The headline on the front cover of the latest issue of the London-based Catholic weekly The Tablet reads “Seismic shifts in Rome”. The paper was in print before the final gathering of the Catholic Church’s synod of Bishops, so the editors hedged their bets by adding a question mark. A wise move.
In the end, the synod did not bring about seismic shifts in Catholic doctrine and practice, not even a small earthquake, only the mildest of tremors. Pope Francis, who had at the beginning urged the bishops to be bold, was frequently photographed with his face hidden in his hands. The devout may have thought he was praying: in a more realistic assessment he was burying his head in despair at the intransigence of a number of the Church’s senior prelates.
There were gathered 189 of them with voting rights, drawn from episcopal conferences around the world, together with some added by the Pope himself. Such synods, the creation in 1965 of Pope Paul VI who was beatified (a major step on the way to being denominated a saint) the day the synod closed, meet on a regular basis to discuss matters of concern to the global Church. This was an “Extraordinary” synod, so called because it was an addition to the usual sequence.
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In October 2015, there will be an “Ordinary” one, but both have the same theme: family life. With the papal veto on artificial means of contraception – largely down to the same Pope Paul – as well as perceived hostility to any form of homosexual activity and especially to same-sex marriage, and a blanket ban on remarriage within the Church for those who have been divorced, the family, or indeed sexual activity in general, is a peculiarly neuralgic topic for Catholics.
It was no secret that Pope Francis wanted the Church to adopt a more welcoming stance (the word “welcoming” was used in the first version of the synod’s closing statement) towards gays, and to find a way to re-admit to the sacraments those whose first marriages had ended in divorce and who had subsequently remarried. These policies were rejected, not by most of the bishops at the synod, but they were not accepted by the necessary two-thirds majority. If the Vatican had been a secular state with Francis as its president, his government would have fallen. He would be considering resignation.
“The Roman Catholic church will never be a democracy“, the Guardian newspaper reminded its readers in an editorial as the synod opened. It was fair comment. The Pope in Rome is the last surviving dictator in the western world. He could have changed the Church’s policies with a simple ukase. Catholics are by and large an obedient lot, and though many traditionalists might not have liked the changes he wanted, few would have gone off into schism. Probably. Francis chose to act otherwise, to debate the issues and strive to achieve consensus.
Those on the outside may not realise what an enormous change that is. He encouraged the bishops in the synod to speak openly and to speak boldly. No Pope since the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, and very few before that, would have borne so calmly some of the direct criticism of his stance. Of his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the first would have lost his temper, the second retreated into silence. In both pontificates, debate was quashed: as the Guardian remarked, the Church is not a democracy.
But now debate has been reopened, and will go on for a year, at least until the second part of the synod on the family ends next October. There will be time for reflection, theological and pastoral, on the disputed questions at this year’s meeting. Pope Francis has ordered that the whole of the final statement be published, including those paragraphs which did not gain the required majority.
There will be much discussion about them among theologians and prelates – alas, all too rarely the same people. There will also be changes in personnel. Not all those who came to Rome this year will be back in 2015. Some of those in influential Vatican positions will have been removed from their posts and replaced by clerics more sympathetic to the aims of Pope Francis, the obvious example being that most outspoken critic of the Pope, the American Cardinal Raymond Burke. Burke has already acknowledged his pending demotion despite it not yet being made public.
Francis has also changed the membership of the Vatican committee which appoints bishops: it can now be expected to choose those whose theology and pastoral practice mirror that of the Pope. Some of these new men may make it to the 2015 Synod.
The “seismic shift” has not yet occurred, but it will. Expect a tsunami.
Michael Walsh is an historian of the Catholic Church, and a regular commentator on Catholic affairs for Al Jazeera and the BBC. He is currently re-editing The Oxford Dictionary of Popes.