The pope will be arriving in the United States soon. The visit will be followed by a synod on the family at the Vatican, Oct. 5-19. This will undoubtedly be a defining period of time for the papacy of Pope Francis. Catholics and citizens of the world have varying expectations of what they would like to see from this pope and what they believe he might actually do or say. These events will be dissected and spun in a variety of ways for many months to come.
I am interested in what progressives in the church expect from this pope and what might in fact occur. Of course we progressives are likely to want to see anything from having female priests, to easing restrictions on contraception, to more liturgical experimentation and on and on. I suspect most of us, including conservatives, could fairly easily construct the perfect church as we think it should be in our own world.
The problem is we live in community. The church is part of that community that contains members with a fairly wide variety of beliefs. Regional differences are perhaps one of the most difficult to address. What might seem appropriate in the United States is not considered appropriate in African or Asian communities, for example.
Let's look at what we can see that the pope has done thus far in his brief papacy. We have primarily seen a change in attitude and tone to one that is more pastoral. There has also been some movement toward a more decentralized church, which includes some still ambiguous steps in reforming the curia. The pope’s council of cardinals is one step in that direction. The convening of the synod itself is another.
So what can we expect, and what could be considered success for his vision and goals? Remember, he must placate a conservative hierarchy and address regional differences.
The trip itself will primarily be an effort at public relations. It will essentially be a charm offensive. He will need to be tough on issues like inequality, no nonsense on climate change, and persuasive on immigration. At the same time he will need to present a figure that is compelling, authentic, approachable and compassionate to all. It is a tough job but I’m betting Pope Francis will pull it off.
It is important that he have a successful trip, because a successful trip will provide him with the leverage he needs to effectively exert his will on the synod fathers a week later. For me, I believe a couple of things will augur success. First of all, the only specific practice that has been mentioned as being up for change is allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. If he is unable to end the synod with tangible movement toward this goal, he is in real trouble, and we could essentially be talking about the productive end of his papacy. This is a serious tug of war against conservative forces, but he must emerge a winner in this regard or much of what he has been pushing since his election will be meaningless.
Although as a progressive I will be disappointed that more is unlikely to be accomplished, I still believe there are some important structural changes that can occur and portend well for the future. The language of the synod documents will be critical. Regional issues can be addressed by decentralizing church authority and giving bishops the power to do things such as instituting a married clergy or even women deacons in their own dioceses.
Other language can make clear what the church’s outreach will be to the gay and lesbian community. The church’s openness to different family constellations, an awareness of changes in society, and how the church must respond in a pastoral manner are all areas which should be made clear in the language of the final documents.
What Pope Francis really needs to be about is laying the groundwork for a future church that is more open to the world around it. It needs to be made clear that there is a real understanding of contemporary family structures as well as other changes in our society.
The synod needs to demonstrate an eagerness to participate in our world on an equal footing of give and take. Certainly the church will be about trying to create a better world for all of us, but without condemning the very world that all of us must live in. If conservatives are able to delete this kind of language from the synod documents, the papacy of Francis could end up being but a blip on the radar screen.
When the dust settles we will be able to analyze what has occurred and see where it can take us. The documents of the Second Vatican Council continue to resonate today because they contain ideas that serve as a catalyst to move the church forward. The documents are rich with language that still provides fertile ground for future change in the church. The upcoming synod can do no less. The seeds of a future church more attuned to the values of the Gospel must be contained therein.