Pope Francis: the Need for New Keys of Interpretation
The “noise” Pope Francis wanted people to make (hacer lìo, make noise, is one of his favourite expressions) is bearing its fruits. The debate surrounding the upcoming Synod of Bishops is on, and it could not be any different than it is. There is a certain anxiety on each side: among those who fear that the truth of the faith is in danger, and among those aiming at what are packaged as “theological developments,” but actually are a real doctrinal revolution. A confrontation between conservatives and progressives is now said to be current again. In reality, however, this key to reading the current situation does not and cannot shed any light on the real discussion at stake; instead, it generates a conflict that will hardly be able to bring about consensus-based solutions. This key of interpretation was not useful even during the years of the Second Vatican Council, that is, during the historical moment when this dialectic developed.
One of Benedict XVI’s biggest legacies was his explanation of how the Second Vatican Council was biased. During his last, completely off-the-cuff, address to the Roman clergy, he spoke about a “real Council and a Council of the media.” He underscored that within the Council’s assemblies, the atmosphere was serene, that a strong desire prevailed within the Council to develop a new discourse, a conversation with the world, but one that always began from the Church’s tradition. This atmosphere was completely mis-reported by the media that often spoke about new openings and changes when there were no grounds for doing so.
The Council was not the only moment when media distorted the Church’s discourse. The opposition between the real Church and the media Church developed over the years following the Council. More than anyone else, Pope Paul VI had to keep the barque of Peter firm in front of the drift coming out from the debate between progressives and conservatives. Stuck in that debate, the Church could not look forward. Emblematic is the story of the encyclical “Humanae Vitae”, whose alleged opening to artificial contraception was spread through the leak of one of the reports of the commission that Paul VI had entrusted to consider the matters at stake.
The impasse in this polarized debate was finally overcome thanks to St. John Paul II’s energy and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s theological genius. St. John Paul II was a popular Pope who put into action a great pastoral interest and who was also capable of surprising gestures that grabbed media attention. At the same time, St. John Paul was firm in doctrine. On the other hand, Joseph Ratzinger was firm in doctrine, but was also able to read the signs of the times.
St. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger – together with many collaborators – initiated a plan to respect all the seeds of continuity within the Church, even though these seeds of continuity were part of an “original” reading of the signs of time. At the same time, this operation of respecting the seeds of continuity also aimed at sidelining all the theological drift deriving from any “original” reading. An example of this approach is shown in the way the issue of liberation theology was confronted. With two instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, liberation theology was first purified of its Marxist tendencies, and then embraced in terms of those of its principles that were judged closest to the Gospel.
When Benedict XVI became Pope, he continued to work on this project. Speaking with young people during the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, he warned against a “self-made” faith, and proposed a more adult faith in order really to believe in God. In the end, Benedict XVI proposed a jump in quality for young people, thus moving beyond the sterile debate between conservative and progressives, and directing his audience to the joy of the Gospel.
This plan was even clearer when Benedict XVI addressed the Swiss bishops in an off- the-cuff speech during their ad limina visita on November 9, 2006. The Pope said: “I remember, when I used go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems.
“If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.”
The same old-fashioned issues that Benedict XVI referred to in 2006 are now current again, despite the fact that the line taken up by Pope Francis does not seem to be so far from that of his predecessor. Pope Francis’ stances on desecularization are seemingly taken from Benedict XVI’s speeches to Catholics during his 2011 trip to Germany. Pope Francis’ stances against the exclusion of divorced and remarried from the Church’s life come directly from St. John Paul II’s 1981 post-synodal exhortation “Familiaris Consortio.”
Yet, there is a very strong attempt to depict Pope Francis’ pontificate as a progressive one, grounding it with some facts that allege to show how the Pope, in the end, is sympathetic toward those who are labeled as progressives. Some of the recent evidence in support of this reading is given in terms of Pope Francis’ possible appointments for the upcoming Synod of Bishops. There will be more than 300 bishops, and one third of them will be chosen by the Pope. Though the bishops’ conferences have generally elected bishops able to dialogue between tradition and the signs of the times (with some exceptions, like Germany), it is rumored that Pope Francis will choose “leftist” bishops as synod members.
Here are the rumors: out is Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, former Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, who took part in the 2014 Extraordinary Synod because he was head of a Roman curial dicastery: the Pope will not invite him back; in is Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, though American bishops voted for him only as a possible substitute at the Synod. Archbishop Cupich supports the strategy of dialogue with the world, and this is the reason he was so timid in his response to the US Supreme Court decision that legalized (and imposed) same-sex marriage in the United States.
Other possible appointments: in, once again, Cardinal Godfried Daneels, who in his home country, Belgium, left a Church divided and incapable of fighting against the secularist drift. Archbishop André-Joseph Leonard, his successor as Archbishop of Bruxelles, who undertook a huge task in restoring the Belgian Church, will not be part of the Synod, as he has already resigned due to the age limit for bishops. Belgium will be represented by Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, well-known for his positions pro Church regognition of gay relationships.
