The 'Francis effect' goes beyond the laypeople in the pews

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In the past year, many have noticed a "Francis effect" taking place around the world as throngs of disaffected Catholics have given the church a second look. Yet we may rightly wonder whether this is actually a double effect -- for not only are lay Catholics returning to the pews, but some clergy are feeling empowered to reach toward the ambiguous margins of modern belief.

To take one example, The Washington Post reported back in March that many Italian clergy have expanded their outreach to gays and lesbians through prayer services, meetings with diocesan officials, and even a production of "Bent" in a church in Tuscany.

"The atmosphere created by our new pope has, in a sense, made it official for us to have a more open door," the pastor of that Tuscan parish explained.

Cardinal Walter Kasper's campaign to bring mercy to bear on the church's policy toward those who are divorced and remarried has already been amply discussed. But Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium -- a former L'Arche chaplain who makes frequent pastoral visits to struggling households in his diocese -- has used the occasion of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family to make a bolder statement than Kasper's.

This week, he released a breathtaking fervorino recapitulating the historical opposition of the Belgian bishops' conference to Humanae Vitae and the subsequent decline of papal-episcopal collegiality -- a "discord," he says, which "cannot continue."

Bonny's wide-ranging text, which brims with pastoral sensitivity and human experience no less than with a sober historical consciousness, pleads for a closer link "between theology and pastoral reality"; the restoration of personal conscience to "its rightful place in healthy moral-theological reflection"; and the dismantling of "bipolar" thinking that categorizes people's relational situations as either "regular" or "irregular."

Theologians like Kasper and Bonny might be gratified to know that this weekend, the pope once more endorsed a less legalistic vision of Catholic religiosity, presiding over the marriages of several couples who were already cohabiting or had children.

Of course, the compass that guides the church's future is ever-wavering; for every anecdote that points north, another points due south. For instance, also this week, five prominent cardinals -- including the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, and the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, Cardinal Raymond Burke -- published a book concluding that "the Church's longstanding fidelity to the truth of marriage constitutes the irrevocable foundation of its merciful and loving response to the individual who is civilly divorced and remarried."

Moreover, Kasper was met with skepticism when he addressed his fellow cardinals at their spring consistory. One attendee estimated that 85 percent of the cardinals were uncomfortable with his propositions.

Yet the scale of the Gospel is the mustard seed, and 15 percent is a significant mustard seed (which could even grow at the next consistory). The point is that the hierarchy does not represent a monolithic conception of religion. These are men of deep prayer and profound intelligence who read the Gospels, and new possibilities do occur to thoughtful people open to the urgings of grace.

That is probably why certain cardinals have allowed a partnered gay man onto a parish council or denied that there is any theological obstacle to women's ordination. It is also why they elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy in the first place. Indeed, then, if there is an argument against the supposed double effect of Francis' pontificate, it is not that it is overhyped but that it risks putting the cart before the horse.

In this connection, I must also pass on a surprising story a Jesuit told me: His friend, the "liberal lion" Cardinal Carlo Martini, once suggested to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that the church needed to rearticulate its sexual ethics from the bottom up. "I know," Benedict reportedly told Martini. "I just have no idea how to do so."

So far, the Francis (double) effect has augured not a totally new theology, but a new atmosphere in which profoundly religious minds -- like Bonny, whose letter tackles no smaller a subject than the purpose of the church -- can air their long-simmering theological questions without fear of censure.

Yet it would truly be an epochal moment, perhaps on the scale of the Gregorian reforms one millennium ago, if from this reflective mood a totally new institutional consciousness about the basic meaning of religion were one day to emerge.

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