Pope Francis has pressed all the hot buttons that get Catholic and other tongues wagging- a pastoral response to divorced and remarried Catholics, homosexuality, the place of women in the Church, the excessively centralized nature of management in the Church, liturgical adaptation to local pastoral circumstances and wealth and triumphalism as the all too frequent public face of the Church to the world.
Pope Francis has also commenced a process for addressing at least one of them by convening an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 2014 on how to address what is probably the issue that sees most adults part company with the Catholic community in the Western world:- divorce and remarriage.
Considering themselves to be unacceptable to the Church because they have failed in what is the biggest risk they can take in their lives, the divorced and remarried often see the Church’s attitude as one that punishes the victims of the failure
But the convening of this extraordinary synod is only the tip of an iceberg that Pope Francis has indicated he wants addressed. What the review by the Council of Cardinals he has appointed want him to accomplish is now clear: reform of the Vatican and the creation of a pattern of Church governance that is both decentralized and at the same time participatory.
The Vatican Curia is already feeling the pressure. To witness the spectacle of the leader of the Vatican’s doctrinal commission attempting to close down discussions actually begun by the present Pope is remarkable. It would appear that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has moved from being a service to the unity of the Church’s belief to one of some sort of “loyal opposition” in the Vatican. This is occurring in respect of discussions the Pope himself started.
The current Pope’s ambitions to open up discussion in the Church go some way to addressing the comments made last October by one of three surviving theological advisors at Vatican II, These comments were made on the 50th anniversary of its opening in 1962. Fr Ladislas Orsy, together with Pope Benedict and the controversial Swiss theologian Hans Kung, are the three remaining “periti” from Vatican II who attended its sessions as theological supports to bishops from different dioceses.
Orsy was interviewed on the subject of what remains to be done after Vatican II .The first thing he nominated was the need to remedy Vatican II’s biggest shortcoming. He said that Vatican II was long on excellent ideas but was short on frameworks and structures for implementing its excellent ideas. And what frameworks and structures it did create were quickly dismantled or neutralized by the Vatican Curia.
This has been pointed out in reports after the first meeting of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on reform of the Vatican and its processes, The Council of Cardinals has pointed out that the Synod of Bishops that meets every three years is a fig leaf of consultation where speeches are choreographed by the Vatican The Curia has then been left to write up what was “agreed” by the participating bishops, much to the disbelief of the Bishops when the document actually appeared.
Under the new Pope’s reforms, head office may be updated in line with the Vatican II Council that concluded half a century ago.
But the challenge that lies ahead in addressing the other hot button topics won’t be resolved as speedily. There are inherent problems for a Church still anchored in the processes of a monarchical and aristocratic age for its governance.
To their credit, Vatican offices have already begun consultation with high level lay organizations concerned with the role of women in the Church and suggestions about including women in significant and decisive roles in the administration of the Vatican are advancing. This will allow the Vatican to catch up with what is common practice in many parts of the Church where women lead many of its major services in health, welfare and education.
But when it comes to addressing and resolving contentious issues, the structures for their consideration in a fair and informed way simply don’t exist. The sad truth is that the Catholic Church’s governance has so isolated itself from the world that it has simply missed many of the main developments in what can be called “best practice” in leadership and governance.
Synods of Bishops won’t fix that. They are made up exclusively of bishops who are all by and large elderly men. That is hardly a helpful way to tap the wisdom of the Church or hear all the voices that need to be heard for the wide array of issues faced in the Church.
What alternatives exist? It took the peoples of Europe, North and South America hundreds of years to develop structures and process of participatory government that work and that provide a release valve for tensions that can plunge populations into turmoil. Countries and societies in many parts of Africa and Asia are only slowly learning what they need to know for their peoples to survive and thrive as nations and communities.
In the Church, the models of parliamentary democracy or representative government now common in many parts of the world do not fit with the complexity and uniqueness of the sort of community the Church is. An institution of divine origin cannot be reduced to having the democratic mean decide its destiny. It would be crass and a formula for disaster to assume that democracy as such is all the Church needs.
All the same, the Church is the people of God and Pope Francis has said for many years before he became pope that the sense of faith of the people is the sure rock of authentic belief. If that is to be accepted, something other than top-down direction, discipline and censure of miscreants who question the wisdom declared by authority will have to be found.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear with this Pontificate – the Church is in for a shakeup. And how it happens and what results is as much in the hands of the Holy Spirit as anyone’s.