The pandemic may accelerate changes to the Church and priesthood too

There is a well-established progression of legal reform in the Church attested to on topics from money to astronomy.  The progression has five stages: something is deemed to be intrinsically evil and always forbidden; then exceptions are allowed; later Church authority reaches a neutral position and the matter ceases to be condemned; then the next stage comes where the previously proscribed behavior becomes permitted; finally, a stage is reached where the formally proscribed teaching or practice is actually recommended.

By Massimo Faggioli, May 2020

The COVID19 pandemic will have an impact on the world order and international relations, and of course also on the Catholic Church.  The papacy stands out as a global reference point. That’s partly because most world leaders have lost credibility.

But it’s also because Pope Francis, from the very beginning of his pontificate, has continually articulated the vision of the one human family in this one world: a world made of borders that can become thresholds for new human relations.

Papal teaching in recent years has paved the way for a “global peace process” – from Laudato Si’ (the 2015 encyclical on care for our common home) to the Document on Human Fraternity (co-signed by Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in Abu Dhabi on 4 February 2019).

The letter and spirit of these extraordinary texts could not be more visibly different from the policies of the strongmen that currently lead governments in places like the United States, Russia, India, Turkey and Brazil.

Post-pandemic world: speed bump or major detour?

We don’t know what will happen to the world order once the pandemic is over. The end of this global crisis could be a speed bump or a major detour.

But it will probably look less like the global recession of 2008 and more like the year 1919 – opening to a new world order with very different consequences in different countries.

In Italy it meant the rise of Fascist rule between 1922-1925 and for two decades until the end of World War II. On the other hand, Benedict XV articulated a new Catholic doctrine on the missions with his 1919 encyclical Maximum Illud. This staked out the Catholic Church’s independence from nationalist and colonialist enterprises.

The 1920s also marked an acceleration of the Catholic tradition of favoring multilateralism. For all the uncertainties, we know where the backbone of contemporary Catholic teaching stands on human rights, migration, the economy, globalization and the environment.

The pope’s analysis is right

We can already see that the global health crisis has confirmed Pope Francis’ interpretation of our times as a disruption of globalization. There is an undeniable crisis of multilateral institutions.

As Gaïdz Minassian and Marc Semo wrote in Le Monde recently, this crisis is “old, profound, and by now more evident than ever”.

There are different ways of looking at the consequences of the pandemic on the world order. Some see this moment as a crisis of internationalism in terms of trying to stop globalization as the path to prosperity.

“The pandemic has prompted an anachronism, a revival of the walled city in an age when prosperity depends on global trade and movement of people. The world’s democracies need to defend and sustain their Enlightenment values,” wrote former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Others say we are witnessing a threat to the liberal democratic model, given “the triumph of non-individualist democracies in Asia”. It is a threat that is also looming in some countries of Europe.

Crisis of US leadership in the world

However one sees it, the pandemic certainly could accelerate shifts in the balance of power in particular parts of the world.

The biggest question concerns relations between and among Europe, the United States and China. The Vatican has already had to significantly adapt its geopolitical posture towards three entities over past several years, especially after Trump’s election and thanks to the epoch-making agreement between the Holy See and the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops of September 2018.

There is no question that the response to the pandemic has deepened the crisis of American leadership in the world. The United States’ legitimacy as a global leader has always been based on stable domestic governance, the provision of global public goods and the ability (and willingness) to coordinate a global response to crises.

“The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of US leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test,” said two US-based experts on Asia in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs.

The future shape of Europe

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union stands at a crucial moment for its survival. In a similar way, a number of countries on the Old Continent that are vital to the Catholic Church are at a turning point.

Germany, for example, will soon see the retirement of Angela Merkel and the possible rise of a very different kind of Christian-Democratic party leader, such as Friedrich Merz. This would put Europe’s most powerful nation on a much more conservative path.

And what will happen in Asia?

“COVID-19 will also accelerate the shift in power and influence from West to East,” wrote Stephen Walt in the magazine Foreign Policy.

“South Korea and Singapore have responded best, and China has reacted well after its early mistakes. The response in Europe and America has been slow and haphazard by comparison, further tarnishing the aura of the Western ‘brand’,” he said.

