Excerpt from an article by John Gehring in La Croix, August 2018
(Over the past couple decades before Pope Francis) Traditional Catholic social teachings on economic justice, workers’ rights, and health care were often downplayed, if not entirely ignored. When more than eighty bishops publicly rebuked the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the commencement address on campus, the late San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn worried in an influential Jesuit magazine that the bishops were being perceived as the Republican party at prayer. It was a legitimate concern.
Pope Francis has provided bishops a way out of the corner they boxed themselves into over the last decade.
He is the first pope to issue an encyclical on environmental issues and ecology, elevating climate change as a top-tier issue for a church that has a global footprint. A pope who saw firsthand the failure of globalization to address inequality in Argentina has unique credibility when he denounces what he calls an “economy of exclusion” that “kills.”
When he visited the United States in 2015, he was the first pontiff to address Congress, using his speech to lament the “shameful and culpable silence” in confronting the epidemic of deaths from guns. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of the most influential U.S. advisors to the pope, now describes gun violence as a “prolife issue.” He joined a chorus of other bishops urging Congress to take action on sensible gun reform after seventeen people were killed during a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.
And at a time when the labor movement is struggling for survival and under constant attack from the right, Pope Francis praises unions as “prophetic institutions” that “unmask the powerful.” While the Catholic Church has affirmed a living wage for workers and the right to organize for more than a century, AFL-CIO officials have welcomed a pope who has helped inspire a rapprochement between labor and the U.S. Catholic hierarchy after years of tepid relations. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in with an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in a high-profile case (Janus v. AFSME) that will have profound implications for the future of organized labor. The bishops argued that so-called “right-to-work” laws undermine workers’ rights and that the dues employees pay to the union are essential to collective bargaining. The brief put the bishops on the opposing side of their usual conservative allies, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Even with signs of a shifting Catholic narrative, a small but vocal anti-Francis movement is hunkering down.
Self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, often fringe groups that still command outsized influence, are determined to squash anything that signals a resurgence of progressive Catholicism. The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prominent author who wrote a book that urges the church to build bridges with LGBT people, had several of his talks canceled, including at Catholic University’s seminary in Washington, D.C. after nasty campaigns from far-right Catholic groups. They did this despite the fact that Martin’s book has been endorsed by several cardinals, and the author never argues for changes to church teaching. Wealthy conservative Catholics have also tried to co-opt the pope’s teachings on economic justice that challenge free-market fundamentalism. For example, in a 2014 Washington Post op-ed, John and Carol Saeman, Catholic philanthropists and financial contributors to the Koch-backed Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, wrote: “For us promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis’ call to love and serve the poor.” The column goes on to lament “insatiable growth” of government and touts charitable efforts from rich people like themselves as the solution to fighting poverty. The pope’s challenge to what he calls “the absolute autonomy of markets” and his affirmation that government has a vital role in serving the common good doesn’t sound anything like this. And while charity is important, Francis wants to attack structures that perpetuate inequality. As St. Augustine put it, charity is no substitute for justice withheld.
The top donor to Catholic University, Tim Busch, who runs a Napa-based winery and luxury hotels, also departs from traditional Catholic teaching and calls the minimum wage an “anti-market regulation.” He credits the billionaire Koch brothers with helping to shape his business approach. The university’s business school, named after Busch, has received tens of millions of dollars from the Charles Koch Foundation in recent years. Last year, he hosted a $1,250 a person meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington that brought together a network of conservative Catholics who touted President Trump’s “pro-life” administration. The cigar-bar receptions at the meeting didn’t exactly have the “smell of the sheep” Pope Francis says he wants from church leaders who are close to the people, especially the poor.
While more than 80 percent of American Catholics hold favorable views of Francis, the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a “major, positive change” for the church declined from 60 percent to 37 percent since 2014, according to a new Pew Research Center study. Their growing disapproval doesn’t make the pope a Democrat or cheerleader for liberal causes. He staunchly opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But it does reflect the way Francis has challenged members of his flock (and some church leaders) who have defined Catholic engagement in the public square in ways that narrowly align with conservative political goals. In the Francis era, the plight of migrants, climate change, and income inequality can no longer be regarded as peripheral, but as central to church teachings and Catholic identity.
But for all that Pope Francis has accomplished in chipping away at culture-war Catholicism and prioritizing social justice, his woefully insufficient response to clergy abuse is conspicuous.
When the pope visited Chile in January, he lashed out at victims of sexual abuse, and accused them of “calumny” against a Chilean bishop suspected of covering up sexual abuse by a priest. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a close advisor to the pope, made a rare public critique of Francis, acknowledging the remarks caused “great pain.” A Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors created by the pope in 2014, led by Cardinal O’Malley, has floundered. The two survivors of clerical abuse on the commission resigned in frustration. A proposal from the commission to create a separate department to handle cases of bishops who failed to protect children from predatory priests and hold them accountable has so far gone nowhere.
Until Pope Francis can prove that he is up to the task of ensuring a zero-tolerance policy toward abusive priests — and creating real accountability for bishops — the promise of his remarkable papacy will be lost.
John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.
Published June 11, 2018
A significant part of Pope Francis’ legacy will be his emphasis on the ecclesiology of synodality and his enhancement of the Synod of Bishops, which he systematically explained in an address in 2015 to mark this permanent institution’s fiftieth anniversary.
But it is not yet clear how far the Jesuit pope is willing to go with his project of making the Church more synodal. Now in the sixth year of his pontificate, the differences between the Synod assemblies under Francis are in marked contrast with those of his predecessors.
