If there is going to be a turning point in Pope Francis’ pontificate, it will happen at the upcoming Synod on the family. Documents and texts about the issues at stake at the Synod have already been circulating, and they show that many within and outside the Church are looking forward to this event, expecting it to outline the Catholic Church’s new direction. This new direction does not merely deal with the topics under discussion at the upcoming Synod; instead, it will show what Pope Francis really thinks. And – as a consequence – it will define how the secular world will continue to react to Pope Francis’ initiatives.
With a series of articles in its latest issue, the Jesuit-run magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica” has already marked the fields of discussions, showing that positions are varied even within the Jesuit world. Fr. Antonio Spadaro’s interview with Cardinal Georges Cottier seemed to push the elderly Swiss Cardinal to give a certain kind of response, in order to legitimate the “line of mercy.” Fr. Giampaolo Salvini’s comment on the Synod’s working document, on the other hand, shed light on the deficits in the same document.
Last Wednesday Pope Francis personally tackled one of the issues. During the first summer general audience following a short summer break, the Pope insisted that “divorced individuals are not excommunicated,” thereby raising the hopes of a world-wide media that did not hesitate to grab and highlight his words with great fanfare. However, the media did not consider – and veteran Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister noticed it – that Pope Francis’ words came directly from the Familiaris Consortio, the 1981 post-synodal exhortation of St. John Paul II on marriage and family. The media also failed to note that Pope Francis did not even mention the issue of the access to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
What does the Pope really think about the issues concerning the family? And what does he really think about the Church? A response to these questions can be gleaned from a collection of snippets of interviews and improvised talks by the Pope, even though a final response still seems too far away.
On the one hand, Pope Francis possesses an extraordinary pastoral attention, so pragmatic as to seem cynical. He does not think through abstractions or principles, but goes directly to concrete matters. Some time ago, he told one women who lamented that she could not receive Communion, because she was married to a divorced man, to go to another church where no one knew her - though the story raised some doubt. Time and time again the Pope has insisted that no one is excluded from God’s mercy, not even the divorced and remarried. In like manner, his statement that Christians are not called to “breed like rabbits” did not change a comma in Church teaching on responsible parenthood, but shocked many because of the sharp way he said it.
On the other hand, Pope Francis has described himself as “a son of the Church,” and demonstrated his very conservative inclinations in his general audiences dedicated to family that began before the summer break. During these audiences, he attacked the ideological colonization of the family, criticized gender ideology and defended the traditional family, expressing preoccupation over the fall in birth rates.
Nevertheless, real problems appear when Pope Francis moves beyond the pastoral dimension. Where does he want to lead the Church? What is the final goal of this continual ‘synod-like’ movement, of the ongoing meetings of the Council of Cardinals, of this never-ending discussion that is reflected in the media?
The impression is that everything is enclosed in one formula that Pope Francis loves: “hacer lìo,” that is “making noise.” In the end this motto and its consequent behavior is fostering a wide-open, spirited discussion from which the Pope will be able to draw in order to make decisions.
From a certain point of view, Pope Francis is really a man of government. He is above all a man alone at the commands, who listens to every recommendation but makes his own decision without being overly concerned about anyone else’s opinion. The Pope is particularly sensitive to any move that can improve the Church’s media image, as this generates gains in credibility.
Even when he was serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio really kept the image issue in mind. A narrative developed surrounding him as a bishop who traveled with public transport, lived frugally, and cooked for himself and for an older priest, and as a priest who tried to be as close as he could to people.
All of these gestures are part of a pastoral care that the world seemingly needed a great deal. Moreover, while these gestures obviously generate a consensus, they also raise expectations. What if the Pope will be called on to make a thoroughly doctrinal decision?
This is the reason that the upcoming Synod of Bishops in October will be a litmus test. It is not the importance of the Synod itself that will matter; it is just a consultative body that issues suggestions, not decisions. Instead, the Synod will be a litmus test because Pope Francis will have to decide whether to accept these suggestions, or not to do so. And whatever he decides to do will be meaningful.
Not by chance, a certain agitation surrounds the Synod. The German bishops have already taken a step by emphasizing that local Churches are not branches of Rome. Was that a way to stay above the fray if they do not agree with the Pope’s post-synodal decisions? The African bishops, under the guidance of Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, moved independently to defend traditional Catholic teaching. Will their voices be heard? The European bishops focused their discussions on the role of family, switching the agenda from sacramental Communion for the divorced and remarried to the meaning of marriage for young people. Will this line be taken into consideration?