Some experts predict that the handling of the pandemic could be the beginning of an upheaval for Communist China.

The Catholic Church is watching with great concern the role China is forging in international relations.

The Holy See and China’s charm offensive

Beijing has conducted a very aggressive soft power campaign that has divided Europe. Eastern European countries (both members and non-members of the EU) have begun embracing Chinese leadership as they began receiving aid from the Chinese government.

What has been the Holy See’s response to this very rapidly shifting situation? At first glance it would appear that it is reacting favorably to Chinese charm similarly to the way some European countries (including Italy) have.

But looking more carefully, one detects a much more nuanced and subtle approach. Vatican statements thanking China in early April for sending aid and supplies to fight the coronavirus are a case in point.

In the pages of L’Osservatore Romano and communiqués issued from the Holy See Press Office, the Vatican specifically expressed thanks to “the Red Cross Society of China and the Hebei Jinde Charities Foundation”, as well as to “the bishops, the Catholic faithful, the institutions and all other Chinese citizens”. The wordsmithing effort was clearly aimed at avoiding any interpretation of the Vatican’s statement of gratitude as an endorsement of Beijing.

This approach is also meant to counterbalance the views of some prominent Catholics around the world who see the role of China in a much more negative way. Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, for instance, took a very different and very strong public stance against the Chinese regime by connecting its handling of the pandemic to its record on human rights and religious liberty.

A Latin American pope gives a boost to Europe

Most importantly, the Vatican has not followed the same path of other Western countries in their retreat into a provincialism and parochialism, which are part of the intellectual collapse of the political elites.

Quite the opposite.

Francis has invested more energy and attention in Vatican diplomacy. He has put forth a new model for training future papal diplomats and has instituted a “third section” within the Secretariat of State explicitly dealing with papal nuncios. If the pandemic has temporarily reduced the functioning of Vatican offices in the Vatican, including the Secretariat of State, there are changes that prepare the future.

In the last few weeks, the pope and his Vatican aides have focused on the European Union.

“Among the many areas of the world affected by the coronavirus, I think in a special way of Europe,” Francis said during his Easter Urbi et Orbi address.

“The European Union is presently facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world,” he warned.

Francis is talking more directly to Europe than he possibly could to the United States or China. It is striking that under the Latin American pope’s leadership, the Holy See has rediscovered the European Union’s importance and need for survival.

Further evidence of Francis’ focus on the Old Continent during the pandemic was his prayer for European unity at the Mass in Santa Marta on April 29, Feast of St. Catherine of Sienna, a co-patroness of Europe.

This new attentiveness comes after years of Vatican-led skepticism towards European institutions that were perceived as technocratic and secularist.

Catholic social teaching and the post-COVID 19 world

The coronavirus pandemic is raising questions on the viability of a set of political ideas and values that have shaped the international order in the post-1945 world.

Regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching and understanding of humanity, some of them are no-brainers.

They include an espousal of multilateralism over nationalism; belief that constitutional democracy, rather than dictatorship and authoritarianism, is more compatible with the Gospel; and a commitment to the Church’s work for peace and disarmament, as well as international social and economic justice, in the framework of a culture of life.

On other issues, the Vatican’s posture will be more difficult to predict.

The post-1945 alignment between Catholicism and the geopolitics of NATO has been radically thrown into question by the aftermath of 9/11 and, lately, by the Trump administration.

It’s still not clear what the import of the Holy See’s diplomatic opening up to China will mean in the long run. And it faces other challenges in how to deal with the new ideological splits between Eastern and Western Europe.

Compared to previous pandemics, religious liberty has become an emerging issue for the Catholic Church in some countries not really affected by the culture wars. In Italy, for example, there have been unprecedented tensions between the bishops’ conference and the national government.

The pandemic has created a situation of great uncertainty in international relations. And the papacy and Vatican diplomacy have to navigate this.

The difference is that Catholicism does not suffer from the same uncertainty in terms of doctrine: there is no real vacuum in how the Church’s magisterium looks at the modern global world.

