The Francis era in Roman Catholicism is a good example of how the abnormal and even extraordinary can come to feel, with enough repetition, old hat and status quo. The wildness of the last decade is undeniable: the first papal resignation in centuries, the elevation of a new pope who began casting about for the means to alter Catholic teaching, the attempted rebellions by that pope’s own cardinals, the growing threats of schism from both the traditional and progressive wings of the church.
For a long time there was grab-you-by-the-lapels urgency to writing about all this. Wherever the reader stood, Catholic or non-Catholic, it was important to convey the sheer drama enveloping the world’s largest religious institution.
Yet as the latest act unfolds in Rome, with the gathering of bishops and laypeople called “the synod on synodality,” the feeling now is more one of repetition and familiarity.
Once again, as he did with previous synods, Pope Francis has convened a discussion that is supposedly open-ended, dialogic, the Holy Spirit blowing where it wills — but in practice seems intended to provide cover for the pope himself, the only real decider, to bring the church more into alignment with the culture of the post-Sexual Revolution West.
Once again, progressive expectations are being raised, as important shifts are telegraphed — the possibility of blessings for same-sex relationships, the possibility of women being ordained to the diaconate. Once again, conservative cardinals are trying to organize against such changes, with dramatic public statements and questions (the so-called dubia) put directly to the pope.
And once again with this papacy’s theological dramas, there are sex scandals in the background. One of the synod’s shepherds is Francis’ new doctrinal steward, his longtime Argentine collaborator Archbishop (now Cardinal) Víctor Manuel Fernández, who was elevated despite a checkered record handling clerical sex abuse. Then further back in the Roman shadows is the simmering scandal of the priest and artist Father Marko Rupnik, a celebrated painter of creepy, hollow-eyed icons who is accused of abusing women in his community in disgusting and sacrilegious ways — and whose repeated rehabilitations suggest he enjoys some kind of special favor in the Vatican.
This all sounds potentially dramatic, but with the repetition comes the sense that we know how the drama will play out. The pattern where accused abusers or abuse enablers somehow stay in favor so long as they’re understood to be on the pope’s “team” is a familiar one in this pontificate, and the church’s polarization means that mostly conservatives complain about it, while the secular media’s sympathy for Francis limits the frenzies that would have attended similar scandals under Benedict XVI.
Meanwhile, the conservative rebellions against the pope have proven self-limiting so far, because of the self-contradictions involved in conservative resistance to papal authority and the lack of effective mechanisms for such resistance short of actual schism. (Even the most outspoken papal critic in the American episcopate, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Texas, has acknowledged that he would comply if removed from office.)
In his turn, Pope Francis has been careful not to risk forcing a schism upon his critics. In this sense, the headline-grabbing pre-synod news that the pope is open to blessings for gay couples looks like a continuation of the approach he took on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in an earlier round of synodal controversy. It combines a formal reassertion of Catholic teaching, in this case on the impossibility of same-sex marriage, with a tacit permission slip for individual priests to make their own decisions about offering blessings — so long as those decisions are not themselves formalized into any kind of rule or rubric.
The intended balancing act is to frame liberalization as exceptional and case-by-case, so that the church’s progressives get the innovations that they want in practice, while conservatives reassure themselves that the formal theory of the church is still intact.
This is plainly a balancing act only for the short term, rather than a vision for the long-term unity of the church. In Catholicism’s more liberal precincts, in Germany and elsewhere, it’s clear that case-by-case exceptions will be welcomed only as a means to further change on the entire array of contested points. On the conservative side nobody is actually fooled by what the Vatican is doing (or reassured by the sententious invocations of the Holy Spirit), and alienation will deepen the longer the papacy pursues its current strategy, with rupture remaining impossible only until it suddenly is not.
But at 86 Francis isn’t likely to be pope for the long term, and it seems unlikely that he will break from his approach if he lives to this synod’s end in 2024. Rather the safe bet is a continuation of the drama that we’ve watched thus far, in which the gyre widens a bit more, a bit more — but the culmination, be it transformation or disaster, awaits for his successor.
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