Why popes don’t always get what they want [but FrankenPope might unless …]

Why popes don’t always get what they want [but FrankenPope might unless …]

The friends of Francis are urging him to take a revolutionary step after the synod. But there are good reasons why he might reject their advice [and reasons why he might accept it (see comment below)

[Nonetheless, I (Tom) opine that one way or another, whatever Jorge wants, Jorge gets (see comment below)]

by Fr Raymond de Souza
posted Thursday, 26 Nov 2015

In my last column [see comment below] I argued that it would be foolish to ignore the signs that Pope Francis has been giving for almost two years concerning the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion. Furthermore, after the synod his close advisers have made clear their expectation that the Holy Father will change the traditional practice, in contradiction to the clear teaching of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

That column has been cited as making a stronger claim than it actually did, namely that Pope Francis will certainly make such a change. There is good reason to think that the Holy Father desires to make a change, and that those close to him are indicating how he might do it. But that Pope Francis might desire a change does not mean that he will actually do it.

We know that Pope Francis is more than capable of acting on his own initiative. On two important occasions he has done just that. His creation of the Secretariat for the Economy was done and announced without the Holy See’s secretary of state being informed ahead of time. The recent motu proprio on annulment reforms was published without the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seeing the final draft. So Pope Francis is not shy about acting on his own authority. Yet popes do not always get what they want.

A relevant example comes from Vatican II, at which Blessed Paul VI was concerned about preserving the independence of the Petrine office. He proposed that the text of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, include that the pope “is accountable to the Lord alone”, signalling that his autonomy was limited by no earthly power, civil or ecclesial. The council’s theological commission, having heard the pope’s view, rejected it, noting that “the Roman Pontiff is … bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier Councils, and [to] other obligations too numerous to mention.”

So what Pope Francis may wish to do he may not actually do. He faces serious constraints and foreseeable negative consequences, in the consideration of which he may well decide not to proceed along the lines his friends have proposed.

The most important constraint is the doctrine of marital indissolubility itself, which the Holy Father himself has repeatedly said should not, cannot and will not be touched. Had he even hinted otherwise, the synod would have gone into open rebellion. Within the text of Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, the annulment reforms, Pope Francis writes that “we we are not unaware of the extent to which the principle of the indissolubility of marriage might be endangered by the briefer process; for this very reason we desire that the bishop himself be established as the judge in this process, who, due to his duty as pastor, has the greatest care for Catholic unity with Peter in faith and discipline.”

The recent synod made abundantly clear that the Kasper proposal – whether implemented directly or through the back door of the “internal forum” – would do more than endanger marital indissolubility in the consideration of the synod fathers. It would compromise it. Leaving the decision to local bishops or priests would certainly rupture unity in faith and discipline. If Mitis Iudex expressed a fear of how things might be seen, the Kasper proposal has to be thought far more dangerous, as reflected by the results of 2015 synod.


That’s the second constraint. Pope Francis firmly believes in the synod process, proposing a more widespread use of it during his address half way through last month’s synod. It is clear that the relevant section of the synod’s final report only received the necessary two third votes after all references to admitting the civilly remarried to Holy Communion were removed, and language upholding Church teaching and the complete criteria of St John Paul II was added.

Despite the insistence of Cardinal Walter Kasper and his allies, the synod did not say that the Kasper proposal was consistent with Catholic doctrine, despite a serious effort by synod managers to achieve just that. The most plausible reading of the Holy Father’s final synod address, in which he denounced the opponents of the Kasper proposal for acting in bad faith and having “closed hearts”, is that the synod did not give the Kasper proposal the support necessary to permit the Pope to support it officially.

Francis is constrained by his emphasis on synodality; if he goes where the synod refused to go, he undermines the very process that he himself chose to examine this question.

In receiving the German bishops for their ad limina visit last week, Pope Francis did not address their support for the Kasper proposal. But his speech was a scathing assessment of the collapse of German Catholicism. If the Holy Father were to prefer the German option to the synod consensus, not only would his words on synodality ring hollow, but so too his preference for the Church at the peripheries. Perhaps the German ad limina address indicated a growing sense that, after the synod rejected it, the Kasper proposal is no longer a feasible option.

In addition to such constraints, several negative consequences of a papal endorsement of the Kasper proposal are now becoming more clear. As the American theologian Janet Smith has argued, while the final synod document did not endorse the Kasper proposal, its ambiguity will encourage self-styled reformers to push it in practice, resulting in potentially decades of battles within the Church, diverting energies from evangelisation in general, and the revitalisation of family life in particular.

There are even more immediate consequences. A declaration that the teaching ofSt John Paul in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio no longer applies would contradict the teaching in these past weeks and months of the Holy Father’s own prefect for doctrine, . That path being impossible, the only option for the Kasper proposal to be advanced would be to leave readmission to Communion to individual bishops or priests.