It is a doctrine that was tempered by a series of historical shocks that had consequence on theological and magisterial development: the fall of the Papal States in 1870; the two world wars and their aftermath; the illusion of an unquestionable liberal world order at the end of the Cold War; the post-9/11 instability…

Compared to the ideological life rafts that dot today’s horizon, the Barque of Peter has greater stability. The big question is how much sound Vatican social doctrine will be able to influence Catholics in their own local and national contexts.

Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli

By Fr. Bill Grimm, Tokyo, April 2020

The pandemic is changing just about everything.

That is clearest in the people who sicken, those who die, those whose lives are upended, those whose livelihood has disappeared. These are some of the direct effects of the disease.

There are many other effects not directly related to the illness that are manifesting themselves in the context of the pandemic. A major one is the proliferation of anti-scientific “theories” of the “truth” behind the scourge.

So some people – convinced that spread of the virus is aided, if not caused by telecommunications equipment – have burned internet transmission towers in the United Kingdom. An archbishop in Sri Lanka, without presenting any evidence, has advanced the “theory” that the virus was created by researchers.

Conspiracy theorists are working overtime to find any unreason at all that, in their minds, refutes what research and expertise have repeatedly demonstrated.

Other trends that had already been moving through societies at various speeds have accelerated, while those societies are preoccupied. Racist and anti-democratic movements in societies and governments have advanced their objectives in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

The Catholic Church, too, is undergoing a great change under pressure from the present situation. Some of that change was already underway, but may now accelerate. It is not clear where that will lead.

For decades, the decline in the number of priests has been obvious to us all. The answer until now has been for leaders in the Vatican – where there is a surplus of priests, but a shortage of laity – to call for more prayer and sacrifice.

Clearly, God’s answer to those prayers and sacrifices has been, “No.”

In the meantime, in much of the world, Catholics do not have access to the Eucharist. Is that God’s fault, or is it ours for not heeding God’s answer?

Now, because the pandemic has required the cancellation of liturgical gatherings in much of the world, we are experiencing what many Catholics, such as those in Amazonia, have experienced for years and which is the obvious future for the whole world. We are no longer able to gather in presbyter-led liturgies as we have known them for centuries.

Ordaining married men, allowing ordained men to marry, ordaining “second-career” persons, importing clerics from other countries, ordaining women — none of these steps, whether possible or not, will stop the inevitable future of a Church without priests as we have known them.

We are beginning to find ways to celebrate our faith without being together in a building, forced to that creativity by the pandemic.

The least creative response has been to either live-stream or videotape Masses, turning them into spectator events like football matches or the unrestored pre-Vatican II liturgy.

Even if it might satisfy some, months (as seems likely) of tuning into the “Father So-and-so Show” will eventually produce a drop in the ratings. Liturgy is not a spectator sport. The word itself means “activity of the people.” People will find other programs and tune out.

Unplanned for, unexpected and, perhaps, even undesired, the approaching end of the cultic priesthood has been accelerated by our present situation.

Catholics are beginning to find new ways to share faith with each other. We must believe this is a search inspired by the Holy Spirit, who will not leave us bereft of the opportunity to gather in the name and real presence of the Lord.

We don’t know what forms that will take. The longer the present situation lasts, more likely it is that the Spirit will provoke various responses.

Our new digital age of communications offers ways for communities to gather across vast distances. Someone in East Africa can worship with others in Scandinavia, South America and Oceania.

Obviously, sharing the Eucharist will mean something different from what has been the norm. Breaking bread and sharing the cup may take place simultaneously, though not in the same location.

In that case. the declaration that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of the Lord will take place in the “gathered” community, not relying upon a cleric who may not be “there.”

The vocation we have known as priesthood will, whether we like it or not, fade. That is one thing we must learn, however reluctantly, from God’s refusal to give us the sort of cultic figures we either beg for or demand. COVID-19 may be accelerating a process that has already begun in various ways in various places.

That process is unlikely to be completed before this pandemic becomes history and things return more or less to status quo ante. But it has been accelerated.

Attitudes, expectations and experiences will have changed. So, what would have taken two or three generations may do so in one or two.

