In a nutshell, what happened last week probably represents well Pope Francis’ Pontificate. Meeting with the General Union of Superiors General, that is, the plenary assembly of more than 800 leaders of religious sisters from all over the world, Pope Francis held a Q & A session. The sisters posed five questions, and all of those questions pushed for a more important role for women in the Church. One of the questions was about the possibility of the establishment of women deacons.
Pope Francis might have first replied that it was not yet clear what the role of women deacons was in the ancient Church. Then, thinking out loud, he rhetorically asked whether there was a need to “establish an official commission to study the issue”, and afterwards he responded: “I think so. It should be good for the Church to clarify this issue. I agree. I will talk about doing something like that.” And finally, the Pope said: “I accept. It seems to me useful to establish a commission in order to clarify.”
When we write about this in Italian, we have to use verbs in the conditional tense, as all the Pope’s quotes come from the reporting of journalists who were in the Paul VI Hall, where the meeting was taking place. However, the official transcript of the Q & A was delivered only the day after the meeting took place. In addition, the meeting took place during the morning of May 12, but Vatican Radio did not broadcast any report until the late afternoon. Vatican Radio’s report did not offer any direct quote, but only a paraphrase of Pope Francis’ words. The same happened in L’Osservatore Romano, the Holy See’s newspaper, which offered only a very short report with no specific quotes of Pope Francis’ words.
The conversation was certainly recorded, as there were cameras from the Vatican Television filming the meeting. Why did the Holy See take so long to deliver a minimum amount of semi-official information on the issue? And why was the integral transcript not immediately delivered?
These are pending questions, which the new Vatican communications office should consider. Divided between the administrative issue that the Secretariat for Communication is called to solve and the need to broadcast the content in a useful way for the faithful, Vatican communications did not prove pro-active in tackling the issue of women deacons.
This is not the first time. It already happened when Pope Francis – during the press conference on his way back from Mexico – spoke about the fact Paul VI had thought about allowing the use of contraceptive pills for nuns who were at risk to be raped. Vatican communication was not prompt to explain that Paul VI never talked about the issue, although there had been studies before – even before Humanae Vitae – that pondered the issue.
Even the issue of women deacons has already been studied. The International Theological Commission published in 2002 a document titled “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles.” The document included a long chapter about the ministry of deaconesses, and about how the primitive Church perceived it. The issue remained somewhat open, but the report also stressed that in no way was the ministry of deaconesses a sacramental order, at least not in the primitive Church.
We should glance at the issue in wider terms. According to people who took part in the meeting, Pope Francis was very vague and often underscored that some of the issues raised had to be passed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or to other competent dicasteries. However, there is a movement that is pushing forward for “changes” in the Church’s doctrine, including a new role for women in the Church, which would also allow women in the priesthood.
But a priesthood including women – John Paul II stressed – it is not possible, as the Lord did not ordain women apostles, and the Church has no power to change what Jesus established.
Pope Benedict XVI put the issue in the same terms. In the book-length interview “Light of the World”, he noted that St. John Paul II “did not put in place an infallible doctrinal act” about women priesthood, but he rather “certified that the Church, bishops in every place and time, have always taught this and always acted this way.” So, his response was not an infallible act, but it was a statement with a binding character based on tradition. Benedict XVI went on that “this continuity from the origins is already something very important, even because it was not so obvious at that time: the ancient religions established priestesses, as did gnostic movements. So, the tradition was not born around, but within Christianity.”
Pope Francis himself, during the in-flight press conference on his way back from Rio de Janeiro in 2013, clearly stated that “as far as women’s ordination is concerned, the Church has spoken and said: ‘No’. John Paul II said it, but with a definitive formulation. That door is closed, but on this issue I want to tell you something. I have said it, but I repeat it. Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the apostles, than bishops and deacons and priests. Women, in the Church, are more important than bishops and priests.”
The key point is not that Pope Francis is opening a commission to study the possibility of deaconess. In the end, it can be more important to understand whether this question had been discussed by the “Circle of Santa Marta,” and how the question was presented to the Pope.
