You may or may not remember Mikhail Gorbachev, the father of perestroika, a set of reforms meant to restructure the socialist political system that existed at the time. When Gorbachev rose to power in 1985, he immediately announced bold economic changes, only to realize a year later that it was impossible to boost the soviet economy without pursuing radical political reforms. However, the immediate goal of perestroika was not to end one party system, but to push Russia towards democratization within the existing framework, opening a debate within the party and improving transparency (glasnost) in soviet society. But willingly or not, perestroika opened up the road to the collapse of the Soviet Empire five years later.
Similarly, with the newly elected pope Francis, fresh wind started to blow within the walls of the Vatican. At the end of the murky pontificate of a very conservative pope, Benedict did something revolutionary. He resigned. By doing so, he created a crack in infallibility of the pope’s absolute power. I wrote about these changes in Vatican in an attempt to evaluate the newly elected Pope Francis. The new pope immediately set into hearts of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world. Francis, who also reached out beyond his own flock, conquered the world with his humility, transparency and sense of justice.
In October 2013, just half a year after his election, the new pope announced that there would be an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on topics related to family and evangelization. Subsequent communications made it clear that the Extraordinary General Assembly would be followed by an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2015.
This early call for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops did not arouse much attention. But most of the Vatican watchers probably suspected that the announced Synod would just be an empty exercise of democracy for the members of the pope’s consultative body. This, at least, was what had been happening under the Benedict’s pontificate.
This time, though, we should all see it coming. First, because popes’ requests for an Extraordinary Synod are rare and historically linked to the Second Vatican Council, which introduced a package of Church reforms in the early ‘60s. These reforms were never completely implemented. So a call for an Extraordinary Synod only a few months after the new pope sat on his throne should be a clear signal about his intentions. Not to mention that the topic – the role of the rapidly changing family – had been decided only couple months after pope’s famous phrase “Who am I to judge?” The public became euphoric after hearing this phrase, somehow naively expecting the new pope to actually open his arms to the gay community. The correct answer to whether he will open his arms is both yes and no. I was only partly wrong when I wrote that, “Unfortunately, the phrase was not a sign of tolerance. He was not a liberal, but a Jesuit speaking. Jesuits are convinced that changes are only possible if they come from within. Therefore, according to the Jesuit Pope, it is not his role to make pronouncements about the sins of a person who is already in a dialog with the Lord. This is a personal matter and exactly what the pope meant when he said, ‘Se una persona e’ gay e cerca il Signore e ha buona volonta’, chi sono io a giudicarla?’ There is no indication that Francis is much different than Ratzinger when it comes to core issues like recognizing same sex marriage.”
It is now obvious that Pope Francis does not want to use his power to challenge the Synod of Bishops, his consultative body, or the curia in general, when it comes to theological issues. And yet, in retrospect, we know that Pope Francis envisioned his reform strategy for the changes just a few weeks after he got seated on the throne as Saint Peter’s successor.
As we all noticed, Francis doesn’t like the absolute power that the Church gives to every pope. He lives in modern society, not a feudal epoque when the Church was an actual proprietor of this world, when the Church conquered America for gold. Let’s not forget this dimension of the Church, which still hides many well-bred prelates in the Vatican – prelates who hate to see this pope carrying his own leather bag and wearing hiking shoes, all while refusing to lodge in luxurious aristocratic palaces. We may never know why the pope is doing this: is it because he believes in it? Or because he loves to stalk the cardinals and bishops who fear to stray out of their comfort zone and who do not want to abandon the privileges of being princes of the Church? Recently, when the pope visited New York and walked into the splendidly restored St.Patrick’s Cathedral, he must have been pretty unhappy when Cardinal Dolan, the host, boasted about the $200 million spent for the restoration. And yet he kept silent and hugged his well-fed and joyous host, who ran for the pope’s job in 2013, proposing himself as a good manager of the Church.
Then the Synod in Rome happened, and with the vote on the final document – which, true, does not rehabilitate the divorced and remarried Catholics, does not abolish the celibacy of the priests, does not recognize or accept gay couples as being traditional families – the pope managed to take his strategy of opening the Church’s windows one step further. It was not – and could never be – a complete victory, but it is a call to diversity, tolerance and leniency, appealing to bishops and priest to use discernment according to the place and culture where they do their service.
“Because conservative-minded bishops loudly and repeatedly refused to endorse any such statement, the pope and the reformers on the drafting committee were forced to settle for language about individual priests showing leniency in individual cases. The doctrine wasn’t changed, just the requirement that priests apply it identically in all cases,” comments Damon Linker, a columnist for online magazine, The Week. Linker then continues:
This outcome, far from representing a setback to Francis’ reformist agenda, is actually the best scenario the pope could have hoped for. Instead of explicitly overturning doctrine and sparking an ecclesiastical conflagration like the one that’s been tearing apart the Episcopal Church for the past decade and a half, the pope has set a course that’s likely to bring about his desired results with a minimum of conflict — and at a faster pace than would be likely if he limited himself to appointing progressive bishops. If you want to institute sweeping change in a deeply conservative institution, maybe the best approach is not to alter the rules, but simply to stop enforcing them.
Contrary to Linker, who thinks that the pope is stealthily reforming the most conservative institution on Earth, John Allen, one of the most informed Vatican watchers, thinks that the pope’s attempts at reform can go two ways:
First Madness as Method: This view holds that the two synods were launched without a clear objective, were poorly organized, and the overall result has been to leave Catholicism disoriented and consumed by internal battles. As one senior cardinal put it, “I used to think there was a method beneath the madness … now I worry that the madness is the method.”
And the second is No Pain, No Gain: Choosing a glass-half-full perspective, this view posits that growth is always painful, but that Catholicism will emerge stronger for having honestly surfaced its divisions rather than keeping them bottled up or, worse still, pretending they don’t exist. On the other side of acrimony and confusion, this view holds, lies a season of renewal.
At this point, it is very hard to predict how far Pope Francis wants to go, or how much he will able to open the Church to the fresh breeze. As Allen and other observers acknowledge, there is a big difference between the aspirations of the clergy in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and the aspirations of those from Africa. The former are all reformist and want less church interference, while the latter are all anti-gay. So what happens when the Synod, the Church, and the pope ask the priests to use their own judgment in treating the communities or individuals who are in the margins of the Catholic Church? By allowing the clergy free judgment, has the pope already started something that will provoke even more disunity within the Church?
I was born and raised in a Catholic world. Yet my grandma had to take me secretly to the church where they baptised me. This is where my religious education stopped. But being brought up in a completely Catholic environment, I can still respect church-, mosque- or synagogue-goers. I don’t agree that the Church can have and exclusive right on the salvation of the soul. Barbie Latza Nadeau, who followed the Synod for the Daily Beast, recently explained the notion and practical consequences of sin in Catholicism. It is a brilliant and very clear exposition of a complex and contradictory liturgy. Of the chaos that is hidden under the dome of a supposedly unified Catholic Church that the well-bred prelates in the Vatican are trying to preserve.