Pope Francis may well be remembered as one of the most transformative and inspirational pontiffs of the last 200 years – if he is allowed to, that is.
The month of October 2014 will probably go down as the defining moment of his papacy. To view the issues he had to deal with in the course of those four weeks is to see both the magnitude and the range of his task in trying to rescue the Catholic Church from the corruption and short-sightedness that have undermined it.
October found him – among other things – having to send a special administrator to the scandal-plagued diocese of Albenga-Impera on the Italian Riviera, where priests there were accused of offences ranging from theft to sex abuse and links to prostitution.
Meanwhile, at the Vatican, Pope Francis decided to assemble one of the most important consultative synods of bishops to take place since the epoch-making Vatican Council II of 1962-65.
This followed a global survey of millions of laymen and women, which indicated that the gap between Catholic doctrine and practice had grown too wide for comfort. The survey opened a window to give the Vatican a clearer picture of what really went on in the world.
Before the synod, expectations were raised, not least by the Pope’s off-the-cuff remarks about human sexuality (“Who am I to judge?”), of a new Vatican spring.
The questions, and hopes, concerned a number of issues of direct concern to the faithful. Might life be made easier for Catholics whose marriages had broken down? Might the definition of (the absurdly named) ‘natural’ family planning be widened to render the ban on contraception futile? Might women be better appreciated in the Church if the clergy listened more to the laity?
Opening the synod, which would in other circumstances have been a fairly routine affair, Francis encouraged cardinals and bishops to “speak boldly”. Which, in the event, they did but not in the way he may have intended. For this turned out to be a stormy synod where insiders reported boos, angry speeches, heckling and an atmosphere of rebellion.
A remarkable statement midway through the synod, couched in thoughtful, kindly language, raised high hopes of a long-awaited change of direction by the Church in key areas of concern.
A section that invited bishops to study ideas to end the ban on communion for remarried divorcees was rejected. However, the Holy Father ordered it to be reinstated in the final document because it was still a working paper.
A final position will be taken after next year’s synod.
More strikingly illustrative of the rebellious mood of a blocking minority of the conservative wing of the Church, however, was their rejection of language that said homosexuality should be given “serious reflection” and gay people should be “welcomed” by the Church for the “gifts and qualities they offer it”.
Nothing like this has happened in the Catholic Church since the backstabbing behind the scenes during Vatican Council II half a century ago
The title of the section, ‘Welcoming homosexuals’, was also changed to a cold and forbidding ‘Pastoral attention to persons with homosexual orientation’.
Nobody was expecting the Vatican to accept gay marriage but surely it could, without denying its moral and theological objections, warmly accept the human fact that gay couples can love faithfully and supportively and can also bring richness to the community.
The Church should be leading the advance towards loving human understanding, not tripping it up.
Pope Francis had said prior to the synod that the Church needed to adapt to the “growing needs of our time and the changing conditions of society”.
In his speech at the end of the synod he warned, tellingly, against the “hostile rigidity” of traditionalists as well as against the excesses of the “progressive and liberal wing”.
Pope Francis now faces months of struggle to fulfil his dream of a witnessing a more open Church.
He will have to decide whether to pick a fight with the conservative wing of his Church before a synod is held next year to discuss the way ahead for the family.
If the Church is unable to reach consensus before then, Francis may have to make his own decisions, risking a rift.
“At this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the Church is like a ship without a rudder.”
The prominent conservative who said this is none other than Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the president of the Vatican’s supreme court. Thus, we have the most senior American cardinal in Rome publicly questioning the stewardship of the Holy Father – possibly, it is reliably thought, with the tacit approval of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
The fact that Pope Francis intends to remove Cardinal Burke, “whose habit of dressing up like a Christmas tree at Latin High Masses” is highly irritating to him, is neither here nor there. He hasn’t got round to sacking him yet.
Nothing like this has happened in the Catholic Church since the backstabbing behind the scenes during Vatican Council II half a century ago.
The question it raises is whether the Church is in the early stages of a civil war between liberals and conservatives, fought not over liturgical niceties but fundamental issues of sexual morality, which have wracked the Church for decades.
What may be more worrying is that another voice is also being heard.
The last pontiff, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who most had consigned to a monastery, is neither dead nor senile. Nor as silent as some thought, or as some of us may have wished.
Pope Francis’ tactical mistake may have been to invite Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s 81-year-old retired head of ecumenism, to set the agenda for the synod by addressing the world’s cardinals last February. But Cardinal Kasper was the leader of a German-led faction which had allegedly undermined Benedict XVI’s authority when he was pope.
Even a pope emeritus is too human to forgive what he might have regarded as an old enemy trying to hijack the synod. Benedict is not under the illusion that he is still pope but he is reported to have been appalled that Cardinal Kasper was trashing his legacy, as he saw it. He is making his displeasure clear.
Where does all this leave Francis?
Uncertainty over how much reform Pope Francis wants is breaking the Church into factions. Cardinal Burke, together with Cardinal George Pell, head of the Vatican’s finances, and Cardinal Gerhard Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have emerged as leaders of the traditionalists.
The real worry is that moderate conservative Catholics may be losing confidence in Pope Francis.
A former editor of the Catholic Herald, Cristina Odone, says that “Francis achieved miracles with his compassionate off-the-cuff comments that detoxified the Catholic brand. He personifies optimism – but when he tries to turn this into policy he isn’t in command of the procedures or the details. The result is confusion”.
There is another world leader, elected amid huge excitement, who has disappointed some of the faithful by appearing disengaged in moments of crisis. As another commentator has said, we could be watching Jorge Bergoglio turn into Barack Obama.
Such a comparison does a grave disservice to both leaders who are engaged in changing their country and Church for the better despite the blinkered opposition of those who want no change at all.