To those who thought that he was going to overturn the Church’s doctrine on admission to the sacraments for the civilly divorced and remarried, Pope Francis responded that “all doors are open, but we cannot say they can receive Communion. It would be a wound to marriage.” To those who thought that the joint declaration he signed with Moscow Patriarch Kirill had some particular weight, Pope Francis responded that “some things are questionable,” but that it was at least important to meet. And to those who continue to hold that the Church is experiencing a revolution through him, Pope Francis responded by paying homage yet again to the extraordinary work of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, thus deconstructing, once again, the prevailing narrative about his own pontificate. These are the highlights of the lates Pope Francis’ in flight conference, held Feb. 18.
Pope Francis’ press conferences on the plane are becoming a good occasion to understand his thought more deeply. Some things are clear, others must be read between the lines. However, there is a whole world behind Pope Francis that must be understood, and there are at least four issues that must be highlighted.
First, his relationship with the “hidden Vatican”. In the course of the years, Pope Francis has become more keenly aware that there is a world inside the Vatican very different from the way it is usually portrayed by the media. The Vatican is not merely a place where corruption, careerism or petty personal interests rule. Nor is it a place for illicit and murky dealings. True, many such stories are factual. But on the other hand, in many cases these stories are exaggerated by anti-Church propaganda whose final aim is to exclude the Church from the public square. The clergy sex abuse scandal story is a vivid example of this: despite Benedict XVI’s having strongly tackled the issue, the Church is still accused of trying to cover up these scandals.
In fact, norms issued in 2002 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – strongly required bishops to report any case to Rome. That is exactly the opposite of what had happened in previous years, when – because these cases were entrusted to a local authority – bishops used to cover up and/or move the abuser to another place.
Due homage was then owed to Pope Benedict XVI’s work, and Pope Francis provided it. And then – again speaking with journalists – he also explained where his reforms are headed. In the end, the direction this Pope has undertaken is the same that Benedict XVI planned, that is, a strengthening of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with an additional tribunal for second-level appeals (at the moment, presided over by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, who once served as Promoter of Justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and an additional secretary to help with facing the scandals. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has a different task: it helps to develop guidelines, to give practical advice, to elaborate best practices. These are the Commission’s tasks the way the Pope and the Commission describe them, as opposed to the opinions of some of the members of the Commission, who would prefer to address single issues.
The second issue at stake: the possibility for divorced and remarried to receive sacramental communion. During the press conference in the plane, Pope Francis was clear: “Integrating oneself in the Church does not mean receiving communion. I know Catholics, divorced and remarried, who attend Mass three, four times in a year,” and who want “to receive Communion, as if it were an honor. All doors are open, but we cannot say anymore that they can receive communion, this would be also a wound to marriages,” the Pope concluded. With this sentence, the Synod’s entire agenda in pursuit of doctrinal changes was swept away. Certainly, there is some possibility of a doctrinal opening, because Pope Francis is very sensitive to the issue of conscience, and the promoters of the agenda of mercy count on that. And that this discussion is still open is proved by the long note that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith drafted to comment on the text, highlighting every possible doctrinal problem. The post-synodal apostolic exhortation will be out before Easter, Pope Francis said. Probably, it will be published March 19. The document will show how Pope Francis reconciled his more orthodox soul with the progressive pushes coming from some of the Synod’s members – not from all of them, and not from the majority of the Synod Fathers, we must say.
It will be then important to observe how Pope Francis eventually explains any opening on this issue to the Church’s “outer boundaries”, that is, to those communities who strongly defended the traditional doctrine on marriage and family in the 2014 and 2015 Synods.
The defenders of the doctrine were mostly bishops coming from Africa and Eastern Europe. During the last Synod, one of the groups more courageous in defending traditional marriage was that of the Ukrainian bishops, led by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. This is the same Archbishop who lately expressed the disappointment of his people and of his Church for the joint declaration signed by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.
