No rest for a weary pope: Francis now faces a bigger test than US trip

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Pope Francis shares a reflection during evening prayer service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, September 24, 2015. Pope Francis is on a five-day trip to the USA, which includes stops in Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba.   Photo courtesy REUTERS/Mary Altaffer

Pope Francis shares a reflection during evening prayer service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, September 24, 2015. Pope Francis is on a five-day trip to the USA, which includes stops in Washington DC, New York and Philadelphia, after a three-day stay in Cuba. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Mary Altaffer

(RNS) Pope Francis returned to Rome Monday (Sept. 28) after the longest and perhaps most challenging foreign journey of his pontificate: a trip that lasted 10 days and took him from the communist outpost of Cuba to the capitalist superpower of the U.S., where the popular pontiff faced some of his toughest critics — both inside and outside the church.

Now comes the hard part.

On Sunday (Oct. 4) in the Vatican, Francis formally opens a three-week meeting of some 270 bishops from around the world who will discuss — or, more likely, argue vociferously about — church teachings on family life, a topic that encompasses hot-button questions about the church’s views on divorce, homosexuality and cohabitation.

“(W)hat is at stake is not only Francis’ pontificate but the very idea of a church that can handle change without the threat of schism,” Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and church historian at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., wrote in the latest edition of Commonweal magazine.

The meeting, known as a synod, follows a similar summit that Francis called last October and, despite the blanket media coverage of the pontiff’s recent six-day tour of Washington, New York and Philadelphia, this meeting will be far more consequential for Francis’ reform-minded papacy, and the future of Catholicism, than any pastoral visit.

“The success of the synod will not be measured by any overnight revisions of official doctrine, but rather by the ability of the church to proceed on the basis of a consensus, without obsessing over unanimity,” Faggioli said. “Because if reform requires unanimity, no reform will pass.”

And if the synod does not open the door to some adaptations or changes in pastoral practices, then the enormous popularity that Francis has enjoyed since his election in 2013 — a popularity buoyed in part because of expectations that his talk about a welcoming and inclusive church would be matched by deeds — could take a serious hit.

Whatever happens, the debate itself is a landmark change.

READ: Vatican on Pope Francis and Kim Davis: Meeting no ‘support’ for her case

In the 1960s, following the reforms of the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Pope Paul VI established a synod system so that bishops from around the world could meet every few years and continue to foster a more collegial, collaborative and horizontal form of church governance.

It was designed to reduce the centralization of power in the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy, and allow input from bishops with pastoral experiences from different countries.

As often happens in institutions, however, the bureaucracy clamped down on those plans, and the election of Pope — now saint — John Paul II in 1978, followed by his successor, Benedict XVI in 2005, signaled a restoration of Vatican authority.

Open debate was strongly discouraged and synods became largely pro forma events. Many bishops dreaded spending sleepy weeks in a Vatican lecture hall waiting to rubber-stamp preordained conclusions.

Francis himself recalled how in 2001, when he was named to a synod, he was told by Vatican officials that he could not deliver the comments he had prepared.

“That will not happen now,” Francis said before the start of last year’s synod.

And it hasn’t. Many bishops at last year’s synod raised questions about how the church could better welcome those whose lives don’t conform to the ideals of the catechism — cohabiting couples and those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment, for example, and even gay couples.

READ: Why is Pope Francis asking people to pray for him?

While those categories weren’t the only issues raised at the synod, they became flashpoints for controversy, and came to stand for the larger, more neuralgic debate over whether church teachings and practices could change.

Many bishops found the new approach exhilarating as well as necessary if the church was to shed the “fortress” mentality that Francis has decried.

But conservatives who have always been nervous about Francis’ reformist ways — and had been used to papal patronage for decades under John Paul II and Benedict XVI — went into full panic mode.

Leading cardinals have written books warning of heresy if the synod found a way to allow, for example, divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, and they and other church leaders and conservative pundits have been giving interviews and lectures and writing columns predicting historic schisms and divisions in the 1.2 billion-member church if any reforms are adopted.

Geographic splits have already emerged, with bishops in German-speaking countries, in particular, leading the call for reform while churchmen in Africa, along with many Eastern European prelates, are charging the Western Europeans with a kind of neocolonialism for trying to foist changes on a faith they say they are preserving.

The delegation of eight American churchmen, on the other hand, seems divided between reformers and conservatives.

The anxiety on the right has also been evident in widely broadcast claims of skullduggery by liberals and conspiracy theories that reformers “rigged” the synod last fall and are set to do the same this time around.

Francis has “stacked the deck” in favor of liberals, some say, while others decry “shadow synods” and secret task forces that are writing the script for the summit before it is even convened — claims that read more like a Dan Brown novel.

Progressives have certainly sought to push their views, though more quietly. They do not want to be cast as wanting to change anything and everything, or to overplay their hand. They have some confidence that there is significant support for their views among the 270 voting members of the synod, but they don’t want to sound overconfident or invite a backlash among those who may be sitting on the fence.

The conservatives may have the advantage of playing defense: They simply want the synod and the pope to reaffirm church teachings and practices, or, at worst, to settle for some vague call for mercy.

