of goodwill, which goes on for 60 paragraphs before describeing its theological basis only from paragraph 61 but only takes 14 sections to point the finger at those who, even within the Catholic Church, are skeptical of climate change.
Thus, the responses to the dubia and the apostolic exhortation show Pope Francis’ definitive paradigm shift. The Pope has removed his mask, no longer has filters, and feels safe to speak.
Criticisms against the Pope are immediately silenced as opposition and as an attack on the Pope. Voices slightly different from that of the Pope are silenced or fall victim to ideology, and when it is not the Pope who speaks clearly, there are the “guardians of the revolution” who work on the papal narrative, defend him in every aspect, and protect him in the media by reformulating his statements.
Currently, the idea is that the Papacy lives by itself, isolated and detached from other pontificates and the History of the Church – although it is in History for various reasons. It is no coincidence that papal documents cite, in most cases, documents from Pope Francis himself, and rarely any previous Pope, except occasionally Paul VI or John XXIII. The pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI seem almost like a parenthesis in the History of the Church. Is it because Pope Francis is anchored in the Seventies, or simply because he has decided to proceed differently?
In the end, we have a Pope who responds and says what he thinks, even if sometimes vaguely. Meanwhile, the start of the Synod has opened the laboratory of the Church of the future. Will it be a Church in the image and likeness of Pope Francis?