I am not advocating this, nor bemoaning it. I know that my opinions and wishes, one way or the other, have no effect upon the inevitable.

So, my wishes and your wishes, one way or the other, are irrelevant. The future will happen whether we like it or not.

That is one more thing the new coronavirus is reminding us.

Bill Grimm is a Catholic priest and Maryknoll missioner who lives in Japan.


By Massimo Faggioli, April 2020

There is a serious risk that Pope Francis is losing the support of the people who want to see him succeed and keep the Church from falling into the hands of those who have set their face against change.

This is an important moment, because the 83-year-old is showing few signs that he understands that many of the strongest believers in his efforts at Church reform are becoming disillusioned.

The seventh anniversary of his election as Bishop of Rome, on March 13, coincided with the peak in awareness of the coronavirus pandemic. It was impossible at that moment to delve into complex analysis of his pontificate.

But living in lockdown in order to contain the spread of COVID-19 has now become the new normal, and it will be for some time in many countries. It provides an opportunity to try and take a more careful look at what has happened to Francis’ pontificate in the last few months.

Something disturbing has happened

The pandemic has changed some key dynamics in the Catholic Church. For one, there’s been an even greater focus on the papacy and its isolation, what could be called its institutional loneliness.

Francis’ extraordinary spiritual leadership in these very difficult times has confirmed, once more, that his pontificate has not been so much a part of an era of change, but more of an active player in what is clearly a change of eras.

But something disturbing has happened recently. And it is not easy to talk about.  At least for those of us who believe the Jesuit pope is providing the Church with the kind of servant leadership it needs right now. Or those Catholics who, over the past seven years have felt much more part of a journey towards a new way of being Church, in one and the same Church.

Francis is providing an invaluable contribution to the living tradition of the Church in terms of forging a new way to revive and actualize the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

He has helped free Catholic moral teaching from its ideological straightjacket and has struck a new balance between law and mercy. He has rehabilitated theologians that were silenced and punished by Rome’s post-Vatican II doctrinal policy. He has also guided the Catholic Church into global Catholicism.

In addition to this, his focus on socio-economic issues (including those related to the environment), at a time when globalization is in deep crisis, has been prophetic. In regards to the nominally Christian world’s dialogue with Islam, he has certainly moved the ball forward.

And he has repositioned the Church geopolitically towards the rapidly developing Asian continent, especially towards China.

These are achievements that are already cemented in his legacy.

The dynamism of the pontificate begins to reach its limit

But something disturbing has happened over the past year. One has the impression that during the last several months the dynamism of his pontificate has begun to reach its limit.  And that’s not just the view of theologians who are involved in the debates on Church reform.

But it has become evident to me, at least, that Francis’ very important spiritual insights lack a clear systematic structure that can be placed in a theological framework and an institutional order.

Take women, for example. Everyone is familiar with the colloquial way the pope talks about women and the non-politically correct words he sometimes uses to describe their role in the Church and society. But lately there have been more alarming signs.

Two recent events constitute a moment that could well mark a shift in his pontificate.

The first was what happened in the interim from the Amazon Synod of October 2019 to the publication of Querida Amazonia in February 2020. And the second was his decision to appoint new members to a second papal commission on the study of women diaconate.

These two events can be read in vastly different ways, depending where one is along the broad spectrum of Catholic belief and opinion.

The anti-Francis groups have publicly rejoiced and felt vindicated at what’s happened.

But those in ecclesial and theological circles that have supported Francis since the very start of his pontificate have felt somehow betrayed. In spite of that, they have tried to continue to stand with him without revealing too much of the state of shock and disappointment they feel.

The papacy has always been about the long game. And this has been particularly the case with Francis. But there’s a question of whether there can actually be a long game for a Church that is now failing to make decisions regarding its institutional and structural problems.

Genesis of this standstill

Pro-Francis circles are understandably reluctant to talk about the crisis that is now gripping this pontificate. Personally, I believe three things have caused this crisis.

The first is Francis’ style of governing the Roman Curia.

His tendency to basically follow a hands-off approach has produced some unfortunate side effects. For example, it has emboldened those in the liturgical traditionalist circles, as we saw recently with new decrees concerning the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass.