READ: Intense jockeying on gay issues precedes next week’s Catholic synod meeting

The latest guidelines on how the synod debates will unfold over the next three weeks were released on Friday (Oct. 2) and they are structured to guarantee more dialogue, and probably more fireworks — and that may be the way Francis likes it.

“If disagreements or differences of opinion arise, do not worry,” Francis told a group of priests just before his U.S. visit, reprising a theme he often stresses. “Better the heat of the argument than the coldness of indifference, which is the real tomb of fraternal charity.”

This month may show if the pontiff is getting more than he bargained for, and if many Catholics will get less than they wanted.


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  • Bernardo

    What heaven? Tis an invention of various religions to keep their leaders in their worthless jobs!!!

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  • Dominic

    The Pope is viewed as controversial because every listener believes he is either for or against unchangeable Catholic Doctrine or Teaching. He is open to discussion, yes, but fears of him rewriting infallible doctrine simply because he wants to is literally impossible.He is the guardian in chief of the Full Deposit of Faith and Revelation, but not the Author. He is controversial in the way Christ was, and Christ never sidestepped the Word of God. He has no interest in bending to any pressure from society, he is inviting society to open up their minds to God.

  • Betty Clermont

    The split in the episcopate is analogous to the divide in the GOP, i.e. the BIG MONEY Establishment v. the tea partiers. There are no “progressive” bishops, None are calling for acceptance of same-sex marriage, birth control or abortion to save the life of the mother.
    No, the synod is not a “bigger test” for the pope. Thanks to papal lap dog reporters like Gibson, the media has omitted giving the public the truth about Bergoglio’s background as well as his appointees and will continue to spin information about the pope to prove his “liberal” credentials.

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    Just what “background” of the Pope are you referring to?

  • Sister Geraldine Marie, OP, RN, PHN

    The Church was never meant to be popular but to preach salvation through belief in YAH’SHUA Ha’MASHIACH (Jesus Christ) and in obedience to His commands.

    The bishops should have several synods where they can speak out. The Curia was never meant to have power–they are only papal advisors not dictators! They act like unbelievers, rather than agape Christians. They need to keep in mind the verse from Proverbs:”The fear of YAHWEH is the beginning of wisdom; prudent are all who live by it.” (Proverbs 9:10)

  • Dominic

    The Pope is neither liberal nor conservative in matters of faith or morals since he is the Vicar of Christ on earth. He guards the full Deposit of Faith and Revelation that the Church has been blessed with and has no authority to change what cannot be changed. Expect only new approaches to dealing with the social issues of the day, no schismatic rantings or an overstepping of his Papal power.

  • Fmr Cath

    The Pope and the bishops can change the official church doctrine all they want but they can’t change God and they can’t change HIS word. A house divided against itself cannot stand. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23, 24, RS) Thus Jesus made it clear that those whose worship is not ‘in truth,’ not in harmony with the truth set out in God’s own Word, are not “true worshipers.” To Jewish religious leaders of the first century, Jesus said: “For the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matt. 15:6-9, RS) That applies with equal force to those in Christendom today who advocate human traditions in preference to the clear truths of the Bible.

  • Richard Rush

    “. . . the clear truths of the Bible.”

    The clear truth of the Bible is that it is the written words of men claiming to be revealing the words of a god. Those words are no more believable than Joseph Smith’s tale of the gold plates which started the LDS Church.

  • Dominic

    Comments deleted again? Catholic bashing, Herr Gibson.

  • Bernardo

    More than likely, your comments contained a word or fragment of a word not allowed by the “secret” word filter.

  • Dominic

    Told you the Pope wouldn’t move on the gay issue. Finally a leader with guts.

  • Larry

    The involvement of the church, most notably Bergoglio’s dealings in Argentina’s “Dirty War” come to mind. His role in making at least two priests “disappear” and the secret adoption program of children born to pregnant dissidents in detention centers.

  • Dominic

    Probably. I did use the words truth and Catholic. Not allowed on a Religion blog.

  • John

    These comments are horrible. They illustrate why an entire generation shuns religious institutionalism. Francis may change few of the rules of the Catholic Institution he has been elected to lead. But at least he says, “Let’s talk about it.” And this is what the naysayers seem to fear the most.

  • Elias Honein

    May we have a commentary on human sexuality for single males who are not gay are not members of the clergy have no medical sexual issues and who simply due to circumstances in life did not or could not find members of the opposite sex to marry

  • Ben in Oakland


    That’s the answer to your question.

    It’s also what you tell to the single HETEROSEXUAL males who haven’t found someone of the opposite sex to marry.

  • Betty Clermont,

    Your article on the Bergoglio’s connections during the Dirty War in South America is incredibly well researched. Could explain why the Pope always says, “pray for me” everywhere he goes. There is much of his past for him to wish away.

  • @Sister,

    “The church was never meant to be popular”

    That is duplicitous as well as disingenuous. The church has withstood almost 2000 years by force – not by love or humanitarianism.
    The Church sells the lie that it embodies humility, good deeds and sacrifices – but the truth is the exact opposite. The Church is prideful and preening; demanding favors and sacrifices from every civilization it has gained a foothold. “The Flock” follows the claims and demands or is denied The post-death grand prize as well as a slice of its vast resources in this life.

    The Pope believes in the legends he sells. It explains his exhaustion. And it is entirely counter productive to the good of humanity as it is needless.