The pontificate might be stuck in the mud

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A Christian is not supposed to give up hope. She is not to despair.

But after three very uplifting and incredible years under the prophetic leadership and compelling personal witness of Pope Francis, many reform-minded Catholics have again become quite worried about the future direction of their church.

It is not that their honeymoon with the first New World pope is over. (The memory of what a disastrous state the church was in before his election has prevented that from happening just yet.)

But there are growing concerns that, despite being able to effect a seismic change in attitude and ethos throughout the worldwide Catholic family, Francis has done nothing to ensure that this will not all be tossed aside once he is gone.

It should be stated again, without any gloss, that he must move more quickly to make structural and juridical changes that cannot be easily undone by one of his successors.

There are legitimate fears that, with a pope who is already 79 years of age, a window of opportunity may be closing.

Francis knows this better than anyone.

But he is obviously convinced that the best strategy for steering a new path that cannot be reversed is by governing with the consensus of the world's bishops. This is a challenging task because of the ideological differences and diffidence that so many of the world's bishops have in his regard.

The recent apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, is a prime example of the Jesuit pope's effort to bring them along.

His lengthy text is based on a wide consultation and intense debate that took place over two-and-a-half years and during two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops. And much of this papal letter is made up of long citations from the documents the bishops produced during those synod sessions.

Pope Francis did not have to include all of that. The current statutes of the synod make it very clear that the Bishop of Rome, who is this permanent body's president, is not bound by anything that comes out of these assemblies.

The Synod of Bishops remains a mere consultative body. The pope can accept or reject whatever is generated during its periodical meetings -- which he, and he alone, calls into session.

But Francis chose to include just about everything. At the same time he has also begun developing (God forbid we say "changing") the role of the synod. However, he has thus far refused to grant deliberative powers to this body, which is a continuation of the practice of his predecessors from Paul VI to Benedict XVI.

Unlike those other popes, however, he has made the synod assemblies a forum for real debate and discernment. John Paul II and even Benedict did very little talking during the assemblies, preferring to use surrogates to steer the bishops' discussions to a desired conclusion.

Pope Francis, unlike them, has taken a much more active part in the synod process, making periodic and forceful interventions aimed at posing more probing questions and giving clear direction. And he has urged the bishops to speak openly and honestly, while reminding them that they must also listen carefully and respectfully to different opinions and points of view.

This has created a dynamic new process, but one that remains merely a feature of the personal leadership style of this particular pope. This process -- which, at times, is messy and unpredictable -- is not codified in any directive or statute that makes it irreversible. A future pope could adopt a style closer to the cleaner and more controlled methodology of earlier synod assemblies.

That is why Francis must now accelerate his ongoing reform and development of the Synod of Bishops so that, by law, it becomes the primary structure to assist the Bishop of Rome in his ministry of universal governance. The monarchical model on which it is currently based is not only an anachronism at this stage of history. More crucially, it is an overly centralized model that is inadequate for governing a 1.2 billion-member worldwide church.

A reformed Synod of Bishops, similar to ecumenical councils, must be invested with decision-making authority. Its deliberations would be subject to the agreement of the synod's president, the Bishop of Rome, who would have the last word, thus preserving papal primacy.

Such a synod would have to be called into session more frequently and include consultations with all its members (all bishops and not just their delegates at periodic assemblies), which can easily be facilitated by today's advanced means of communication.

The theological foundations for introducing authentic synodal governance within the structure of the Roman church are already well established, dating back to the earliest centuries. And it would finally give life to one of the stillborn offspring of the Second Vatican Council -- episcopal collegiality.

Such a transformation would be the absolutely essential point of departure from which other necessary reforms would naturally follow. For example, the "sound decentralization" that Pope Francis calls for in paragraph 16 of his 2013 blueprint for church renewal and reform, Evangelii Gaudium.

In order for such a model of synodality to work effectively at the global level (i.e., through the Synod of Bishops), other structures of governance would have to be strengthened at the regional, national and local levels. Again, there are historical precedents and good theological reasons that support this.

Making the synod a constitutive part of the Bishop of Rome's ministry will also lead to a new and reduced role for the Roman Curia, which would be subjugated to the pope's synod. Indeed this may be the only way that Francis can bring about a real reform of the Curia, which has eluded every one of his predecessors since this bureaucracy's genesis somewhere around the 15th century.

Such a development would necessarily be marked by growing pains likely to last several generations, but a refusal to embark on this path will only ensure a tragic end to the church's ongoing implosion (an implosion which is not so evident right now only because of Pope Francis' incredible popularity.)

If Francis does nothing to make such structural and juridical changes, it is not inconceivable that when the overwhelmingly conservative College of Cardinals elects his successor -- and most likely in the not too distant future -- the new pope would reverse the movement for reform that's currently underway.

And if it were a Pope Cyprian I or Pius XIII (also known as Cardinal Robert Sarah), the reversal would be swift and uncompromising. Of course, they'd have to tear down the walls of our churches to prevent people from crushing each other in the mass exodus that might cause.

But no need to dwell on hypotheticals.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

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