This is particularly painful to the pope’s most ardent supporters because ever since his election in 2013 he had made it absolutely clear that he believed liturgical traditionalism is incompatible with a Church “going forth”.

Yet, he’s not only allowed the traditionalist sideshow to continue, he’s done nothing to stop major Vatican offices and officials from encouraging it. That has made the situation even worse, especially for some local Churches.

The pope can ignore the Roman Curia in a way other Catholics cannot – that includes bishops and priests. We will see if and how this will change with the announced apostolic constitution aimed at reforming the Roman Curia, which has already been delayed several times.

Pressure from cardinals and bishops

The second thing that has hastened the current crisis in Francis’ pontificate is pressure coming from bishops and cardinals over the last year, which has threatened the pope’s legitimacy.

I am not referring to extremists who have become fringe figures in a virtual Catholic religion, like Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. Rather, I’m talking about cardinals that have a key role in the Roman Curia, or did have until very recently.

In February 2019, for example, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller published a “Manifesto” to a worldwide audience in seven different languages. This document of the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (2012-2017), in fact, threatened a public correction of Francis, suggesting that most of the Church’s bishops had concerns about his orthodoxy.

Just look at the first line in the “Manifesto”: “In the face of growing confusion about the doctrine of the Faith, many bishops, priests, religious and lay people of the Catholic Church have requested that I make a public testimony about the truth of revelation.”

Then there is Cardinal Robert Sarah, whom Francis appointed head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2014. The Guinean cardinal enlisted the retired Benedict XVI (in ways not yet clear) at the end of 2019 to contribute to a controversial book defending mandatory priestly celibacy.

The book’s timing was not accidental. It was published as Pope Francis was in the middle of completing an apostolic exhortation following on the Bishops’ Synod on the Amazon – at which most of the participants voted in favor of changing the celibacy discipline.

In hindsight, the pope’s speech at the conclusion of the Synod gathering could be seen as the beginning of a settlement with the traditionalists. In that final address – given on October 27, 2019 inside the Synod Hall – Francis called out some “elite” Catholics for focusing on small “disciplinary” matters rather than concerning themselves with the “bigger picture”.

In light of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia, one could easily read the pope’s dismissal of those “elites” as his dismissal of the proposal to reform priestly celibacy.

And it could also be seen as the reason he dismissed a proposal to give women a ministerial role in the Church. In fact, both proposals found a substantial support among those who participated in the preparation of the Synod, including the bishops.

I do not believe, as some others, that Francis cracked under the pressure by traditionalists out of fear. But historically, such extraordinary pressure on a pope is always an element of context that must be considered in order to understand the trajectory of a pontificate (for example, Paul VI during Vatican II).

An additional element is the High Court of Australia’s acquittal on April 7 of the traditionalist Cardinal George Pell on sex abuse charges. This has only emboldened Catholics who are pushing a restorationist agenda – not only in Rome, but also especially in the cardinal’s native country.

This comes at a time when the Church in Australia is busy planning a crucial synodal process – a plenary council – even though the current health pandemic is causing some delays.

It must be noted that Pell’s trial is not part of this equation. Even prominent Australian Catholics who oppose the cardinal on many ecclesial issues have gone on record (and with good reason) to say he should have never been tried for such a crime without more substantial evidence.

Clericalism and women

The third and final factor that has contributed to the crisis of this pontificate is related to the limits of Francis’ theology when he talks about clericalism and women.

Until now, most people believed that, no matter how the pope may have been limited by using a second language or questionable expressions, the Argentine pope was fundamentally open to making some disciplinary changes and allowing theological developments compatible with an organic understanding of the tradition.

But after the last year – with Querida Amazonia and the decision on the new commission on women diaconate – some wonder if Francis’ pontificate has reached the limit in terms of reform.

After the first commission on women deacons completed its work it drew up a final report. But this has never been made public. People rightly wonder why not. In a synodal Church one is right to expect a certain amount of transparency.