And here we come to the third issue: for Pope Francis, praxis is really more important than doctrine, an embrace is more important than a document, a friendship more important than an institutionally filtered opinion. During the in-flight presser, Pope Francis was asked about Major Archbishop Shevchuk’s reaction, which was expressed in an interview the Archbishop granted in order to highlight the Ukrainians’ disappointment as well as his own doubts about the joint declaration, which seemed to the Archbishop too imbalanced in favor of Russian positions, while it did not acknowledge Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Pope Francis showed a certain surprise at the Major Archbishop’s words. “We are on a first name basis,” he said, recalling the mutual trust they developed in Buenos Aires, when Archbishop Shevchuk led the Greek-Catholic diaspora in Argentina, and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The Pope then invited journalists to read the full text of the interview Shevchuk granted, and insisted that the critical remarks are found in the final part of the interview, in just a few lines. The Pope spoke of the interview as if it were a hymn to ecumenism, stressed that the dogmatic part is “orthodox in the good sense of the word.” The Pope said he appreciated the first part of the interview – moderate and correct – and he emphasized the bridges of dialogue built by Archbishop Shevchuk while he neglected their differences. He then insisted, “Everyone can have his own opinion,” and added, “How can we state who started a war?”
In this way, Pope Francis demonstrated his decision not to say anything aimed at tackling conflicts. He admitted that he accepts the document the way it is, but he also showed that he does not give too much importance to its practical consequences. During the flight from Cuba to Mexico, he called the joint declaration with Patriarch Kirill a “pastoral document,” despite the fact that the tones of the document are very political, especially when the Pope and the Patriarch jointly appeal to the international community. It was probably his way of deflating the impact and importance of the document. To Pope Francis, it is important only that the walk together started. The rest will come, no matter how the document will be manipulated.
This approach probably shows the strength and the limits of this pontificate. Pope Francis’ pontificate aims at building bridges, looking beyond Christianity, evangelizing. That’s the Jesuits’ charism. It is true that Catholics are now a creative minority, but Pope Francis’ rationale is not that of strengthening a minority and providing it with tools to bring light to the world. Pope Francis’ rationale is rather that of creating space so that the minority can expand.
Hence, the exaltation of popular piety that Pope Francis made evident in the long and silent prayer in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Patroness of the Americas. Pope Francis considers the Virgin the source of the faith of Mexico that now is hostage of narcos carteles and that, until some year ago, was hostage of the free-masonry that even prevented priests from wearing clerical clothing or from owning private property.
Pope Francis believes in a faith that extends itself by means of attraction. And saints are the engine of attraction. Pope Francis will canonize the “cristero”, José Sanchez del Rio, killed during the Cristiada, the anti-Christian persecution that shocked Mexico during the 1920’s. In this way, he is carrying forward a sort of “diplomacy of saints.” The Holy See has no diplomatic ties with Laos. But the Pope will recognize the martyrdom of 15 martyrs coming from there, with the (not secret) aim of strengthening the faith of that population. For the same reason, the canonization process of a North Korean saint is taking place.
The diplomacy of saints, of mercy, of the Holy Doors shows the frontline of Pope Francis’ new world. During the trip to Mexico, he did not hesitate to cancel the meeting with the world of culture: he prefers to be with people. He seems even unaware of the diplomatic rebounds his actions might have, though popes always have an impact.
Not by chance, John Paul II wanted to talk to presidents, wanted to admonish the world of culture, and this is how he organized his trips in order to give strong witness to the message of Christ. He nurtured this vocation during his years under Communism: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla did not push people for revolution; instead, he nurtured the new ruling class. History proved that Cardinal Wojtyla was right.
Benedict XVI mostly spoke to cultivated people and tried to create a dialogue between faith and reason. He had no interest in any political rebound; he aimed at developing a line of thought. If thought were directed toward truth, if it were well formed, the world would find conversion.
Pope Francis uses none of these approaches. He tries to be close to the people, almost unaware that his pastoral commitment necessarily carries with it a cultural, diplomatic and political commitment. The Holy See is the Pope. And the Holy See exists in order to promote the common good and to defend the most vulnerable people.
Pope Francis’ need to open new spaces for faith is the fourth issue that came out of the press conference, and probably the core issue of his pontificate. Pope Francis’ pontificate does not break with Church teaching – think about the continual appeals for the family during the trip to Mexico. But, on the other hand, his pontificate does try to open new spaces, and to do this he is also keen to compromise with the world. How much this compromise can help, is yet to be seen.