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Francis listens to critics, clarifies the issues, and stays his course

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 10, 2014

Pope Francis has made a strong effort to take into account the criticisms of “conservative” Catholics which boiled over during the October Synod of Bishops. For example, he has deliberately appointed “conservative” Churchmen to important posts recently, he has explained his handling of Cardinal Burke’s change of duties, he has reiterated that the Church’s teaching on marriage cannot change, and he has emphasized how Catholics (and the world) should understand synodal controversy.

In November, Francis named Cardinal Robert Sarah as the new prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Sarah headed the French language group at the Synod, which was very critical of the tendentiously “liberal” interim report. Also in November, the Pope added Cardinal Wilfrid Napier to the leadership group that will supervise the organization of the 2015 Synod. Napier too had been very critical of the interim report.

Moreover, both of these cardinals are Africans, which is highly significant in light of a very liberal Cardinal Walter Kasper’s protests against the influence of Africans at the last Synod.

On two occasions over the past several days, the Pope has sought to explain what to expect from the currently ongoing synodal process, and how to interpret the controversies it engenders. For example, in talking with journalists during his flight home from Turkey, he outlined the long process the Church is following through the two synods on the family, concluding:

It is a journey. For this reason, you cannot form an opinion from one person or one draft. We must see the Synod in its totality. I do not agree – and this is my opinion, I don't want to impose it – I do not agree when it is reported: “Today this Father said this, and today that Father said that”. What was said should be reported, but not who said what. Because, and I repeat, the Synod is not a parliament; it is an ecclesial, protected space and this protection is so that the Holy Spirit may work.

In his Wednesday audience today, the Holy Father commented on the way the media handled the October Synod. “They often spoke of two teams: pro and con, conservatives and liberals, and so on.” Instead, he insisted, the entire synod took place “cum Petro et sub Petro” as “a guarantee of freedom and trust for all, and a guarantee of orthodoxy.”

Earlier, in his recent interview with La Nacion (see full text in English), the Pope emphasized that it is not what is said in the discussions or what the newspapers say that matters, but “the post-synodal report, the final message, and the Pope’s discourse.” In response to a question about creating confusion, Francis replied: “I constantly make speeches and give homilies; that’s teaching. That’s what I think and not what the newspapers say I think. Check it out. It’s very clear. Evangelii Gaudium is very clear.”

Other Issues

In the same interview, Francis reminded everyone that he had already stated in his closing address to the October Synod that the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage could not be changed. For divorced and remarried Catholics, “it is not a solution if we give them Communion. This alone is not a solution: integration [into the Church’s pastoral care] is the solution.”

At the same time he expressed his continuing concern that it is so difficult to integrate divorced and remarried Catholics into the life of the Church. Since they cannot receive the Eucharist, teach religion, function as lectors, or act as god-parents, the Pope said it is like de facto excommunication—and yet, he lamented, a corrupt politician can do these things simply because he or she has been “married in the Church”. The Pope still hopes to find a more productive approach, and he still regards this as an important concern for the Synod.

This continuing concern, along with a strong reaffirmation of the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, is reflected in the just-released lineamenta (working document or guidelines) for the 2015 synod. One specific point that the next synod will study further, presumably to leave no stone unturned, is “the Orthodox practice”. (Note that the Orthodox tradition employs a number of pastoral practices surrounding marriage which are different from those of the Catholic Church, and even allows for second marriages in special cases. This is, of course, also an ecumenical issue to be examined with care. But Francis has made it very clear that the Church cannot adopt a pastoral practice that presupposes marriage to be dissoluble, a point which, again, is strongly affirmed in the lineamenta. I will write a separate analysis soon to explain the questions raised by the Orthodox practice.)

Many “conservative” Catholics (pardon, again, this lamentable Catholic shorthand) had also expressed confusion and distrust over the apparent “demotion” of the well-known “conservative” Cardinal Raymond Burke. Pope Francis explained the reasons for the change in Burke’s position, stressing that he deliberately timed the change so that Burke could still participate in the October synod (this is covered in our news story on the interview with La Nacion).

What we learn from all this, I think, is that Pope Francis has a growing sensitivity to the many sincere Catholic reactions to the news swirling around his pontificate, but he will continue to pursue his program of reform and renewal. In responding to questions about resistance to his Curial reforms, for example, he said simply this: “God is good to me, he has given me great peace of mind.* I just do what I have to do.”

* Note: The English translation of the interview linked above is bad on this point, using the pejorative term “unawareness”, whereas “peace of mind” better captures the connotation, in this context, of the Spanish “inconsciencia”.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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