Pope Francis prays during a meeting with cardinals at the Vatican Oct. 1. The Pope led a series of consultations aimed at the reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

Pope opening Church to new possibilities

  • October 13, 2013

Catholics may be getting used to a Pope who says the unexpected. “Who am I to judge?” “The court is the leprosy of the papacy.” “Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” “How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor.”

From the moment Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony, sans cape, and asked for our prayers, the hits just keep on coming.

But this Pope is more than an engaging conversationalist. The first ever Pope Francis is matching surprising words with actions that are changing more than administrative structures. Francis seems determined to fulfill dreams that have lingered in Church consciousness throughout the half-century since the Second Vatican Council.

“The revolution is going to come in very fragmented spurts. We shouldn’t expect too much too soon. Maybe not even in this pontificate,” said Mark Yenson, King’s College professor of philosophy and religious studies at London’s Western University.

But Yenson does not doubt a Franciscan revolution is under way.

It took another step on Sept. 28 when Pope Francis announced that an advisory group of eight cardinals was to become a permanent council. This C8 of Vatican outsiders — the eight cardinals come from eight different countries and six continents — is charged with not only advising the Pope on how to reform the curia, but will also counsel him in the overall governance of the universal Church, the Pope said.

At its first meeting, Oct. 1-3 in the Vatican, the council worked on plans to completely overhaul the Roman Curia, discussed modifying the world Synod of Bishops and the role of the laity. The council will meet again in early December and then in February.

The development of a permanent council signals a new culture and new approach to the most basic and constant problem of the Church. That problem isn’t turf wars inside the Vatican bureaucracy or lax administration at the Vatican bank. It’s the age-old question of how the Church can be truly and fully Catholic — and catholic.

“I’m finding it a very interesting time, there’s no doubt about it,” said Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president. “All of a sudden we’re finding that there’s a space that has been opened up to discuss new possibilities.”

The new possibilities don’t come out of nowhere. At the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization and then further during a week of consultations leading into the conclave which elected Pope Francis, bishops and cardinals called for curial reform. They want a Church bigger than the Vatican.

Throughout Pope Benedict’s papacy the Vatican machinery, intended to be a service to the global college of bishops, had an unfortunate propensity to become a headache for the Catholic Church — not only in headlines but in the minds of many of the faithful.

It wasn’t just the Vatileaks scandal, which brought the world’s press to Rome to tell a butler-did-it story. At the beginning of Benedict’s reign, the Vatican communications staff failed to anticipate how quoting a 14th-century emperor’s view of Islam might be dangerous. Not long after, the curia failed to notice that illicitly ordained Lefebvrist Bishop Richard Williamson was a perpetual Holocaust denier, plunging Catholic-Jewish relations into a crisis when Pope Benedict, hoping for reconciliation, suspended excommunications pronounced by Pope John Paul II on Society of St. Pius X bishops.

The damage done by Vatileaks, which generated headlines about blackmail, a gay lobby, even a plot against the pope, did more than any other issue to put a fire under reform efforts going into the conclave. The cardinals and bishops around the world were tired of this cartoon image of the Church, tired of the distractions.

But cardinals and bishops don’t think in terms of the news cycle. They were putting the headlines into an historical context. At the Second Vatican Council the Church was defined as the “people of God” and the primacy of the pope was matched with the teaching authority of the entire college of bishops.

The spate of scandals was widely interpreted as a symptom of a failure to really put those words from the Council into action. If the Vatican bureaucracy had metastasized into something it was never intended to be, it was simply filling a hole left when the post-Vatican II Church failed to institute robust and effective collegiality and synodality — mechanisms of consultation which feed into papal primacy. By tackling this unfinished business from Vatican II, Pope Francis and the cardinals hope to cure the disease rather than treat the symptoms.

“This is not just an organizational issue,” Durocher told The Catholic Register. “When the Council spoke of collegiality among the bishops of the world they were not speaking of an organizational structure. They were speaking about a theological reality.”

Durocher knows the theological reality is part of his job heading up Canada’s bishops’ conference.

“Francis wants to move forward on greater structures of input and consultation between the bishops of the world and the Vatican. I think, in that sense, conferences can potentially play a very important role in that kind of collaborative decision-making process that the Pope seems to be wanting to develop.”

Eight cardinals meeting in Rome is not a synod. In the history of the Church it was synods which gathered the collected wisdom of the churches and applied them to the problems of their day.

The C8 is a consultative body. It is not only giving advice but seeking advice. Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley wrote to all the archbishops in North America asking for their wisdom on curial reform. Six of the cardinals are diocesan bishops and they polled the bishops of their regions. Open, public consultation is the beginning of a culture change.

“It’s an overdue change given the teaching of the Council,” said Yenson. “There are always dangers around a cult of personality and the kind of inflation of the papal office that we saw, culturally at least, under John Paul II, for instance.”

In addition to inflation of the office of the pope are problems associated with greater centralization of power in the Vatican and a curia that morphs from providing a service to the bishops to a command centre with its own agenda. Pope Francis constantly speaks of the change in culture that must precede a change in structures.

“When I meet a clericalist, I suddenly become anti-clerical. Clericalism should not have anything to do with Christianity,” the Pope told Italian atheist intellectual Eugenio Scalfari.

Durocher puts it more gently.

“There is a danger in over centralization. There is also a danger in over localization. What needs to happen is that both those realities . . . have to be held in tension. The local has to feed into the universal,” he said. “Certainly the creation of this body of eight is a way of helping to hold that dual reality in tension.”

Synodality is “part of the heritage of our common tradition with the East, and it’s a tradition that’s been lost in the second millennium in the West,” said Cathy Clifford, a theologian at Ottawa’s Saint Paul University.

After two generations spent lecturing on synodality and seeing its opposite, ecclesiologists are marvelling at a Pope who calls himself the “Bishop of Rome.”

“It’s as if we’re seeing a moment where there might be a real reception, a real possibility of allowing that kind of reflection to inform the kinds of decisions that are being made or considered right now by the leadership of the Church,” Clifford said.

The Church needs to have something in between individual bishops in their dioceses and the pope in Rome — some form of teaching authority that can pastorally care for people and preach the Gospel in each of the broad cultures that cover the planet. It may be that conferences of bishops will become that middle between the local and the universal.

“If there is a real devolution and a greater decentralization, I think this means that conferences of bishops will have to shoulder far more responsibility for finding ways to act collegially in their respective regions,” said Clifford.

Yenson foresees national conferences grouped together, as the Latin American and African bishops are, to provide a “wider synodality.”

However it is organized, Pope Francis imagines nobody will mistake a few voices in Rome for the voice of the Church. This Pope seems to want to free the Church of its own power, free it to look outward and discover the mystery Christ entrusted to His followers.

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