This column was published on October 10, 2014.
A pivotal moment in Pope Francis's papacy
The synod on the “Pastoral care of the family in the context of evangelization” could be a pivotal moment in Pope Francis’s papacy, demonstrating the degree to which the bishops of the world accept the pope’s vision for Roman Catholicism.
In a groundbreaking interview with the Jesuit magazine America in September 2013, Francis spoke boldly about the need for the Church to engage with the world, to focus less on questions of sexual morality and more on the merciful love of God. He likened the Church to a field hospital, healing wounds and touching hearts; and he cautioned against a Church that is too much like a laboratory, shut off from everyday life and focused on a “compendium of abstract truths.”
It is my view that these two images of the Church will be at odds, vying for precedence over the outcome of the synod. While the synod will not change Church teaching, it could change pastoral practices. The synod will either chart a new course, or reiterate the same old attitudes that a majority of Catholics have already rejected.
In the west, there are great expectations for change in the Church’s attitude and practice towards divorced Catholics who have remarried without obtaining an annulment from the Vatican. These expectations have arisen in large part due to the pope’s pastoral style and the groundwork laid prior to the opening of the synod.
In advance of the synod, Francis took a risk; he asked the world’s Catholics to respond to a questionnaire on the family. This novel approach, coming from a centuries old institution where all decision-making powers reside with a male clergy, engaged lay people, and gave them hope that they might finally have a meaningful voice in the hierarchical church. In the west, those voices make known that the Church is like the laboratory Francis wants to avoid; responses indicate that there is a significant gap between the lived experience of Catholics and Church teachings.
Francis took another risk when he invited his theologian, Cardinal Walter Kasper, to address the world’s cardinals this past February. Kasper, with support of the pope, spoke to the possibility of relaxing the rules so that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive communion.
A missionary field hospital versus a sterile laboratory
The German cardinal’s approach, which is to re-interpret and adapt Church teaching so that its pastoral practices respond to the realities of people’s lives, is in line with the image of the Church as a field hospital. But, Kasper’s views are not universally well regarded. Some bishops, notably Cardinal Raymond Burke of the United States, seem attached to the laboratory. They have publicly rebutted Kasper’s position, putting limits on mercy and insisting that nothing around communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can change.
As much as the communion question has galvanized the west, it is only one topic with which the synod will wrestle. There are other challenges facing the family, and these vary around the world. Some of them, such as AIDS, violence and migration, which affect life and limb, are more acute problems, in my opinion, than the question of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Still, the question could create some high drama inside the synod room as bishops struggle to balance doctrine and pastoral practice in the face of today’s realities and according to Francis’s vision.
This pope’s words and actions indicate that he wants a more open and missionary church, a field hospital not a laboratory. Has the pope’s imagery of the Church, and his beautifully evocative language of God’s mercy and love penetrated the hearts of the bishops who will make the decisions? And if not, what will be the pope’s response?
The pope's credibility is on the line with this synod
The final results of the synod on the family, which will not be known until after the 2015 meeting of the bishops, will demonstrate the influence of the “Francis effect”, and the degree to which his brother bishops accept his vision. While the topic may be the family, the pope’s credibility is on the line with this synod.