It is noteworthy that – while media from all over the world made headlines with the allegation of Pope Francis’ opening the question – Fr. Antonio Spadaro, Editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, tweeted a 1972 article in Civiltà Cattolica by Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, the current Director of the Holy See Press Office. Fr. Lombardi’s article was about the discussion at the 1972 Church Synod of Federal Germany. The discussion asked the Pope that the “norms of the Canon Law be in accord with the juridical equality of women.” According to media reports, Pope Francis also talked about the possibility of changing Canon Law, as this had been “already reformed in the XVIII century and by John Paul II.”
Fr. Spadaro promptness in tweeting that very article is noteworthy because he was not in Rome that day; he had just left for Poland on a trip organized by the Council of the European Bishops Conferences to prepare for the upcoming World Youth Day. Did he already discussed about that article?
Why is it that this discussion can be considered the mirror of this pontificate? There are some clues. First, there is great difficulty in understanding what the Pope actually said, and why Vatican communications reacted late. Second, Pope Francis’ (quite vague) words have been used to push the discussion toward some positions, generally progressive ones. And third, it seems now evident that many of Pope Francis stances come from discussions that take place outside of official channels.
Once again, Pope Francis’ church is a church with two speeds.
On the one hand, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, held in Spain a long conference on Amoris Laetitia and underscored the “pastorality of the marital bond” according to Pope Francis, thus interpreting the post-synodal apostolic exhortation in continuity with the doctrine of the Church. On the other hand, Archbishop Bruno Forte, General Secretary of the last two synods, held a conference during which he noted that, during the synods’ work, Pope Francis told him that “if we explicitly speak about communion for the divorced and remarried, these people (probably, the ‘conservatives’, editor’s note) will make a fuss. So, let us not talk about that in a direct way; just make space for the premises, and I will draw out the conclusions.”
On the one hand, Pope Francis advances timid openings about a possible commission that in fact often freezes the discussion (just notice how the Curia reform is now suspended). On the other hand, his declarations are exploited by the press and by those who elected him with a clear agenda behind his back.
On the one hand, there are official roles in the Roman Curia. On the other hand, these officials are constantly losing influence, while there is a sort of “parallel Curia” that is ever more influential, because it has direct access to the Pope and discusses with him issues, without passing through official channels.
This parallel Curia is often found in Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican hotel where the Pope lives. There, we lose track of Pope’s action and also of the people who speak directly with the Pope. The Pope lives in that hotel with many other people, as the hotel is a house for many prelates. It is sufficient that one of these prelates receives a guest, and then brings the guest directly toward the Pope’s room, and no one will be aware of the meeting with the Pope, if the guest does not spread the news.
It seems that even the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, went secretly to visit the Pope last week, on the eve of a vote on a civil union bill in the Italian Parliament that passed, thus paving the way for a possible acceptance of homosexual marriage in the future. No one knew about the meeting, and even those who reported about the meeting did so prudently.
Pope Francis also met with two representatives of the Brazilian popular movements on May 9. The two women talked to the Pope about the situation in Brazil and the impeachment of the president, Dilma Roussef. They leaked about the meeting, while spreading a low resolution picture of it and granting interviews to generally leftist outlets.
Even the notorious meeting the Pope had with Bernie Sanders, candidate in the primary elections of the Democratic Party, followed the same criteria: Sanders arrived at the Vatican conference, was accommodated in Santa Marta and was prompt. Together with some of the other guests, he was to be at the Santa Marta entrance at dawn on April 16, to greet the Pope while he was leaving on his one-day trip to Lesbos, Greece. As the Pope said in the in-flight press conference, “not to have greeted him might have been rude.”
Given this situation, anyone can meet the Pope if he is able to get past the Pope’s closest collaborators. Pope Francis checks all of his appointments, makes the final decision on the meetings, but in this way neglects the Curia, that is, the support of that big machine able to verify if his choices are coherent, or if there can be some danger. It is obvious that the Pope might then lack of some notions, even some notions of history: he cannot know everything. This is how he ended up speaking about a commission on women deacons, even though a commission on the diaconate was already set up just 14 years ago.
