At this rate, maybe Pope Francis will be the last pope!
Contraception, cohabitation, divorce, remarriage and same-sex unions: They’re issues that pain and puzzle Roman Catholics who want to be true to both their church and themselves.
Now those issues are about to be put up for debate by their leader, a man who appears determined to push boundaries and effect change.
On Pope Francis’ orders, the Vatican will convene an urgent meeting of senior clerics this fall to reexamine church teachings that touch the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. Billed as an “extraordinary” assembly of bishops, the gathering could herald a new approach by the church to the sensitive topics. The run-up to the synod has been extraordinary in itself, a departure from usual practice that some say is a mark of the pope’s radical new leadership style, and a canny tactic to defuse dissent over potential reforms.
Within a few months of his election last year, Francis directed every diocese in the world to survey local attitudes on family and relationships and report back to the Vatican, a canvassing of a sort that few of the faithful can recall previously. The results are being tallied and synthesized behind the walls of the Vatican.
The exercise reflects Francis’ desire for less centralized and more responsive decision-making, mirroring his own self-described evolution from a rigid, authoritarian leader as a young man into one who consults and empathizes. His training as a Jesuit has taught the pope to cast as wide a net for information as possible, analysts say.
Taking the public temperature also brings tactical advantages. Nobody at the Vatican will be surprised to learn that vast numbers of Catholics disobey its ban on premarital sex and birth control, or that some are in gay partnerships. Setting down those realities irrefutably on paper, however, could strengthen a bid by Francis to soften the church’s official line and put pressure on bishops inclined to resist, including some in the United States and many in Asia and Africa, conservative areas where the church has been growing.
“It is telling the pope and the Vatican what they already know. But it’s what the Vatican in the past has not wanted to hear,” author and Vatican expert John Thavis said.
“It’s strategic, but it’s also a genuine effort to find out what the voice of the church really is on this,” Thavis said. “It’s very much Pope Francis who wants less of a top-down model — the bishops preaching the rules and doctrine down to the faithful — and more of a dialogue.”
Hardly anyone expects the pope to propose sweeping changes to Catholic doctrine at the synod in October despite widespread criticism that the modern world has left the church behind. Indeed, Francis has unequivocally upheld heterosexual marriage and procreation as God’s established, sanctified ideal.
But liberal reformers have been excited by the Vatican’s shift in tone under Francis. His remark regarding gays, “Who am I to judge?” has gone viral, as has his warning to the church not to obsess over “small-minded rules” and contentious subjects such as abortion.
The news story says that substantive changes in moral teachings are unlikely, but start to pick at the threads of natural law and the whole tapestry of the Roman Catholic ethical system could come unraveled. What is most radical here, at this point, is the notion that the Pope and the bishops should listen to what the laity say about such things, as if the church were a democracy.