Each of Pope Francis’ steps in the upcoming trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay will be characterized by the Spanish word “alegria”. This is the same theme heralded by “Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel), the Apostolic Exhortation that Pope Francis has indicated to be the reference point of his pontificate. Joy in announcing the Gospel is not, however, what is being advanced by the forces that are at work constructing a narrative for this pontificate, and that are trying to push the Church to make a leap forward that no one really wants. These individuals insist instead that the path forward for the Church is that of continual penance, accompanied by a reform that avoids addressing the core of the issues, and is described as being merely structural, when it is not. Many doctrinal issues are at stake in this reform, and the real identity of the Church is also at stake.
It must be clear that this is not a fight between conservatives and progressives. Positions are more nuanced. There are many reformers within the Catholic Church, the ‘hidden Vatican’, who had worked and keep on working tirelessly to reform the Church and at the same time maintain the Church’s pure doctrinal tradition. On the other hand, some progressives are pushing for a deep reform that would overturn the Church’s teachings, more than improve the way the Church is in the world. These latter are fighting both against traditionalists and reformers, in attempt to give the Church a new shape. What should this new shape look like?
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the champion of the reform of marriage discipline, recently raised the issue in a six-page paper he published in the German magazine “Stimmen der Zeit.” In the paper, Kasper reiterated that the possibility must be granted for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion after a penitential journey. And he underscored that “on the occasion of the commemoration of Luther’s Ninety-five theses – the event that started the Reformation 500 years ago – Catholic and Evangelical Christians can rightly accept the first of Luther’s theses that the whole life of a Christian must be a penance.”
The reference to Luther is revealing, as it almost perfectly signals a path toward a Protestantization of the Catholic Church. In fact, the theological bases on which Cardinal Kasper grounds his reasoning are dangerous. He refers to the Second Vatican Council, he underscores that marriage is interpreted as a sacramental image of the bond between Christ and the Church (“a grand and convincing notion”), but then he adds, “in its earthly pilgrimage, the Church realizes itself – that is a holy Church – only in fragments,” in the sense that “the Church is holy, but it is also a Church of sinners, one that may sometimes be presented as an unfaithful prostitute, and that is always called to follow the path of conversion, of renewal and of reform.”
In the end, Cardinal Kasper argued, given that marriage “is a mystery in relation to Christ and the Church,” this mystery “cannot be fully realized in this life, but always only in fragments.”
These words may in fact encourage one not to live a fully Christian life, as if it were too difficult a goal to be achieved, while at the same time they can seem to suggest that the Church has finally given up on evangelization. If the model is too difficult to be achieved, if something must be let go of, then there is nothing certain, and no ideal atwhich to aim.
What should the Church do then? Should it try to attract as many faithful as possible, while giving up on shaping the world? Or should it spread the joy of the Gospel, by providing a model of life worthy to live for?
The German bishops have seemingly chosen the first option. The results in their Church’s life are not encouraging. A recent poll – sent to Rome and published along with the responses to the Synod’s questionnaire – concluded that German priests never go to confession, and do not give thesacraments much consideration. The German Church, in the end, is satisfied by its good works, but is poor in faith.
Cardinal Walter Brandmueller shed light on this issue in a recent interview he granted to “Rheinische Post” – the newspaper of the Rhine Region, from where the wave of reform over the discipline of marriage started in the 90’s. Brandmueller addressed sharp criticism to the German bishops because they have remained silent in the face of some peculiar social developments.
“Haven’t bishops promised at the moment of their ordination to proclaim the Gospel of Christ with loyalty and to preserve the deposit of faith,” Cardinal Brandmueller asked provocatively?
He was probably referring to the most recent developments on the reform of the German labor law whereby Catholic institutions will give up on defending their Catholic identity, and will no longer require Christian conduct in terms of one’s private life for those hired to work in Catholic institutions. Moreover, in the background many of the German bishops are at least flirting with issues like same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and abortion.
Benedict XVI raised the faith issue during his 2011 trip to Germany. During that trip he emphasized that “in the concrete history of the Church, however, a contrary tendency is also manifested, namely that the Church becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world.” He added that, “not infrequently, she gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness towards God, her vocation to opening up the world towards the other.” Lastly, he declared, “Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world.”
Benedict XVI’s reflection was grounded in his experience as a confessor at mid-50s, in the parish of the Most Precious Blood in Munich. Based on that experience of confessor, he wrote the paper “The New Pagans and the Church,” and insisted that there was a new trend in the Church: that of Christians, born Christian, who profess themselves to belong to the Christian tradition, but who are actually living as pagans.
This reflection from his earlier years matured into a wider theological reflection that brought first Joseph Ratzinger and later Benedict XVI to develop a model of communion which he transferred to curial government. The “Ratzinger method” in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was known to be a method based on dialogue and harmony, though firm on Catholic teaching principles.
