Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, presented a book by Vatican expert Ignazio Ingrao on the “Five questions that agitate the Church” on April 24th. In his speech, he outlined Pope Francis’s reform efforts as a path that cannot be reversed, for which there should be a commensurate pastoral response everywhere, and ultimately an ethical and moral response.

Parolin acknowledged that we’ll need patience to work out the best ways of putting Pope Francis’s reforms to good use, and even recognized that the Church is “in a storm” of the kind that calls to mind the one that assailed Peter’s barque in the Gospel of Matthew.

Answers to Ingrao’s five questions will have to make sense of things like synodal reform – including a renewed role for lay people and women – the place of young people in the Church and the world, , attention to the poor, and evangelization.
The one thing Parolin said with certainty was that there can be no going back on Pope Francis’s reforms.

But is it really like that? Are we faced with irreversible paths? And is talking about reform adequate to understanding Pope Francis’s pontificate?

These are not controversial questions. Instead, it is necessary to establish how much of Pope Francis’ work has been narrative and how much has been concrete. How much has been focused on the image of the Pope and the poor Church for the poor, and how much was instead on the actual thing?

First of all, an irreversible path is one on which there simply is no going back because the way has been cut off. So, let’s consider the facts.

“The name of God is mercy,” an expression very dear to Pope Francis, was coined and used by Benedict XVI. The role given to lay people and women was already present and had been under development in one direction, before Francis rerouted.

There were no lay heads of curial departments, but this was because the governing ecclesiology provided that the heads of departments, governing with the Holy Father, had to be “in college” with the Holy Father and, therefore, at least bishops. Yet, there were lay people at the top and in roles of responsibility; the historic director of the Holy See Press Office, Joaquin Navarro Valls, was also a member of the pontifical delegation to the UN Congress on Population and Development in Beijing, Mary Ann Glendon was Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Should one judge a responsibility and a burden starting from a purely bureaucratic position? Should the Church be interpreted only according to those criteria?

And then, the theme of the new evangelization, sanctioned even by the constitution of a dicastery under Benedict XVI, that of the conversion of hearts, present in practically all pontificates, that of pastoral attention for the poor and for the least, which has never missed in the history of the Church.

The Church, after all, is always reforming, but it has always remained the same; it has always believed in the same things. This is beyond the narratives that have painted it differently from what it is, and also the presence of men of God who were corrupt and the passage into equally complicated eras.

Therefore, if Pope Francis’ path is part of the Church’s long journey, then it is an irreversible process because it is simply part of the path that the Church is taking. If, however, you want to look at the innovations brought by Pope Francis, then the discussion becomes more complicated.

On a doctrinal level, Pope Francis has not formally touched anything. The fact, for example, that the very possession of nuclear weapons constitutes a sin is a sort of corollary to what the Church already says on the topic of complete disarmament. Even his transparent push to move the doctrinal needle on the death penalty hasn’t gone all the way.

Those based on case-by-case discernment of communion for irregular couples or even marital nullity cannot be considered doctrinal reforms. They are perhaps a lighter practice, free from some formal “burdens” of the past (assuming they were to be considered burdens and not pastoral care), but in fact, they have not changed the doctrine. Even the famous, debated, and controversial Fiducia supplicans on the blessing of irregular couples establish right from the start that there is no desire to make a doctrinal change.

The reform of the Curia is destined to be fleeting. All the reforms of the Curia have been so, starting from the Sistine reform, and this is normal because organization and perception change over time.

There is, perhaps, a change of pace on the topic of ecclesiology or on how the Church perceives itself. The Pope’s actions seem to make the Church perceived more as a reformed organization than as a community of believers. The same way in which Pope Francis spoke about the Conclave in the latest interviews suggested a political, sociological, and pragmatic interpretation of the Church.

In practice, Pope Francis’ pragmatic side has the upper hand when it comes to making decisions. He is a single man in command who decides and then tries to give the decision a connotation of continuity with the past. But it is an artificial continuity, which is based on decontextualized references.

See, for example, how Cardinal Fernandez defined a change in the Church’s attitude on slavery, without considering, however, that the documents he was referring to were not doctrinal. Still, they were instead government documents, pragmatic by nature.

When there has been real reform in the past, it has settled over many years. It sought continuity with the past and gave an ecclesiological vision that could be in line with the times but not break with tradition.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, has demonstrated that he has a more political way of acting, and therefore, he needs to create a narrative subsequently so that it can be inserted into continuity.

The result is a sort of double ecclesiology: the ideal one, based on faith and the communion of believers, which leads Pope Francis to show concern, for example, for initiatives such as the German synodal path; and the pragmatic one, which instead acts according to different criteria and changes the cards on the table.

One of the consequences of this pragmatic ecclesiology is the Vaticanization of the Holy See.

Pope Francis has defined, with many actions, the priority of the Vatican City State over the Holy See. Therefore, the priority of the “means” regarding the great goal of the international presence of the Church. However, this criterion comes from an ecclesiological vision, which weakens the entire construction of the Church and the Holy See as its international expression. It is an ecclesiology that is not in close connection with Christ but seems to neglect him in favor of a better organization and presence in the world.

This arouses interest in international organizations. Ultimately, if the Church speaks of great values and highlights the world’s issues in crisis, it cannot be listened to because it undermines a model of understanding the world. If you speak a more pragmatic language, enter into international debates with political language, and focus on the challenges decided by the mainstream, you become an organism similar to others and, therefore, assimilable.
Suppose all this creates a paradox at an international level.

In that case, some observers – such as the Vatican expert Filippo Di Giacomo – do not fail to notice that the ecclesiological problem becomes fundamental. If ecclesiology is weak, Christology is weak. And if the discussion on Christ is missing, the very foundation of the Church is missing.

It’s an open debate. But perhaps this is precisely the biggest question agitating the Church. Not whether Pope Francis’ reforms will stick, but whether he’s actually reformed anything.


2 Responses to The Francis pontificate: a double-barreled question

  1. Jmj scrive:

    Absolutely true! It will take a long time to fix the mess that this pontificate has left us…the bark of Peter has taken on alot of wster…
    Dominus flevit!
    Pray God the pink mafia of Mr mcCsrrick ilk will lose or else a whole generation will be lost agsin…

  2. Elias Galy scrive:

    The “5 questions” are outlined here:

    1. Church “on the way” and going “out” / “new dynamism” with “exploring”

    2. “decreasing religious practice”

    3. “openness to laity”

    4. “anthropological emergencies”

    5. “permanent change”.

    Mind that, last one in “other words”. Mind that carefully.

    I think that the whole manner of presentation is misplaced and irresponsible.

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