Pope Francis has indicated he wants the bishops to set forth on a new mission: overturning the old expectation that church news would always be bad. His first proclamation, he explained, is that "Christ has saved you," and an attitude of mercy must follow from that revelation. "Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord," he has said. If the church is a "field hospital," Francis explained, it must bring mercy and healing to its patients.
This is encouraging news, but not for everyone. Francis has also said it is not his mission to change doctrine. And that is bad news for those Catholics who are divorced and remarried.
Does this mean the agenda for the upcoming synod on the family will give no relief to the great mass of Catholics in second marriages who have listened with hope as Francis has emphasized mercy in practically every speech he's given?
It would be unwise, I believe, to draw any absolute conclusions here. In his masterful essay in Commonweal, "Great Expectations," writer John Wilkins notes how moved Francis was by Cardinal Walter Kasper's two-hour presentation before 160 cardinals and the pope in February. Kasper discussed the situation of the Catholic family today. But his clear emphasis was on the status of the remarried. Summarizing one of Kasper's major points, Wilkins wrote, "If a woman deserted by her husband remarried outside the church, perhaps for the good of her children, should the church tell her she could never again receive the Eucharist unless she ended her second marriage? ... Was the Eucharist being presented as a reward for good behavior, instead of medicine for sinners on their penitential journey?"
Wilkins wrote, "Francis was pleased with Kasper's presentation. ... He confided that he had re-read the text one evening before falling asleep. He had been struck by its 'serene theology.' A thought had come to him -- this was called 'doing theology while kneeling.' He reiterated [to Kasper]: 'Thank you, thank you.' "
What all this means, I don't know. It certainly indicates that everything is not settled despite what conservative-minded bishops in the Curia and elsewhere are saying, or even what the pope is saying. Synod-related meetings before the big event in 2015 could form a frame for some startling changes -- even in doctrine. Wheels are turning.