The limits of a pontificate (Part II)
By Massimo Faggioli
April 15, 2020
|Pope Francis at the Vatican, 13 April 2020. |
Massimo Faggioli dissects the theological and institutional limits of Francis' pontificate
Supporters of Pope Francis and his efforts to reform the Catholic Church are concerned that the dynamism of his pontificate has begun to wane.
His very important spiritual insights lack a clear systematic structure that can be placed in a theological framework and an institutional order.
Recent events – such as his decision to ignore a suggestion by the Amazon bishops to ordain married priests, and his establishment of a new study commission on the female diaconate that does not appear in favor of ordaining women deacons – suggest to reform-minded Catholics that his pontificate is in crisis.
What is the current situation telling us?
"Pastoral conversion" also requires structural changes
The fact is that Francis has been much more effective in deconstructing a culturally and historically limited ecclesiastical and theological paradigm than in building a new one.
After seven years of the pontificate, this is something that must be said.
On some issues, Francis has made decisions that have produced visible effects. For example, guidelines in Amoris Laetitia have helped open the sacraments to Catholics in difficult marital and family situations, even though the document is still being ignored in some areas of the world.
But when it comes to structural reforms in the Church, the 83-year-old pope is more a man of prophetic words than concrete decisions, inspiring personal conversion rather than institutional change.
This allows space for creativity, when that's possible. But it can also lead to contradictions.
Take the apostolic constitution Veritatis gaudium on ecclesiastical universities, for example. It opens up lots of possibilities, but sets down norms that narrow the ways of applying them.
Here there is a problem of how much control Francis has over the apparatus of the Roman Curia, as well as his theological collaborators. One wonders if the imposed lockdown measures related to the coronavirus pandemic have not actually intensified the institutional isolation of Jorge Mario Bergoglio within the Vatican.
This is important because as strong as Francis is in providing life-changing spiritual insights on the problem of individual and collective conversion, the problem of structural change from a systematic and ecclesiological point of view has really never been addressed (not even in light of the tragedy of the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church).
Francis' transformative vision is a gift of the Holy Spirit when he talks about social, economic, environmental issues (see Laudato Si' especially), and in terms of ecclesiology of the family (my being a parent of small children has been shaped in an incredibly profound way by Francis' pontificate). But then it seems to stop when it is about sinful ecclesiastical structures, and when it is about doctrinal development concerning ministry.
The fact is that "pastoral conversion" also requires some "ecclesiastical structural conversion". But Francis does not want to go there – at least not yet.
He has interpreted the papacy as opening spaces and processes at different levels, but much less at the level of ecclesiastical structure.
Synodality and academic theology
The ecclesiology of the People of God requires changes in structures. If those changes do not come alsofrom the top, the ecclesiology of the People of God will go nowhere. Or it will go only as far as Bergoglio's Latin American Catholicism has.
The section of Querida Amazonia on priesthood and ministry is not just praeter-Vatican II. In some passages it actually sounds pre-Vatican II, which is clearly not the way Francis thinks and feels about the council.
When it comes to synodality, he has made enormous steps forward, compared to any of his predecessors.
Assemblies of the Synod of Bishops have been, since 2014, clearly more genuine ecclesial events. It is true that the pope has a problem with an episcopate unable to "carry" synodality, especially in their relationship with their local Churches.
It must be acknowledged that synodality in other Christian traditions hasn't always worked well. The Catholic Church should not blindly imitate other models. But it is not clear how, exactly, Francis sees synodality. Is it simply the papal primacy being more willing to listen, or is it something more than that?
Appointing pontifical commissions that represent only one side of the Catholic Church's sensus fidei, and do not have representatives of the theological conversation on a particular issue, is not really a synodal way to go about matters.
Here Francis pays the price of being much more forward-thinking than most bishops when it comes to synodality. But there is still a visible gap between him and theologians.
Catholic theology needs the Church and needs to serve the Church more than it usually likes to admit. Conversely, the Church and Church reform need theology, including academic theology. Thank God, the Church is not governed by academics.
I have criticized the lack of reception of Francis' teaching academic theological circles, including liberal academic theologians. I've also warned against the dangers of self-referentiality in academic theology.
But the papacy has to nurture some kind of relations with academic theology; theologians are part of the People of God, too.
Theology should be part of the synodal process, even at the universal level. If it were not for the work of academic theologians over the last three decades, no one would be talking about synodality today.