In the end, if Pope Francis wanted to “hacer lìo” and thus uncover the different positions within the Church, he certainly succeeded in his purpose.
The ongoing discussion, however, has been of value, as it has shed light on another, more profound, issue. Those who are advancing the debate do not have theology as their guide, but sociology. Revelation is not the starting point. The starting point is trying to understand how Revelation fits the current times.
This path began with the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Paul Poupard, who has been a Vatican collaborator since the 50s, recounted that some of the most important declarations of the Council started with the reading of the signs of the times, not from theological roots, as was usual, and this change was groundbreaking. Nevertheless, the Council’s most important declarations were still anchored in a high caliber theological debate, which was not lost, but rather improved, when the declarations were drafted.
After the Council followed the dramatic period of the Council’s reception, and it was often thought that the signs of the times were now the guidelines on which to ground Church documents and practices. To sum it up with a formula, reality is the measure of everything, including the Gospel ideal. Liberation theology is an outcome of this ambiguity, as it places the poor, not Christ, at the center of the Gospel.
The problem is that of reversing a paradigm, and efforts to turn it around back to its theological roots were not always successful. Benedict XVI tried to do so, and his efforts can be seen in the preparation work for the 2007 Conference of Aparacida, whose final document is a reference point for Pope Francis. In more general terms, Benedict XVI based all of his work on the goal of providing a common foundation and theological roots to all of the Church’s activities. This rationale is, for instance, behind his reform of the Church’s charities that concluded with the drafting of new statutes for Caritas Internationalis and to the publication of a motu proprio on Catholic charities in 2012.
Despite the fact that there are lines of continuity between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, the two popes also had a different design for the Church. Benedict XVI wanted a pure and purified Church, free from moralism and secularism, even though small in numbers. He described it as a “creative minority” during his trip to the Czech Republic in 2009, a creative minority capable, with the strength of the Gospel, to address society and to shape it.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, seems to prefer an inclusive Church, and he is not so worried about purity of thought. Pope Francis’ Church begins reflection from the social data and tries to find pastoral solutions that fit it. This is the sense of the encyclical “Laudato Si”, which, in the end, is a summary of the social teaching of the Church imbued with a strong pragmatism, while its moral reasoning is strongly linked to concrete human behavior. This is also the sense of the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” which contains one of the Pope’s favorite formulas: “Reality is more than an idea.”
If this is the Church Pope Francis aims at, no structural revolution for the Church’s organization should be expected, since the Pope simply does not care much about it and considers it just useful sometimes for the organization and the mission of the Church. No doctrinal revolutions are to be expected, as well: social issues are more important, and so theology is something on the back burner. It is not by chance that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was called “La Suprema” in former times, is now left out of any project of reform – and it is sometimes rumored that its structure might also be dismantled.
The sidelining of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is also part of a long-term process, which began with Pope Paul VI’s curial reform – the constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae. After the promulgation of the new constitution, the Secretariat of State, once the last of the pontifical dicasteries in the annual yearbook, was elevated to the first of dicasteries, as a management and diplomatic center.
When the issuance of a new apostolic constitution was under discussion – Pastor Bonus promulgated in 1988 – part of the discussion concerned the role of the State Secretariat. This role is still under discussion, a fact that shows how the Church is still living with old debates.
In the end, what should be expected from Pope Francis’ pontificate? Perhaps, on an internal level, more stress on the internal organization of dicasteries, and on the outside, an increased focus on pastoral issues.
Facing so many expectations, there is the risk of a “Humanae Vitae” effect. Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control and contraception, issued in 1968, generated such a division within the Church that he did not write another encyclical after it.
The division was an outcome of a media campaign, smartly orchestrated so that the public was informed that the pontifical experts were open to contraception. The campaign consisted in leaks of a document – with the alleged exchange of money – that was published at the same time by The Tablet, Le Monde and the National Catholic Reporter, the “bibles” of progressive Catholicism. This reading of the facts was dismissed by Giovanni Colombo, one of the members of the Paul VI’s appointed commission, who wrote about the maneuvering behind the document in a 2007 paper for a northern Italian theological journal.
Still today, media pressure risks raising expectations that will likely be dashed. Pope Francis seems to try to be media savvy; he does not trust the media and wants to dominate them. Attention to communication is a leit motiv of this pontificate. As a result, this pontificate focuses on day-to-day issues, not on delivering a profound message. Whether this strategy will be a winner, only time will tell.