Will Catholic bishops really lead an ongoing Catholic renewal?
I wrote yesterday that Catholic renewal is not dead, but that under Pope Francis its center of gravity has shifted from the pope to the bishops. I proposed that the vacuum created at the top of the hierarchy during this pontificate could well spur bishops around the world to take greater personal responsibility for the spiritual life of the Church, just as the laity had done when faced with the widespread failure of bishops and priests in the second half of the twentieth century.
But a sharp reader (who liked my argument) wondered what evidence I had that the cardinals and the bishops were disappointed with the leadership of Pope Francis when it comes to the ongoing renewal of the Church. The same reader also raised two other points which I will postpone to a later essay. But I wish to respond to this first and most perceptive question immediately.
Cardinals and bishops not on board: The Synods on the Family
My assertion that many cardinals and a majority of the world’s bishops have deep reservations about the spiritual leadership of Pope Francis does not rely on insider knowledge. Rather, these reservations were put on display for all the world to see in connection with the two Synods on the Family in 2014 and 2015.
You will recall that, from the first, Pope Francis seemed to be closely involved in the promotion of the Kasper Proposal—that is, the opening of Communion to couples who had married in the Church, divorced, and then remarried without an annulment. But you will also recall that the most powerful book issued before the synods to defend the Church against the Kasper proposal was a collection of essays and studies written by very high-ranking Churchmen.
Again, you will recall that the coordinators appointed to summarize the discussions at the 2014 synod deliberately skewed their reports to make it seem that both the Kasper Proposal and a softening of the Church’s attitude toward homosexuality were highly favored by the Synod fathers. But you will also recall that this caused an uproar at the Synod, eliciting formal protests from both cardinals and bishops, and making it very clear that the preponderance of bishops rejected both items.
This process was repeated at the 2015 synod. The proposals at the end of the 2014 synod which favored further discussion of the Kasper Proposal and a reconsideration of homosexuality did not receive the required votes, yet they were included in the final report that summarized the first synod as a basis for the second. But once again, they failed to gain substantial traction, and the final report of the 2015 synod did not even hint at any significant doctrinal or disciplinary change. The Synods on the Family closed with the understanding that Pope Francis had not gained the support he would need to push the Kasper Proposal any further.
Cardinals and bishops not on board: Amoris Laetitia
Unfortunately, when Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which is in many ways a beautiful tribute to the value of marriage, he could not resist leaving the door open to the Kasper Proposal in a footnote which supports the worst possible interpretation of the Pope’s intentions for the pastoral counseling of the divorced. For reasons known only to himself, the Holy Father chose to open an apparent loophole in the Church's universal sacramental discipline, enabling sympathetic pastors to depart without censure from a discipline forged from the understanding of marriage expounded by the Church from the beginning.
Yet here again, in response to Amoris Laetitia there have been clarifying and corrective statements from Cardinals, bishops and priest-scholars defending Catholic tradition and reiterating the inseparable link between Eucharistic discipline and the Church’s teaching on marriage. This outpouring, though not amplified by the secular media, was in its positive intensity reminiscent of the negative effort put forth by dissident theologians following the publication of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968; and it was very unlike the episcopal response at that time, which was all but non-existent.
Individual bishops and, in some cases, whole episcopal conferences have made it clear that those who are divorced and remarried without an annulment are not to be admitted to Communion. The head of the Polish episcopal conference made this point, with exquisite timing, during Pope Francis’ visit for World Youth Day, just after the Pope had urged the bishops to take up his own views on immigration. This had the flavor of St. Paul resisting St. Peter to his face, because St. Peter’s priorities and practices with respect to the gentiles were just plain wrong (as recounted in Gal 2:11).
Even in countries where dodgy cardinals and bishops are leading the charge against the tradition of the Church, such as Germany, they have generally met with forceful criticism from other cardinals and bishops in their own country. This too was exceedingly rare in the period from about 1960 to 1990. You have to have lived through the past sixty years or so of the history of the Church in the West to realize just how remarkable all of this is.
Moreover, two other indications are particularly noteworthy. First, the understanding that bishops must be vicars of Christ in their own dioceses—rather than branch managers of a worldwide corporation controlled in the Vatican—was one of the most important goals of both the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II. A deeper appreciation of the office of bishop was the main point of Vatican II’s foundational Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). As I have written before, without in the least diminishing the universal jurisdiction of Peter or Christ’s guarantee of Peter’s faith, this practical recovery of the full episcopal office (which had been thrown into the shadows because Vatican I was terminated by war after treating only the authority of the pope) is absolutely essential to a healthy Church.
Second, while the positive development of the episcopate is by no means universal—I do not wish to exaggerate it—the new willingness of a growing number of Catholic bishops in the West to stand up for authentic renewal meshes well with the vibrant and counter-cultural faith of the younger, rapidly growing Catholic communities elsewhere in the world. In my previous essay, I mentioned Africa in particular, and for good reason. Unlike Africa (and also China), the Church in the West is diminishing by nearly every measure. But the battle is far from over. If given new impetus now, this new episcopal spirit—this determination of each bishop to take full responsibility as Christ’s vicar for his own diocese—will be marked in history as one of the clearest signs of returning Catholic health.
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