The formation of the second commission was announced on April 8. Not one person amongst the seven man and five women that make up this body is from the global South. This is very hard to understand and even more impossible to justify, especially for a pope that has done so much for the growth in the understanding for the Catholic Church of its global dimension.

(Full disclosure: I have written about this in my latest book on the pontificate.)

Pope Francis says it is necessary to listen to all sides before making a decision. And that is absolutely right. But unfortunately, this second commission can hardly be seen as representative of different views.

The pontificate has found itself in a very serious situation. What is it telling us? That’s something we will take up in the second part of this essay.

(This is Part II of the essay. For Part I of the essay click here.)

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.

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.

Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli  


April 14, 2020  by Jamie Manson    (National Catholic Reporter)
For those of us seeking hope in our world and in our church, last week was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. It was a tale of two Pope Francises.

One Francis was the pope of the pandemic, inspiring hope in word and action. Whether his offerings were small and delightful, like his Skype chats, or grand and powerful, like his standing alone on a stage in a torch-lit, St. Peter’s Square leading the Way of the Cross on Good Friday, his presence touched and comforted millions.

Francis was similarly moving in an interview in Commonweal magazine last week, describing how he is praying more than usual and reflecting on the ways he can be closer to the people of God. He shared his hope that we will embrace the pandemic as a moment of metanoia that will help us “see the poor” and “contemplate the natural world,” moving ahead into a global economy that is more human.

He discussed the need for the church to not be “closed off in institutions” but to find “the freedom of the Spirit” and take risks in ministry:
“We have to learn to live in a church that exists in the tension between harmony and disorder provoked by the Holy Spirit. If you ask me which book of theology can best help you understand this, it would be the Acts of the Apostles. There you will see how the Holy Spirit deinstitutionalizes what is no longer of use, and institutionalizes the future of the church. That is the church that needs to come out of the crisis.”

“I’m living this as a time of great uncertainty,” he also told the magazine. “It’s a time for inventing, for creativity.”
But creativity, apparently, has its limits. And that’s where the other Pope Francis stepped in.

Last Tuesday, the pontiff announced a new commission to study the ordination of women to the diaconate. This is the second commission in four years to take up the question, and it’s made up of all new members.

The first commission, formed by Francis in 2016 in response to an inquiry from women religious at their International Union of Superiors General (UISG) meeting, was tasked with studying whether women served as deacons in the early church.

That commission, the pope has implied, ended in a hung jury. They issued a report to the pope, which he then handed over the UISG in 2019. Since then, the document has remained hidden away like one of the secrets of Fatima.

This new commission seems poised to find consensus — that women are not entitled to serve as deacons. The brief sketches of the members offered by NCR’s Joshua McElwee and Crux’s John Allen suggest that few of them have done academic work on the history of deacons and that none of them have expressed the belief that women ever served in a diaconate that was equal to men in the early church.

By selecting these members for the commission, Francis has effectively killed the possibility of any real progress for women in the church. Given how long women have been asked to wait in faith and in hope to have the dignity of their work acknowledged and elevated, this turn of events is nothing short of cruel.
Equally disappointing is the fact that every commission member is either European or American. The pope returned to the question of women deacons in response to the final document of the Amazon synod, which highlighted the crucial, high-risk ministerial work of women in Amazonia. Yet the pope chose no one from “the peripheries,” those places in our world to which he is always imploring us to go.




(This is Part I of a two-part essay.)


By Fr. Michael Kelly

The Luddites have a well-deserved place in English history. But their behavior has applications well beyond the textile manufacturing environment where they earned their reputation.

The Luddites were textile workers in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. They were skilled artisans whose trade and communities were threatened by a combination of machines and other practices that had been unilaterally imposed by an aggressive new class of manufacturers that drove the Industrial Revolution.

The owners of the mills wanted to reduce costs and saw that technology could replace the contribution of the workers. The workers responded by smashing the machines.

Though we are in extreme times as COVID-19 sweeps its way through the world, I can’t help but feel the spirit of the Luddites is alive and well when it comes to considering the place of technology in the celebration of our faith.