However, Pope Francis is not interested in these details. He very much more interested in his relationship with the people. A professor at the Bologna University and the author of the article ‘The Populist Pope” that aroused a lot of discussion, Loris Zanatta, stressed in an interview that we should not undervalue the “evident insensitivity of Pope Francis to the political and institutional dimension of modern civilization, and his temptation to subordinate it to presumed historical and spiritual immutable identities in front of which politics is called to a halt.”
In other words, to Pope Francis the institutional part does not matter that much. Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians, uses to recount that Pope Francis wants to go on making more ecumenical gestures, leaving aside the doctrinal issues.
Through these lenses we can understand why Pope Francis described his joint declaration with the Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Kirill as a “pastoral document”. The content of the text does not matter to him. It instead matters that there was a gesture, and that people can take example from that gesture.
For this reason, Pope Francis’ ecumenism is an “ecumenism of blood” – this is one of his favorite expressions – and it is not meant in doctrinal terms. For this reason, the Church of Pope Francis is often based on praxis, more than on doctrine.
Pope Francis’ church is called to a sort of “state of permanent Synod”: all the topics remain on the table, thus giving the feeling of a change. But it is difficult to understand what Pope Francis really wants. Sometimes he seems a progressive, close to German-progressive theology, and other times he appears as an old fashioned conservative, filled with principles that in general bring the state of the Church back in time.
This tension in Pope Francis’ thought is hidden from the way the media exploits his image, as if the Pope is something different from the Church. Public opinion mostly thinks that there is a bad Church and a Pope who wants to bring the Church into modernity, but who finds many enemies on his way.
This is not a real scenario, but it is the perceived scenario. In the meantime, waiting for their comprehensive reform, Vatican dicasteries are stalled, while financial affairs – one of the reforms most beloved by Pope Francis – goes forward by itself, with highs and lows.
Last week, the IOR annual report was released. The publication of the annual report of the wrongly called “Vatican bank” came without a formal presentation or an announcement, but with only a report on Vatican Radio and a round table (in fact, an interview) conducted by Vatican Radio with Gianfranco Mammì and Jean Baptiste de Franssu, respectively, Director and President of the Institute.
The couple explained that there is no longer any possibility to launder money at the IOR, but, in saying this, their communication strategy privileged a rupture with the past. It was as though they wanted to let say that the illicit activities of the past cannot take place any more, and that a new, transparent era has begun. In fact, the 2012 Moneyval report already certified that the IOR path to transparency had begun long time before and that the IOR was not that place of illicit and opaque dealings that many talked about.
However, these outcomes are often forgotten. The communique also emphasized that the IOR closed about 5 thousand accounts, even though Mammì explained that they were mostly dormant accounts, rather than suspect accounts.
These data, in fact, help to hide the fact that the IOR profit was very low this year. The decrease in profit is justified with a cut in risky investments. However, in a meeting with journalists in June 2012, Paolo Cipriani, then IOR General Director, explained the strongly conservative criteria for IOR investments. And all the operations were approved by the Council of Superintendence and the Council of Cardinals.
There is in the end the suspicion that some management mistakes have been made because of the anxiety to break with the dealings of the past. And a suspicion arises that the era of the external consultants (later fixed) created a situation that is now presenting its bill: during the era of the external consultants, lawyers, more than financial experts, managed the IOR. Only Mammì’s appointment as Director brought back to the first line the men of the institution who spent their whole career within the institution.
In the end, when it comes to talking about Pope Francis’ pontificate, the work done before it seems to have been cancelled out completely. Even in this case, perhaps Pope Francis was pushed to think some things, or perhaps he really thinks this way, with the point of view of a person who in the end has spent the whole career outside of the Vatican and who bears a certain general suspicion for the centers of powers. Yet, the same Pope acknowledged that the fight against corruption started with Pope Benedict XVI, thus deconstructing part of the narrative of his own pontificate. We can hope that the Pope will do the same for doctrine. Otherwise, there will be a sort of hidden schism between those who are faithful to doctrine and those who do not care about the teaching of the Church. The latter are the new pagans Ratzinger described back in the 50s.