Pope Francis is an enigma. On the one hand, he is known for ambiguous statements such as “who am I to judge?” that can be interpreted completely in line with traditional Catholic teachings, but which can also interpreted as signaling a relaxation of those teachings. On the other hand, he mentions Satan frequently—more so than any other pope I am familiar with. It makes me ask the question, what is Pope Francis up to?
The 2014 Synod on the Family
It is not just the famous “who am I to judge?” statement that causes me to ask this question. There was also the Synod of the Bishops on the Family. In the lead up to the October 2014 Synod, the Pope seemed to be using Cardinal Walter Kasper to champion the position of giving Holy Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Thanks to the efforts of some intransigent bishops who opposed Kasper’s proposal, it appears that Communion for divorced and remarried couples is now off the table. But just publicly entertaining the idea has a certain effect.
Cardinal Kasper’s proposal was a brazen, direct assault upon Church teaching, but not just any Church teaching. The indissolubility of marriage is a doctrine taught by Jesus himself in the gospels. There was absolutely no chance that the Church would change this teaching—unless you happen to believe that the Church is merely a human institution. The fact that divorce and remarriage was raised at all makes me think that it was a diversion tactic.
But what greater purpose could challenging the Church’s teaching on marriage serve? One possible reason is that it introduces confusion into the ranks of the faithful. If the princes of the Church are considering dropping a direct teaching of the Savior himself, isn’t everything up for grabs?
But there may be another reason. The Synod issued an interim report called a relatio, that may give us a clue what the real goal may be. This relatio was released without being reviewed and approved by all the bishops present. One of the things that showed up in the relatio, to the surprise of some of the bishops, was a statement about homosexuality:
The question of homosexuality was then addressed, with a call to serious reflection. The Synod Fathers noted that homosexual persons have gifts and talents to offer the Christian community and that pastoral outreach to them is an important educative challenge.
In the report, the Synod Fathers also reaffirm that same-sex unions cannot be considered equal to matrimony. And it is unacceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology.
At first glance, this seems a rather mild statement, but astute bishops saw something more ominous in the language. Cardinal Burke stated: “Many of us were horrified with this idea that was presented in the report, that there could somehow be good elements in mortally sinful acts. This is impossible.”
Bishop Athanasius Schneider explained why the unauthorized release of the interim relatio was so disturbing to some of the bishops:
The interim report (Relatio post disceptationem) was clearly a prefabricated text with no reference to the actual statements of the Synod fathers. In the sections on homosexuality, sexuality and “divorced and remarried” with their admittance to the sacraments the text represents a radical neo-pagan ideology. This is the first time in Church history that such a heterodox text was actually published as a document of an official meeting of Catholic bishops under the guidance of a pope, even though the text only had a preliminary character.
So was the whole debate about admitting the remarried to Communion a big smoke screen to begin introducing changes that can be used as toeholds to bigger changes in Church teaching regarding homosexuality?
I believe that question will be answered when we see the final result of the second half of the Synod that will take place in October 2015.
The Phone Call to Argentina
Then there is the infamous phone call that the Holy Father made to a woman in Argentina who was married to a divorced man. The Pope told the woman that she could receive Communion in apparent contradiction to Catholic doctrine. Here is the story from CNN:
Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona wrote to the pontiff in September to ask for clarification on the Communion issue, according to her husband, who said his divorced status had prevented her from receiving the sacrament.
“She spoke with the Pope, and he said she was absolved of all sins and she could go and get the Holy Communion because she was not doing anything wrong,” Sabetta told Channel 3 Rosario, a CNN affiliate.
Defenders of the Pope will be quick to point out that it is the woman making the claim. Perhaps she is misreporting it.
If that were the case, the Vatican could easily correct the woman’s misunderstanding. Instead, the response from the Vatican was “It’s between the Pope and the woman,” and that the “magisterium of the church is not defined by personal phone calls.”
While the Vatican’s statement is correct, it is definitely worrisome if the Pope actually said what the woman related. Since there has been no correction to the woman’s statements, I can only assume that she was telling the truth.
These are only two examples, but I could multiply them. There has been the demotion of the conservative American Cardinal Burke from the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the “Supreme Court” of the Catholic Church, to the Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which is largely a ceremonial post usually given to a retired cardinal or as a secondary job to an active one.
Francis’ appointments of bishops have also tended to favor men who could be described as supporting a lesser emphasis on doctrine and a greater emphasis on being open and “pastoral.”
What are we to make of this?
There are lots of writers who defend the Holy Father by saying that he is just being manipulated by the media. This argument doesn’t hold water. Pope Francis rose to a leadership position within the Jesuits, a religious order with the reputation of being the brainiest order in the Church. Whatever else the Pope may be, he is not naïve. He is an intelligent and politically savvy player. He knows exactly what he is doing and he is accomplishing it in a very subtle way.
One article in Crisis suggests that Francis’ style is one of being a “universal spiritual director.” But does a good spiritual director lead you to doubt the stability of Church teaching?
My own opinion is that Pope Francis is fully in line with the school that interprets the Second Vatican Council as the establishment of a new era in the history of the Church, on par with the age of the Apostles. This school is more likely to use what has been called the “hermeneutic of rupture” when interpreting the Council documents.
This approach is also contrary to the approaches of St. John Paul and Pope Benedict, who saw the Council in continuity with what preceded it.
If I am correct, we can expect the Catholic Church to have a greater subservience openness to the secular culture similar to what we have witnessed with the Church of England. We will also see an undoing of many of the reforms of the preceding Popes.