Many, perhaps most commentators on the place of technology in such things as the celebration of the Eucharist are completely convinced that only the manner and methods we have employed to date are the only way for us to frame the questions before us – liturgy is about the physical, face to face gathering of a community; the Eucharist is the privileged moment when a community is gathered by the Holy Spirit in the same place at the same time.

This is not only a fundamentalist reading of the Church’s tradition – that we get a text’s reading off the page and without reference to the context, circumstances and questions faced by those creating the text. It also reflects an impoverished sense of what the technology available everywhere today actually aims to do.

Though not always utilized for the purposes for which it was developed, today’s digital technology has one simple purpose – to facilitate immediate interaction between people not physically present to each other.

All the discussion I’ve seen on technology and the Eucharist at the moment misses the point about the purpose of the technology. The only thing in the minds of most commentators is the use of video – a one-way communication that induces passivity – and the use of video as if we are going to Netflix to get our favorite movie. It’s technology for voyeurs.

What are we learning through this period of forced shutdown for the Church, created by the restrictions placed on us for our gathering to celebrate the Eucharist? I think we are being forced to face a lot of things we either haven’t had the time to consider or, more to the point, we haven’t wanted to face.

What this moment for the Church has become is one that was much spoken about at the most recent session of the Synod of Bishops focused on the Amazon: the fact that too many Catholics away from the cradles of clerical cultures in Europe and North America have actually been deprived of opportunities to celebrate the Eucharist for a lot longer than we care to acknowledge.

Even in places that appear to have a surfeit of clergy like India and the Philippines, regions of both countries have large populations of Catholics with limited and, at best, irregular access to celebrations of the Eucharist.

But let’s look at what Vatican II called the “source and summit of our faith”! Here’s a virtual experience if ever there was one – the Eucharist. It is an exercise of our memories, which brings to mind every time it is celebrated, a meal shared by at most twenty or so people and refers us back to some things that occurred 2000 years ago. In relation to them and the events they recall, we are only virtually present – “Do this in memory of me”. These are actually ripe for transformation in a virtual age.

How that is done – so that the changes remain true to and consistent with the core understandings of the Christian tradition – is another and complex matter. But it is being done and will be again, especially in the circumstances triggered by the coronavirus whose constraints worldwide are likely to last at least twelve months, or certainly till a vaccine is found. Those better informed than I say it could take 18 months to produce the vaccine.

The way we celebrate the Eucharist varies so much from place to place, culture to culture, climate to climate, language to language. However it happens, it remains an act of anamnesis – or the active remembering of past events made present to us now in our imaginations. This must be the place to start in reconsidering something so tied to physical presence before we had the current lockdown and the technology to overcome it.

This is not an issue the Catholic Church is facing for the first time. Today, in countless aged care homes around the world in places that have the technology to support it, Mass is lived streamed to those who could never get to a church but still long for the nourishment of their faith that the Eucharist brings.

These ways for sharing the faith that contain rich homilies that lead to prayer and are organized and timed to give contemplative moments to deepen appreciation of the God present to us and broken open in the Word, even if the presider and preacher are not physically present.

And what happens in many is a sharing of the Sacrament at communion time from hosts consecrated for distribution to the sick.

Today we face another challenge and for the life of me I can’t see that a “virtual” participation in the Eucharist is theologically any different to what happens at Eucharistic extravaganzas occurring at papal Masses across the world – often mediated on large television screens – that can have a million Catholics “going to Mass” at them. It may not help to take such an extreme example. But it is one widely accepted.

On this matter, I am reminded of something I was taught when I studied Canon Law 35 years ago. One of the canonists taught me that there is a well-established progression of legal reform in the Church attested to on topics from money to astronomy.

The progression has five stages: something is deemed to be intrinsically evil and always forbidden; then exceptions are allowed; later Church authority reaches a neutral position and the matter ceases to be condemned; then the next stage comes where the previously proscribed behavior becomes permitted; finally, a stage is reached where the formally proscribed teaching or practice is actually recommended.

What I am suggesting about the spread of “virtual” opportunities for the celebration of our faith – not just the Eucharist – may raise more questions than it answers. But this time of lockdown is a time to ask them and many more.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is the CEO of UCAN Services.

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