This was the model that characterized the Church of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Once elected Pope, Benedict XVI began facing issues beginning with the joy of spreading the Gospel (the new evangelization) which penetrated every theological concept or ecclesiastical rule as well as every governmental issue.
Pope Francis has taken over this point of view, as is clear when he continually reminds Christians of the need not to be shy in announcing the Gospel, and to be filled with joy.
On the other hand, those who secured the election ofPope Francis, concerned as they are with their own agenda, did not take on this issue. Their agenda is that of a “pastoralism”detached from doctrine. This pastoralism – which must be intended as a renewed form of pastoral care – draws from the concept of penance, followed by the mercy of God. This is not “a cheap mercy,” Cardinal Kasper wrote. This mercy, however, justifies every mistake and may end up producing timid Christians, because they no longer have an ideal toward which to strive, but just a goal to approach through various approximations.
This discussion is not only about the Synod. It concerns the model of Church. At the moment, the so-called progressives show a certain malice toward the model of Church developed during the past pontificates, as it adhered to principles and required a real quality leap. Their approach is based on the model of a Church-in-penance with functional structures able to build credibility in order to gain numbers of faithful. But their approach seeks to attract members through a form of communication closer to marketing than to evangelization.
There are varied signals of this “progressive malice”. Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for the Societies of Consecrated Life, granted an interview in Brazil and had no second thoughts about saying that his faith was in crisis when Benedict XVI transferred away from the Congregation his number two aide, Archbishop Joseph William Tobin, one-time Secretary of the Congregation. The Cardinal insisted that this “demotion” came as a result of accusations against Archbishop Tobin of being to close to the LCWR American Nuns under investigation that the Cardinal knew to be “false”; nevertheless, he could not think the Pope was telling lies.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the Coordinator of the Council of Cardinals in charge of formulating curial reform proposals, insists that Pope Francis has started a new season in the Church, insofar as the Pope does not condemn, but walks with people.
German, French and Swiss bishops also held a semi-secret meeting with the undisclosed intention to take over the discussion at the upcoming Synod of Bishops, because they are conscious that their moment is the present, while many other bishops are standing to defend the Catholic tradition.
These are just samples of declarations on the progressive side. In the end, all of their positions aim at a secular model of the Church, credible to the world, rather than at a Church capable of telling the truth and going against the grain. However, a secular model of Church, one attentive to the judgment of the worldbut without holding to a final Truth is a church lacking a prophetic character.
Despite the fact that Pope Francis always insists that the Church is not an NGO, the pushing forward of this secular agenda behind Pope Francis’ back leads in fact to a Church structured as anNGO.
This kind of structure creates problems. In the corridorsof the Vatican, it is said that priests have lost any ambition to become bishops, since bishops can be trapped for a variety of reasons. One of the most recent proposals of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is that of an ad hoc section in the Apostolic Court to judge bishops guilty of abuse of office in cases of abuse of minors.
This decision might lead one to think that bishops could be made accountablefor the mistakes of their priests, although the responsibility for a crime is always personal, and the Church has always stated that it is not a company, and the Pope is not his priests’ employer.
In the end, all of Church’s reforms in play at the moment – guidelines to fight clergy sex abuse, the curial reform, the reform of pastoral discipline for the divorced and remarried – deal with a function, more than with evangelization. The joy of the Gospel is left aside and replaced by the notion of a Church that perhaps is more credible in the eyes of the secular world, but at the cost of being prophetic.
This is the reason why Benedict XVI – who had earned two doctorates honoris causa last weekend – wanted that his former students to discuss as this year’s annual meeting topic “How to talk about God in the contemporary world.” In effect he realizes that this current functional reform – which in fact disguises a doctrinal revolution – lacks joy.
Pope Benedict anticipated this pointin 1969 when he wrote: “From today’s crisis, a Church with many losses will emerge. (The Church) will become small and will have to start again from the beginning. Itwill not be able to live in the buildings it built in times of prosperity. As its faithful will diminish, many of its social privileges will be lost. It will be a more spiritual Church that will not undertake any political mandate, alternatively flirting with left and right. It will be poor, and will be a Church of the poor. It will be a long process, but – when everything will be surpassed – a greater power will come from a more spiritual and more simplified Church. In that moment, men will discover how to live in a world of indescribable solitude, and – having lost sight of God – will be aware of their poverty. Then, and only then, will theylookat that small flock of believers as something brand new, and will discover it as a hope for themselves, the response they always secretly looked for.”
This is the Church we are living in today. Where will Pope Francis’ Church go? Will it be able to turn back to the joy of the Gospel? Or will it continue to seek for a reform of structures and disciplines that will lack any joy?