Yet if that were to happen, it would be a matter of days before questions were submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), as normally happens when discretion in liturgical or sacramental matters leads to conflicting judgments. The CDW would be asked for clarification on the parameters for the “discernment” that pastors should undertake. Is there any doubt that Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the CDW, would respond that the suitable criteria are provided in thereby rendering the Kasper proposal inadmissible?

Opposition from the CDF and CDW would produce an immediate crisis at the highest levels of the Roman Curia. The likely consequence of such a crisis would be that the rest of the Holy Father’s pontificate would be given over to even more intense intramural battles, a situation not unlike the 1970s.

What then will Pope Francis do? Wise observers know better than to predict anything in this pontificate with precision. It is clear, as I argued before, what his close advisers would like him to do. But can the Holy Father, in the face of serious constraints and sobering consequences, actually do it? That remains unclear. The Holy Spirit’s protection does not, after all, extend to what popes might desire, but to their actual decisions.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

Get AQ Email Updates

One comment on “Why popes don’t always get what they want [but FrankenPope might unless …]

  1. What will the Pope say? His friends tell us

    Francis has steadily prepared the Church for change. It’s foolish to ignore the signs

    by Fr Raymond de Souza
    posted Thursday, 12 Nov 2015

    The synod on the family is over. The Church now awaits what Pope Francis will decide. Those who argued at the synod for maintaining the traditional discipline on admission to the sacraments for the civilly divorced and remarried must be ready for the Holy Father to decide differently.

    He has steadily prepared the Church for just that. It would be foolish to ignore the signs.

    After much back and forth, the synod decided to follow almost exactly what Pope Francis said in his general audience of August 5, during which he strongly suggested that he did not agree with the tradition taught by St John Paul in Familiaris Consortio (1981) and confirmed by Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis (2007).

    He did not explicitly contradict it, and neither did the synod. But he quoted the relevant texts without affirming their definitive conclusion and the synod did the same.

    Does silence on John Paul’s formulation token assent? Or does it mean that the traditional teaching is being left aside?

    A commentary last week by Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, gave a clear answer. Civiltà always carries a certain authority, as the Jesuit periodical is reviewed by the Holy See secretariat of state before publication.

    Fr Spadaro is more authoritative still, as both a close confidant and mouthpiece of Pope Francis. It is inconceivable that he would write something contrary to what the Holy Father desired. In his analysis of the synod, his answer is emphatic.

    “The [synod’s final report] proceeds on this path of discernment of individual cases without putting any limits on integration, as appeared in the past. … The conclusion is that the Church realises that one can no longer speak of an abstract category of persons and close off the practice of integration within a rule that is entirely general and valid in every case.

    It is not said how far the process of integration can go, but neither are any more precise and insurmountable limitations set up.”

    The “limits of the past” are that of Familiaris Consortio, which was certainly “precise”. It no longer holds. And how far will the integration go?

    Fr Spadaro quotes Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna to explicitly include Holy Communion for those living in invalid marriages.

    Pope Francis gave another interview to the notorious Eugenio Scalfari last week, who reported that the Holy Father had told him that all those divorced and remarried who ask will be admitted to Holy Communion.

    The Holy See Press Office issued the customary statement about the unreliability of Scalfari, who reconstructs his papal conversations from a fertile memory, but what Scalfari wrote in a few lines is basically what Fr Spadaro wrote in 20 pages: living in a conjugal union outside of marriage will either no longer be considered necessarily sinful, or being in a state of serious sin will no longer be an obstacle to receiving Holy Communion.

    If Scalfari and Fr Spadaro were presenting conflicting views, it would be advisable to follow Fr Spadaro as to the Holy Father’s thought. But if they agree, there is no room for doubt.

    Those close to the Holy Father did not wait until the synod was over to give strong indications of what outcome the Holy Father preferred. During the synod the Holy See Press Office circulated an interview conducted by Gerald O’Connell of America magazine with Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

    O’Connell has been covering the Vatican for some 30 years, but his relevance is now at its zenith, given that he is married to Elisabetta Piqué, Papa Bergoglio’s favourite Argentine journalist, to whom he has granted special access.

    If O’Connell’s name appears on something sent out by the Holy See Press Office, it can be reliably taken as the official line from the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

    The message of the Cardinal Wuerl, himself a man of great precision and careful in speech, was uncharacteristically blunt about those who were concerned that the synod would try to change the traditional practice. They found it all “somewhat threatening”, perhaps because “they just don’t like this pope”.

    Hours after the conclusion of the synod, O’Connell, a reliable English-language conduit for those close to the Pope, wrote a commentary which identified by name Cardinals Pell, Ouellet, Sarah and Müller as those within the curia “rowing in a different direction” to the Pope, and to whom the Pope’s final address characterised as having “closed hearts”.

    The Church waits now for Rome to speak. The voices closest to the Bishop of Rome are already speaking, increasingly confident that when the time comes, Rome will not say what she said before.

Leave a Reply