On the other hand, these analyses and interpretations of facts show how fallacious the debate between conservatives and progressives is. These terms do not take reality accurately into account. A sample of this lack of accuracy is, once more, provided by Benedict XVI. He is considered a conservative, but wasn’t he the first modern Pope to renounce the Petrine ministry, making the most shockingly modern decision of a Pope in the last four centuries?
The term “conservative” – or “traditionalist” – is constantly used in a pejorative sense, suggesting that those who want to keep the “depositum fidei” are not adapted to the times. But instead of talking any longer about the “progressive” side, the term is being dropped in favor of language indicating support for the idea of “a needed development of doctrine.” Although this expression is weaker than “progressive”, it is capable of suggesting that this side is more able than the other of living in the current times, and of not being out of date.
German Bishops are very eager to show that they are up-to-date. After the “Shadow Synod” held at the Gregorian University on May 25 (in fact, it was held in an international conference center inside the building of the Gregorian University), the same setting will be used for another gathering, consisting of homosexual couples, divorced and remarried couples, and couples in mixed Protestant-Catholic marriages. The goal is to show what families really are today. In the end, the organizers want to stress that this is the reality that should be taken into account by the Synod, beyond any Gospel ideal.
“Faithful voices, discerning hearts: marriage and family in the Church and society” is the theme of the symposium that will take place in Rome from September 10-12. The approach will be similar to that of the “Shadow Synod,” based on accepting the existing reality which doctrine cannot ignore.
It is, therefore, a sociological and pragmatic approach to the issues that puts to one side every long-term vision, and mostly aims to understand the concrete and immediate needs of the faithful. Perhaps, those who employ this approach might be described as pragmatists, while those who are struggling to keep the Gospel’s ideal alive could be called idealists. These two categories, however, do not satisfy the need for a proper description of the debates at stake.
Who are the conservatives today? They are those who try to read the signs of the times, but at the same time try to read them in the light of the Gospel and Tradition. They do not deny pastoral approaches per se, but they do not accept them at the expense of Catholic doctrine. Their goal is a development of doctrine without breaches with the Gospel and Tradition, and without any confusion on the part of the faithful. This development must therefore be based on fundamental truths, as these have been acknowledged for centuries despite many theological debates. More properly, they can be called “followers of the Gospel and Tradition.”
Who are progressives today? They are those who want a Church that is adapted to society, able to understand the world’s challenges and to be adequate to these challenges. They have a pragmatic-sociological approach. So pragmatic that they exploit any gesture, any choice, any decision of the Pope for their advantage. So pragmatic that they use the media to cultivate public opinion for their side. A good term to describe them is “adapaters.” They want to adapt doctrine to reality, and they do not care whether pastoral care is adapted to current doctrine, even though the guidelines of the upcoming Synod of Bishops declare this conformity to be necessary.
In the end, the dialectic is between “followers” and “adapters,” not between progressives and conservatives. This dialectic is much more nuanced, and it is yet to be understood as operative within this pontificate. Pope Francis’ pontificate is one that governs, it is pragmatic in its pastoral approach and less well-versed in the theological approach. However, this pontificate risks not generating the revolution that the “adapters” are aiming at, since the latter are perhaps hoping for a Church that achieves consensus with the world, even if it has to do so by adopting a secular terminology.
There is a lot of agitation on the adapters’ side. So much agitation that shadow synods are held in Rome whereas they are planned in similar, closed-door meetings in Germany that are not publicized. The upcoming meeting of September was prepared June 18 in Munich, with the new Bishop of Berlin, Heiner Koch, present. Last May’s “Shadow Synod” was also prepared at a meeting in Germany.
The master of ceremonies of these gatherings is Fr. Hans Lagendörfer, the Jesuit who serves as Secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference. It is rumored that he is quite close to the group “We Are Church,” that has sought long and hard for a new opening of the Church to society, and has also demanded priestly ordination for women. They want the Church to be a democracy with more participation on the part of the lay faithful.
The “adapters” are so agitated that they took out from the Synod Fathers’ mailboxes the book “Remaining in the Truth of Christ,” which contained the essays of five cardinals on the topic of marriage in response to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to the February 2014 Extraordinary Consistory. Removing these books was a way to silence a voice in the debate.
Moreover, the “adapters” are so agitated on learning that a new book, also containing essays by cardinals, will be published in the coming months, that they are labelling it “another rebuttal to Kasper’s thesis,” when, in fact, Cardinal Kasper is not at all the focus of this book. Instead, the book puts forward, in a positive perspective, pastoral proposals in harmony with the doctrine of the Church. Meanwhile the editor of this book is a German professor, and not the same editor as in “Remaining in the Truth of Christ.” This new book is the response of “followers” to “adapters.” In the end these followers are saying that there is a pastoral way forward that can be explored, one that does not require faith to be adapted to reality, and does not require giving up the goal of shaping society according to the Catholic doctrine of the common good.
This pontificate is the setting for a debate between adapters and followers. The dialectic between these two groups extends into every field of theology and Church life. For example, in the field of Curia reform: “followers” constitute the so-called “Hidden Vatican,” while “adapters” are those who are working for a merely functional reform of the structures – a worldly reform, indeed.
We cannot understand this pontificate without the lens of this dialectic that represents the evolution of the contrast between conservatives and progressives.