Pope Francis’s synod on the family adjourned on Sunday, October 25, after an acrimonious three weeks. This assembly of bishops, like a similar one last year, was convened because the pope is interested in changing Catholic teaching on divorce, remarriage, and, to a lesser extent, homosexuality.
How so? The pope’s favorite theologian seems to be the German cardinal Walter Kasper, who has long argued that, pace the explicit words of Jesus Christ, marriage is a dissoluble institution. Kasper believes that the Catholic church should recognize divorce and subsequent remarriages—readmitting such Catholics to holy communion—and that it ought to be more “open” to homosexual couples, too. (The exact details of what this openness entails are never concretely defined.)
Because Francis is a Jesuit, he presented the two synods as beautiful opportunities to dialogue—Jesuits love this verb—on Cardinal Kasper’s propositions. But make no mistake: The synods were not a dialogue. They were a fight between a small group of clerics that wants to revolutionize the doctrines of the church and a larger group that wants to preserve them.
At the conclusion of the fight, both the traditionalists and progressives claimed victory. Both were wrong.
To give a sense of the quality of the “dialogue” at the synod, consider a few highlights:
* The day before the synod convened, Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, a Vatican priest assigned to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was ousted because it was revealed that he was (1) gay; (2) with a long-term boyfriend; and (3) planning a public protest outside the synod against the church’s “homophobia” (his word).
* Going into the synod, the pope established new bureaucratic procedures that did away with the traditional democratic processes and granted power to small groups of appointed bishops. To wit: The priests charged with drafting the synod working documents were appointed by Francis rather than elected by their peers. At the close of a synod, this drafting committee presents a final document. Traditionally, the assembly then votes on each paragraph, in order to exercise strict control over what is being said. The pope’s new rules would allow only a single up-or-down vote on the final document.
- These “reforms” looked so much like rigging that on the first day of the synod a group of 13 senior clergymen sent a letter of protest to Francis.
- In response, Francis chastised critics for giving in to “the hermeneutic of conspiracy,” which, he claimed, “is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.”
- Speaking of conspiracies, shortly thereafter supporters of Francis began alleging that Monsignor Charamsa’s ousting had been part of a conservative plot “to create problems for the Synod and for Francis.”
- After that, a Vatican reporter obtained the text of the protest letter that had been sent to Francis. Four of the signers issued statements designed to suggest they had not been party to the communiqué. Subsequent reporting revealed that these demurrals were themselves misleading—all 13 men had indeed signed the rebuke.
- In a speech a few days later Francis said that going forward the Catholic church would become a “synodal church.” It wasn’t clear what that term meant—the Holy Father talked a lot about “listening.” But he closed these remarks emphasizing obedience, reminding the assembled participants that “the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called upon to pronounce as ‘pastor and teacher of all Christians.’ ” Translation: This will proceed as a dialogue unless you don’t give me what I want. In which case remember: I’m in charge.
It was reminiscent of a moment in 2009 when a newly elected President Obama met with congressional Republicans to build consensus on his stimulus proposal. Rep. Eric Cantor began to criticize certain aspects of the plan, but Obama cut him off, explaining, “Eric, I won.”
It’s normally a mistake to view the workings of the Catholic church through the lens we use to evaluate domestic American politics. But in this case, the lens fits: Throughout the synod, Francis behaved like an ideologically ambitious president at war with an oppositional Congress. He was the Roman church’s Obama.