Pope Francis mobilises the Laity

From the editor’s desk : ‘The Tablet’.

Pope Francis mobilises the laity
11 December 2014

At the Wednesday audience this week, Pope Francis began a series of highly significant talks on family life, in preparation for next autumn’s synod of bishops. This coincides with the publication of its preliminary documents, the lineamenta; and follows last autumn’s specially convened synod meeting when challenges were made to established Catholic teaching and practice, on issues ranging from homosexuality to the admission of remarried Catholics to Holy Communion. The fact that Francis favours emphasising God’s mercy rather than the narrow application of doctrine has not made him popular in certain quarters – including, at the ultra-conservative fringe, those who question the whole process and even his legitimacy as Pope.

So when he said in his first talk that at last autumn’s synod meeting “Everything happened ‘cum Petro et sub Petro’, that is, in the presence of the Pope – that is a guarantee of freedom and trust for all, and a guarantee of orthodoxy,” he is reminding his critics that the Pope, not them, has the right to decide what is and what is not orthodox. He gave his explicit backing to the text of the lineamenta, which in turn endorses the final report of last autumn’s event. Clearly the argument then still goes on. But the lineamenta insists that the argument has to restart where it left off, not return to first base and begin again.

That is a warning that he will be relentless in pursuing this process until it arrives at satisfactory answers – satisfactory to him. What is to be avoided, the lineamenta insists, is “a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine”. That will be incomprehensible to some conservatives, who seem determined to fight him every inch of the way.

One of his strongest allies, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, has given a frank account of last autumn’s extraordinary synod to Herder Korrespondenz magazine. Some cardinals praised President Vladimir Putin of Russia for championing family values, and wanted a similar authoritarian tone in the Church. Schönborn repeated words he had addressed to the synod, saying: “There is a certain temptation at the moment to dream of a powerful Church, a longing for political Catholicism which will impress people like in the 1930s. These cardinals get extremely worried when they think they see signs that the power of the papacy is diminishing and that the Pope is, as it were, descending from his throne.”

Opposition to Pope Francis is apparently being mounted not only in the Curia but also among senior Italian bishops. What is notable is that they were virtually all appointed or promoted by Pope John Paul II, and though nobody is explicitly saying so, much of what Pope Francis is trying to undo is the legacy of that papacy. In the remarks quoted by Cardinal Schönborn, “Putin” is almost code for “Wojtyla”. This Pope, however, understands that his most powerful allies are laypeople in ordinary parishes, who know about family life from the inside. So the synodical process he has initiated is an attempt to mobilise them in favour of reform. He is treating them like adults, and that is how they must respond.

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This latest Editorial from ‘The Tablet’ emphasises the fact that the present Pope, Francis, is determined to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the contemporary world – by means of a divestment of political machination by Italian hierarchs, into a new and vital understanding of the Church as a more eclectic servant body, whose context is both in this world as well as of it – an incarnational structure cognisant of real human needs.

Perhaps the most telling part of this editorial is found in this excerpt:

“Opposition to Pope Francis is apparently being mounted not only in the Curia but also among senior Italian bishops. What is notable is that they were virtually all appointed or promoted by Pope John Paul II, and though nobody is explicitly saying so, much of what Pope Francis is trying to undo is the legacy of that papacy. In the remarks quoted by Cardinal Schönborn, “Putin” is almost code for “Wojtyla”. This Pope, however, understands that his most powerful allies are laypeople in ordinary parishes, who know about family life from the inside.

Part of the relevance of the mention of Putin here, is that some of the conservative bishops are siding with the Russian Leader’s rhetoric on the subject of family life, in which he has outlawed any form of relationships that are not modelled on the concept of heterosexual marriage and traditional family values. Cardinal Schönborn, strikingly, seems to be comparing Putin’s morality stance on marriage with that of Pope John Paul II, whose conservative initiatives are now being questioned by Pope Francis. 

No doubt, Pope Francis’ extensive pastoral experience among the ordinary people of the Latin American world has equipped him for the task of introducing a less formal way of Church leadership into the hierarchical situation of the Vatican. It is this, and the Pope’s readiness to discard the panoply of the Sacred Office, that has set the more conservative members of the Curia and the Italian bishops at odds with his leadership.

As a point of interest, the Church of England is currently about to set up a special management efficiency unit, calculated to target and train people for what seems like a theological MBA qualification leading to hierarchical preferment in that Church. How such a scheme will tally with what Pope Francis has in mind for the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church has yet to be seen. The biggest question about both initiatives might be to discern where the Holy Spirit might be leading in the rejuvenation of the Body of Christ.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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