Buckle up for Francis' third year

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 11. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 11. (CNS/Paul Haring)

by Michael Sean Winters

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We just passed the second anniversary of Pope Francis' pontificate and all the commentators, on the left and the right, agreed that the first pope from Latin America has taken the Vatican by storm. He's urged a reform agenda on several fronts, from church finances, to the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics, to the way a Synod of Bishops is conducted.

If you thought the last two years were tumultuous and exciting, you ain't seen nothing yet.

The Council of Cardinals will continue to meet regularly to advise Francis on the reform of the Curia. Already, changes to the financial administration have been sweeping and irrevocable, after fierce opposition.

The Commission for the Protection of Minors is working on protocols for holding bishops accountable if they fail to protect the children in their diocese from predatory clergy -- the last, critical missing piece of an effective policy at child protection. Again, opposition within the Curia is fierce.

Perhaps the most interesting and far-reaching change has to do with the way a Synod of Bishops is conducted. Originally instituted after the Second Vatican Council in order to enflesh the conciliar teaching on collegiality, the synods quickly became talkathons in which all essential decision-making was left to the pope and the Curia. Synods were notoriously sleep-inducing during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

But Francis encourages participants to speak their mind and risk open disagreement in order to get to the heart of the questions in a way that the entire church is consulted. The long-term potential for such a seemingly simple change is enormous.

Indeed, the second synod on the family, scheduled for October, is likely to be the most combustible event in Francis' third year as pope. The church's teachings on matters related to human sexuality have taken up a disproportionate amount of time and attention -- from popes, bishops, theologians, clergy and laity -- since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and, for Catholics, since Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Humanae Vitae thoughtfully, moderately and explicitly stated that the teaching must be applied in a pastoral manner with attention to the situations of individuals. But, nonetheless, the encyclical became a lightning rod in what we now know as the culture wars. Catholics, taught that marriage is indissoluble, were not immune to the rising divorce rates in most Western countries. The start of the gay rights movement at Stonewall the following year only increased the cultural velocity of pelvic theology.

More people misunderstood the church's teaching on conscience formation than the teaching on birth control or homosexuality or divorce, compounding the problem. But support for or resistance to the church's teachings in the area of sexuality seemed more important than what one thought of the divinity of Christ.

It was Pope John Paul II's explicit goal to bring such debates to a close, and what better way to end the discussion than to not permit any in the first place. Bishops were told in advance of a synod which topics were off-limits. In selecting new bishops, candidates were screened for never having raised too many difficult questions.

But the questions remained, and Francis has invited everyone to speak to them, even encouraging bishops to consult the laity.

Two issues are likely to generate the most heat at the synod.

First, what pastoral practice should be adopted for divorced and remarried Catholics? It appears that almost everyone is in favor of reforming the annulment process, simplifying it and making it less juridical and more pastoral. That, in itself, is a huge step forward.

But the difficulty arises from the suggestion that the failure of a valid marriage can be forgiven and atoned for, and, in the manner of the Eastern Orthodox churches, a penitential process would permit someone who is divorced and remarried to return to the eucharistic table.

The other issue is homosexuality. No one in Catholic officialdom wants to admit that our theology of homosexuality is woefully inadequate. Even fewer entertain reasonable expectations of how the doctrine can and should develop. Gay rights activists think nothing of tossing 2,000 years of theology out the window. Conservative opponents of gay rights equate the humane nondiscrimination of gays with civilizational collapse.

If Francis can steer the synod through these choppy waters to something resembling consensus, who would be able to deny that the Holy Spirit was at work?

Two weeks before the synod, Francis will make his first visit to the United States. The schedule of events has not been announced in its entirety, but we can hope the bishops on the planning committees are wrestling with the fact that the schedule, so far as we know it, does not scream "Francis." We know he will address a joint meeting of Congress. As a head of state, he will be welcomed at the White House. He will speak before the United Nations.

All of these venues speak of power and influence; they do not speak of the peripheries and the margins, where Francis has said he wants the church to be. It is hoped that he will be given the opportunity to display his solidarity with the poor and those who minister to them, carrying out the works of mercy that are so dear to his heart.

He might visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, and visit a place where the homeless are sheltered. The pope is also sure to visit with the victims of clergy sex abuse, presumably in Philadelphia, where the crisis had its worst iteration since Boston.

Francis said that he had wanted to enter the U.S. by crossing over the border from Mexico, as a sign of his solidarity with migrants. That would indeed have been a powerful statement. But he told reporters he could not go to Mexico without first going to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that means going to Mexico City and all the accoutrements of a state visit, and the trip would have become interminably long. (Shame on the organizers for not suggesting that he at least go to the border, as several U.S. bishops have, and say Mass there, passing Communion through the border fence.)

We can bet that when he speaks before Congress, Francis will speak of his solidarity with the immigrants. One wonders how badly the Roman Catholic speaker of the house, John Boehner, will squirm in his seat.

Finally, sometime this summer, the pope is slated to release an encyclical on the environment. This will set off a firestorm in certain conservative political circles in the U.S. -- conservatives in the rest of the world have not joined the climate change denial bandwagon.

It will be vital that the U.S. bishops, even those who have grave reservations about the directions in which the pope is leading the church, grasp that allowing any daylight between them and the pope two months before a papal visit is to invite trouble. These same bishops also have to ask themselves if the Catholic church in this country really needs its version of the Scopes "monkey" trial, which tarnished the public face of evangelicalism for decades.

So if you liked all the ferment and change we saw in the first two years of Francis' reign, buckle up. This year will be even more exciting.

[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics on his Distinctly Catholic blog.]

A version of this story appeared in the April 10-23, 2015 print issue under the headline: Buckle up for Francis' third year.

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