The next five years
The next few years will be decisive for the future of the Church. The coronavirus pandemic is part of the crisis of globalization. And this will accelerate the crisis of the ecclesiastical system that was inherited from medieval Christendom. Overcoming this system will not necessarily make the Catholic Church less Catholic.
Currently, many Catholics are looking with great hope to the Plenary Council in Australia, the "synodal path" in Germany, the implementation of the so-called "Amazon Synod" and the next meeting of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place in 2022 and focus on synodality.
The Church will celebrate another major jubilee in 2025. It will coincide with the seventeen centenary of the First Council of Nicaea (325), and will be a great ecumenical opportunity.
In the meantime, there is still an urgent need to reform the Catholic Church in order to respond to the ongoing sexual abuse crisis, which is now acknowledged as a global phenomenon. In some countries this will be the last hope for the Church to call the new generations to receive the Gospel in an ecclesial community.
The issues of synodality and the ministry of women are not part of a liberal agenda that is largely passé, but part of the mission to evangelize. The fact is that the question of women in the Church is central, but it is also the one on which personal experience of male clerical leaders weighs most.
There is the fear that the processes that have been opened on these two issues over the last year are not really open. There is no credible synodality without a new role for women in the Church; this issue cannot be solved by paternalistic language about women.
To be clear, I am not promoting a female priesthood here. But not all requests of reform for what concerns the ministry of women in the Church can be answered with "they can go somewhere else".
The emancipation of women was once identified with the Catholic tradition. But now the Catholic tradition is largely identified with the exclusion of women.
This is not just the view of secularists or part of a liberal agenda to modernize the Church. Many practicing and loyal Catholics have a sense that their Church is refusing to recognize an obvious "sign of the times" – that God is asking the Church change.
Pope Francis said as much in his address to the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization in October 2017: "It is not enough to find a new language in which to articulate our perennial faith; it is also urgent, in the light of the new challenges and prospects facing humanity, that the Church be able to express the 'new things' of Christ's Gospel, that, albeit present in the word of God, have not yet come to light."
An eternal postponing of changes on this issue will lead masses of female (and male) Catholics to distance themselves from the Church or even quit the faith. That will not be my choice, but it will be for many – many more than have already made that choice.
For some Catholics this is really the last call. And as a parent, this is personally my biggest fear.
Francis is right: it's time for a new long game.
Over the last seven years he has figured out ways of reaching believers that are not mediated by curial channels. Momentous shifts like the ones he is calling us to make, obviously take time.
There is no doubt that, without deep spiritual and cultural changes, all external changes will be short-lived or, worse, delusional.
Again, it's about the long game. The problem is that without decisions on institutional and structural issues (and in particular on women and on ministry) in some churches there simply could be no long game.
Pope Francis has changed deeply the lives of so many, and is molding the Catholic Church into something more evangelical and Gospel-like. Much of this is due to his unparalleled ability to offer a spiritual reading of existential situations.
But this change also requires some structural changes. He and the bishops should not belittle or dismiss calls for institutional reform as technocratic or elitist.
"The Church is institution. The temptation is to dream of a deinstitutionalized Church, a gnostic Church without institutions, or one that is subject to fixed institutions, which would be a Pelagian Church," the pope said in his recent interview with Austen Ivereigh, specifically for English-speaking Catholics.
"The one who makes the Church is the Holy Spirit, who is neither gnostic nor Pelagian. It is the Holy Spirit who institutionalizes the Church, in an alternative, complementary way," the pope said.
One wonders if and when the Holy Spirit quit Her work of institutionalizing the Church, or if She is totally happy with the present institutional system.
This is not the complaint of an academic who thinks that God created theological faculties to announce the Gospel. This is not the expression of disappointment, voiced by another liberal who expected Francis to create a "brave new Church".
That tabula rasa Church does not exist.
These concerns and reflections are those of a lay Catholic whose life – as a member of the Church, as a parent and as a scholar – has been transformed profoundly by
Pope Francis in many ways. Together with many others, I am and always will be deeply grateful for this.
But I feel the duty, in filial devotion to the pope, to help my Church understand the urgent need of reform.
The great French theologian Yves Congar, whose work has greatly influenced Francis, pointed out in one of his most important books that there are four attitudes necessary for undertaking reform: obedience, patience, communion and moderation (True and False Reform in the Church, Liturgical Press, 2011).
But in the same section of the book, originally published in 1968, Congar also reminded Church leaders of another responsibility: not to be too patient.