There was more genuine and open debate at the assemblies on the family 2014 and 2015, and there was a truly synodal elaboration and reception of the post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
Yet there has been no radical change in the governance of the Church at the universal level besides the institution of the C9 advisory council of cardinals, but it is showing signs of fatigue.
And at the national and local levels we have still not seen any renewal – or even beginning — of synodality. The Plenary Council that the Church in Australia is planning for 2020 is a one of the notable exceptions.
The problem lies not with Francis’ intentions, but with two other factors.
The first is the difficulty of Catholic theologians to give practical expression to the idea of episcopal collegiality, which was developed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and in the post-conciliar theological debates, and the ecclesial synodality that a truly global Catholic Church needs.
One example of the limits of synodality in the Church of Francis is illustrated in a document — exclusively on synodality — that the International Theological Commission (ITC) published last March, but which only exists in Italian.
Cardinal-designate Luis Ladaria SJ, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and ITC president, signed and released the text after the pope gave his “parere favorevole” (favorable opinion or approval).
It is the fruit of three years of work, carried out in ITC plenary sessions from 2014-2017. The document’s 121 paragraphs offer a good synthesis of the idea and praxis of synodality in the current pontificate, in both its potential and its limits.
The introduction roots the ecclesiology of synodality “in the footsteps of Vatican II,” acknowledging the need to proceed further in the trajectory of the council (par. 8).
There is a strong recognition of the need to consult all members of the Church. It makes the distinction between a deliberative and consultative vote (par. 68-69, 73), but refuses to equate the meaning of a consultative vote in the Church with that in civil law.
In the Church, it says, pastors need to consult and listen to the vota of the faithful before making decisions (par. 68).
The ITC document paints the picture of an all-synodal Church, drawing from Francis especially concerning the relationship between synodality and social ministry (“diaconia sociale”) of the Church (par. 118).
Synodality is key for a Church that wants to promote justice, solidarity, and peace – especially on behalf of the poor — in this moment of revival of authoritarianism and technocratic regimes (par. 119).
The limits of the document offer clues to understanding the limits of the vision of synodality in Francis’ pontificate.
The text paints an overly optimistic picture of the development of synodality in the post-Vatican II Church, but is silent about the frustration experienced these last 50 years regarding the demands and need for synodality and collegiality at the universal, national, and local levels of the Church (par. 41).
It is also almost totally silent about the need to integrate synodality with new forms of Catholic life and ministry in the Church; that is, the new lay ecclesial movements and communities.
It relies heavily on the episcopal ecclesiology of Vatican II and is therefore based on the parish and diocesan model, which is not the model of the new movements and communities — the new “creative minorities.”
The ITC document is also unrealistic or evasive when it talks about ecumenical councils (par. 97-98), because it does not address in any way the issue of the practicality of holding an ecumenical general council in a Church that has more than 5,000 bishops.
Nor does it confront the wider issue of membership in such a council (an issue Italian ecclesiologist Severino Dianich has raised many time in the last several years).
Finally, the ITC document is extremely vague about the connection between synodality and reform of the Roman Curia.
It merely recalls the demands advanced at Vatican Council II that the Curia should include the input of diocesan bishops and consultation of the lay faithful (par. 102).
The ITC document also serves to highlight a second difficulty that is hampering Pope Francis’ efforts to facilitate greater synodality.
It consists in the fact that the actual conditions of the Catholic Church today are quite different from those at the time when the theology of synodality was rediscovered as part of Vatican II ressourcement.
For one thing, today’s lay people seem less enthusiastic about participating in Church decision-making processes than those of a couple generations ago.
In other words, synodality needs to either revitalize the laity at all levels (especially the younger generation) or be content with a lay faithful that does not subscribe to the “theology of the laity” articulated at Vatican Council II.
This will produce a synodal Church that relies on lay people who are highly engaged and constitute a committed minority, but who are not representative of the entire laity.
This is particularly true for the Catholic churches in Europe and the West, which have experienced fifty years of frustrated attempts to have a voice in ecclesiastical institutions.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Pope Francis, on the other hand, is from Latin America where the post-Vatican II experiences of collegiality and synodality are still bearing fruit.
But Latin America can be seen as the exception. For example, the most fundamental synodal experience for the post-conciliar Church in Europe and the West was the national synod in Germany of 1971-1975. It is now in a distant past. In this sense, the death last March of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, one of the most important figures at the German synod, marked the end of an era.
The most important challenge — and one that makes the attempt of a synodal Church important also for non-Catholics to observe — is that Francis’ attempt to revitalize participation in the Church is not just about a more effective decision-making institution. It is about revitalizing a healthy relationship between people and institutions.
Synodality is not an attempt to transplant liberal democracy into the body of the Church, even if it does mark the rejection of a monarchical-authoritarian model as the Christian way by default.
But synodality’s appeal is diminished in our current age of disruption and with the crisis of globalization, which have fueled a growing fascination with authoritarian strong men.
The crisis of participation in the Church mirrors the crisis of participation in politics and society. One thing is sure: a Church that is paralyzed by intra-ecclesial polarization will be severely impeded from following the path towards synodality.
Where polarization in the Church threatens to become as toxic as political polarization — for example, as in the United States — the prospects of experiencing collegiality and synodality (through a national synod, a plenary council, a series of diocesan synods) are a distant dream at best.
But, on the other hand, if we wait for an end to ecclesial polarization before getting serious about synodality, we will have to wait a very long time.