October 22, 2014 / 2:27 PM / 5 years ago

Pope Francis plays long game to reform Catholic Church

VATICAN CITY, (Reuters) - After winning praise around the world for his fresh and open style, the honeymoon period seems to be over for Pope Francis.

A gust of wind blows Pope Francis' mantle as he leaves at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

A tumultuous two-week Vatican synod exposed polarisation in the Catholic Church over his push to reform its traditional approach to sexual morality by becoming more welcoming to gays and easing restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics.

A Jesuit unafraid of frank debate, Francis has set off a clash of opinions not seen since the reformist Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Rather than impose his views as a pope can, he has chosen the difficult path to reform by opting to have his bishops freely discuss Catholic teaching on sex.

The pope won a standing ovation from almost 200 bishops at the synod’s close on Saturday and general support for his reform drive. But a vocal minority, backed by what one cardinal called a “massive wave of attacks” on the pope from traditionalist media, emerged to block some of the reform proposals.

The synod will meet again in October 2015 to make its final recommendations to the pope. In the meantime, he is counting on discussions among Catholics to increase support for reforms. His critics say they will use the time to rally against them.

“The pope has put his authority on the line,” said French Vatican expert Jean-Marie Guenois, author of the new book Jusqu’ou ira Francois? (How Far Will Francis Go?). “If he fails to find a solution, it will be his failure.”

Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at Saint Thomas University in Minnesota, saw “different Catholic cultures” emerging and said keeping them together “is going to be the biggest gamble for Francis in the next 12 months.

“It could become more difficult for him to speak to all Catholics,” he said, adding some conservatives nostalgic for his more doctrinaire predecessors John Paul and Benedict “will think he should leave right away”.


The bishops are meant to continue discussions with clergy and laity in their dioceses before the second synod meets. Francis said the process would allow ideas to “mature,” without saying exactly what he wanted to see emerge from the process.

The challenge will be to find a consensus among mostly westerners open to changing lifestyles and traditionalists. The latter are especially strong in Africa where the Church is growing, homosexuality is seen as taboo and polygamy rather than divorce or cohabitation is the main problem for Catholic marriage.

“What the Catholic Church is trying to do is a sociological adventure,” Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a senior advisor to Francis, said during the synod.

“Finding a common language on such existential themes as sexuality and marriage in Africa, Asia, Manhattan and (the Roman district of) Trastevere is actually not possible,” he said.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in March 2013, his fellow cardinals gave him a clear mandate to clean up the Vatican’s murky finances, reorganise the Curia bureaucracy and deal with the crisis of priests sexually abusing minors.

But the former archbishop of Buenos Aires had even wider ambitions, including a less imperial papacy and more mercy for the divorced, gays or unmarried couples living together despite the Church’s traditional disapproval.

“Who am I to judge?” he said of gay Catholics in July 2013, comments that clearly signalled the new tone at the Vatican, even though he declared he would not change age-old doctrines.

An unprecedented global survey Francis ordered last year showed widespread disagreement with Church teaching on sex, especially among the young in western countries.

The frank survey became the basis for debate at the synods, whereas previous synods had been carefully managed affairs with little real debate.


After his election last year, many Catholic traditionalists argued Francis’ papacy was a continuation of Benedict’s. Among their proofs was his opposition to far-reaching reforms such as ordaining women priests or approving of abortion.

But as preparations for the synod progressed, they saw his open approach resembled that of the 1960’s Council, known among Catholics as “Vatican II”, which they blame for many modern problems in the Church. John Paul and Benedict spent years redefining the Council’s legacy in a more conservative way.

They began to organise.

Five cardinals, including Francis’s own doctrinal watchdog Gerhard Mueller, published a book arguing that easing a ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving the sacraments was impossible because Jesus himself condemned divorce.

During the synod, arch-conservative Catholics, many from the United States and Africa, complained the meeting was stage-managed to approve liberal reforms. U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Vatican’s top judge, accused the pope of harming the Church.

When an interim text said the Church should welcome gays and accept homosexuality, they had the English translation watered down even though the Italian original remained the official one.

In the end, the bishops agreed to almost all the synod proposals except three dealing with gays and divorced Catholics, even though they had been toned down from the interim text.

Francis unexpectedly left the three rejected paragraphs in the final document and published the usually secret vote totals to show they fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to be accepted, thereby ensuring they would stay in the debate and have a chance of approval by the next synod.

Despite his deft bending of the rules, it is not clear exactly how much reform Francis wants or what he will decide.

Predicting outcomes is further complicated by the fact that not all delegates to the next synod will be the same as the first.

Francis ended the synod with a moving address warning traditionalists against “hostile inflexibility” and liberals against a destructive “do-gooder” approach.

Ute Eberl, a German family counsellor attending the synod, said the session aimed to get the Church “out of its comfort zone ... to hear about real life for families around the world”.

After hearing the pope’s final address to the bishops and their five-minute standing ovation in response, she said: “Pope Francis’s plan is working.”

Editing by Janet Lawrence

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