Pope Francis greets visitors gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus with Pope Francis Feb. 18, 2024. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Editorial: Francis’ muddy waters

  • February 22, 2024

On the inevitable day when Heaven calls and historians gather to assess Pope Francis’ pontificate the metaphor of a roller coaster will surely be invoked by some.

Where the current Holy Father’s immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II, were train-like in their unwavering approaches to faith, morals and Church teaching, Francis’ course since he assumed the Chair of St. Peter 11 years ago next month has been, shall we say, varied. Critics might substitute erratic. Supporters: progressive. The Pope himself has confessed a preference for messiness.

Certainly, Francis’ spectacular historic visit to Canada 18 months ago to apologize for the Church’s complicity in abuse of Indigenous people must count among the high-water marks of accomplishment for any Roman pontiff over the past century. Its most compelling aspect was that its spectacle and symbolism had real significance.

Here was an elderly and physically encumbered man traversing a huge half continent to atone, repeatedly, for the sin of the Indian Residential School system 150 years ago, and the greater sins of 450 years of Indigenous exploitation. Anyone who paid attention recognized the atonement was both authentic and effective. Why? Because Francis listened. He heard. Above all, he spoke truthfully what needed to be said. He stood as the embodiment of the realization that there is no turning back on the path of reconciliation.

In a similar spirit, the ongoing Synod of Synodality that is the brainchild of his papacy bears  potential for the Church to listen, hear and speak to itself and therefore the world. There are miles to go yet before the fruits or failures of Synodality can be summed. Last October’s first gathering in Rome was publicly opaque in terms of what it produced, although appeals for patience with the process were entirely reasonable. In this one-zero binary age, we expect all switches, all systems, to be on-off, stop-go, if-then. If our Pope has taught us anything, even by his own example, it’s that people in a habituated hurry still have to give things time.

Yet that very lesson underlies the sensation of free fall many experienced a few days before Christmas with the unheralded handing down from the Vatican of Fiducia supplicans. The 5,000-word tract was intended to clarify by expansion the understanding of liturgical versus pastoral blessings to include “irregular relationships.” It succeeded only in turning the celebration of the birth of Our Lord into an occasion of confusion, debate, rancour and division dicing with intractability.

Partisans and detractors of the document have had their say and are fast approaching the vanishing point of ad nauseum. The resulting clarity has the quality of the mud being hurled far too often in its name. The one indisputable thing about Fiducia supplicans is that its delivery was a ham-handed communications debacle. Pro and con on content can equally agree that the amateurishness of its presentation to the faithful brought deep embarrassment to an institution whose very mission is bringing the Word to the world.

It’s there that a particular Franciscan habit gives many in the Church a roller coaster stomach lurch. Late last month, the Holy Father was still out not only defending the intention of the text, which one would expect, but casting criticism on those for whom it falls well short. Those critics are part of “small ideological groups,” he told the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Small? As in sub-Saharan Africa second largest continent in the world whose bishops have unanimously rejected it, small? Yes, the Africans: “For them, homosexuality is something ‘ugly’ from a cultural point of view; they do not tolerate it.” Oh, well, that clears everything up.

Of course, it doesn’t. Worse, it obscures the necessary point the Pope was making: We do not keep “lists of sinners” in the Church because the Church is full of sinners, otherwise we wouldn’t need a Church. But even that high point goes low to win an argument no one is having. No one opposed to Fiducia supplicans wants “lists of sinners” compiled. They want clarity about what constitutes sin, which as Pope Francis said only two years ago: “God cannot bless.”

Historians will indeed have to hang onto their hats whenever Heaven calls.

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