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October 2023: Pope Francis faces his toughest tests

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 29, 2023

October 2023: This is the month when all the major themes of the current pontificate—the ambitions and the frustrations, the confusion and the corruption, the talk of collegiality and the record of autocratic rule—reach a thundering crescendo. This is the month when a verdict will be rendered on the reign of Pope Francis, for good or for ill.

The crucial month actually begins a day early, on September 30, when the top leaders of the Church gather in Rome for the consistory at which the Pontiff will confer red hats on 21 new members of the College of Cardinals. The Pope has not scheduled a formal meeting of the full College, apart from the consistory itself. But the cardinals, new and old, will surely be meeting, and talking, informally—in small groups over meals during the weekend in Rome. They have a great deal to discuss.

First and foremost is the Synod on Synodality, which will dominate Vatican news during the coming month. After an unusually lengthy and contentious period of preparation, the Synod fathers will finally begin deliberations, on a theme—synodality—that has become the focal point of the Pope’s vision for the future of the Church.

But as much as Pope Francis would like the world’s prelates to concentrate on the theme of synodality, inevitably they will also be speaking about his physical health. The Vatican has not been forthcoming with details about the Pope’s medical condition, but insiders know that he is spending more time closeted with his personal medical team, being treated for something that is, most observers suspect, more serious than a bad knee. So while the Pope speaks about the future of a “synodal” Church, cardinals talk among themselves about the prospects for a papal conclave. If he hopes to bring about the “irreversible change” that his supporters seek, Pope Francis is running out of time. He knows that, and so do both his allies and his critics in the hierarchy.

The health of the Roman Pontiff is always a topic for discussion around Rome, particularly if that Pontiff is approaching the age of 87 and compiling a curious medical history. But in the past few weeks another topic has pushed the Pope’s plans off the top of the agenda. The mushrooming scandal that surrounds Father Marko Rupnik—and the growing body of evidence to suggest that Pope Francis has been protecting the former Jesuit—has prompted furious new complaints about abuse and cover-ups, about the enormous gap between the rhetoric of “zero tolerance” and the reality of kid-gloves treatment for papal favorites.

Rupnik was excommunicated, but the excommunication quickly lifted. He was expelled from the Jesuit order, yet remains a priest “in good standing”—and without a disciplinary superior. He is charged with a series of unspeakable crimes, but now the vicariate of Rome has issued a report suggesting that he has been unfairly maligned, and the Pope has met privately with one of Rupnik’s most vociferous defenders.

And then, on the eve of the consistory, the news emerges that another prelate guilty of abuse—the French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, who has admitted to an improper relationship with a teenage girl—also retains most of his privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals, including the right to participate in the next papal conclave.

Small wonder, then, that the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the group set up by Pope Francis to repair the damage caused by the sex-abuse scandal, issued an unusually candid protest about the “tragically harmful deficiencies” of Church leadership in handling abuse complaints. “We are long overdue in fixing the flaws in procedures that leave victims wounded and in the dark both during and after cases have been decided,” the commission said.

From its inception, this papal commission has been troubled by internal dissension, with its most prominent members resigning in exasperation, complaining about a lack of support and cooperation from prominent Church leaders. In that context it seems significant that Pope Francis made a special effort to praise Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the commission’s chairman, during an otherwise routine meeting last week. Was the Pope hoping to ward off the critical report that emerged from the commission a few days later? Or was he paying a short of valedictory homage to a loyal supporter, who at the age of 79 is overdue for retirement? If Cardinal O’Malley has exhausted his patience with the Pope’s leadership, that would represent a critical loss of support for the Pontiff. And even if he plans to soldier on until he steps down at the age of 80 next June, his departure would leave the papal commission without the sort of public spokesman who could calm the Vatican’s many critics.

And then, as if the Rupnik scandal did not create enough problems, the long-running Vatican “trial of the century” is coming to a head just as the Synod fathers assemble in Rome. Here too the chaotic condition of Church leadership is exposed to the glare of publicity, with one office of the Vatican suing another, lawyers complaining that the Secretariat of State treated the Vatican bank “like a cash machine” to fund irresponsible investments, and the Secretariat charging that Cardinal Becciu allowed the “entry of the temple merchants” into Vatican affairs. Next week the defendants will take their turn, no doubt arguing that their actions and their investments had the approval of their ecclesiastical superiors—thus ultimately pointing a finger at Pope Francis.

So the situation in Rome is anything but calm as the Synod on Synodality opens. And if confidence in the Pope’s leadership is on the wane, skeptics in the Synod Hall will be more likely to listen to the cautions of prelates such as Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has voiced his fear that the Synod could become “a political dance around the golden calf of the agnostic spirit of our age.” Or Cardinal Raymond Burke, who warns:

Synodality and its adjective, synodal, have become slogans behind which a revolution is at work to change radically the Church’s self-understanding, in accord with a contemporary ideology which denies much of what the Church has always taught and practiced.

Another influential Vatican insider, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who succeeded Cardinal Müller as the top doctrinal official, has made no critical public statement about the Synod. But he has quietly withdrawn from participation, and his withdrawal also raises questions. Was Cardinal Ladaria—who issued the Vatican’s 2021 statement that the Church cannot offer blessings for same-sex unions—reluctant to participate in an assembly at which that statement will be challenged?

Pope Francis and his defenders assure us that the Synod will not change Church doctrine. But especially since some participants in the Synod clearly do want doctrinal changes, the very fact that anyone feels obliged to offer that defense demonstrates a lack of confidence. When President Richard Nixon felt compelled to proclaim, “I am not a crook,” he tacitly acknowledged that his honesty was in question. When Pope Francis says that he will not attempt to change Catholic doctrine, he concedes many Catholics worry about his commitment to defend the faith.

October 2023. This is the month. Prepare for fireworks.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: chapman18668 - Oct. 03, 2023 10:58 AM ET USA

    Truth. It is all coming to a head. Thankfully the Head is ultimately Christ.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Sep. 30, 2023 4:38 AM ET USA

    It is ironic and revealing that the pope who praises "development" of Church doctrine and discipline (in reality change) is taking such crude measures to ensure that HIS changes will be immutable in the future. Is this the behavior of a narcissist and unholy dictator? Just asking. I hope that more clergy are waking up to this truth and will find their courage to speak up.

  • Posted by: ILM - Sep. 30, 2023 3:28 AM ET USA

    Mary says “pray, pray, pray”.

  • Posted by: Cinciradiopriest - Sep. 29, 2023 9:15 PM ET USA

    Any changes that the Synod makes will be hidden in the footnotes and changing the meaning or words. They will be very subtle in this document and their statements will try to bring into doubt the Catholic meaning of Tradition. I am fully expecting this. I pray that I am wrong.

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Sep. 29, 2023 8:52 PM ET USA

    The Synod has people who already have abandoned the Catholic Faith thinking that they are not bound by Scripture and apostolic Traidtion. They have a secular political notion of the Faith and a number are seekng to conform the Church to the LGBTQ etc political ideology. Bishop Baetzing said if he did not think the teaching on homosexual acts could change he would leave the Church. With that statement has he not in spirit already left the Church? Baetzing also denied fornication is a sin.