For Pope Francis 2017 got off to a bitter start. His popularity remains high, but without a corresponding rise in religious practice. Latin America is even witnessing declines.
The glaring case is Brazil, where those who say they belong to the Catholic Church have plunged over the last two years from 60 to 50 percent of the population, according to a brand-new grassroots survey by Datafolha.
Just half a century ago in Brazil, almost the whole population identified as Catholic. By 2000 the share had gone down to 62 percent and had stabilized there. But now it is again taking a nosedive, precisely during the first reign of a Latin American pope.
The only continent on which the numbers of Catholics continue to grow at a sustained pace is sub-Saharan Africa. But the African Church, with its bishops and cardinals, is also the most rugged opponent against the changes that Pope Francis has set in motion. Paradoxically, the pope called from the ends of the earth with the intention of renewing the Church has to rely on the worn out and depleted national Churches of the Old Continent, in primis that of Germany, in order to put his plan into practice, coming up against the tenacious resistance of none other than the young and fervent African Churches.
Even within the Roman curia this fracture is visible to the naked eye. The cardinal favored by Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the octogenarian Walter Kasper, a German, while the one most antithetical to him is the Guinean Robert Sarah, a hero and beacon for a large portion of the Catholic Church, and not only in Africa.
In the two synods convened in 2014 and 2015, Pope Francis experienced firsthand the resistance to the innovations that he wanted to introduce, on that minefield which is the pastoral care of the family.
He used a crafty trick to tame the opposition, as one of his proteges, Archbishop Bruno Forte, candidly revealed after the fact when he related these actual words that the pope had said to him during the synod: “If we talk explicitly about communion for the divorced and remarried, you have no idea what a mess these guys will make for us. So let’s not talk about it directly, you get the premises in place and then I will draw the conclusions.”
In effect, that is just how it went. Bergoglio never stated clearly that he wanted to allow communion for the divorced and remarried, an act never before permitted by the Catholic Church. But he gave slack to the champions of innovation, the Germans foremost. And once the double synod was on the books without winners or losers, he himself saw to adding it all up in the apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” where he slipped the innovations so dear to him into a couple of sibylline footnotes, between the said and the unsaid.
But that’s just it, the “mess,” in his words, that he had been able to ward off at the synod erupted for Francis afterward, because the ambiguities he intentionally introduced into “Amoris Laetitia” have released an unmanageable explosion of contrasting theoretical interpretations and practical applications.
With the result, for example, that in the diocese of Rome communion for the divorced and remarried who live “more uxorio” is allowed, while in the diocese of Florence it is not yet; in San Diego yes and in Philadelphia no. And this is the way it is all over the Catholic world, where from diocese to diocese and from parish to parish the most varied and opposing practices now hold sway, and all of them appeal to their respective interpretation of “Amoris Laetitia.”
What is at stake is not only the yes or no to communion, but the end of the indissolubility of marriage and the admission of divorce in the Catholic Church too, as already happens among Protestants and Orthodox.
Four cardinals, Caffarra of Italy, Burke of the United States, and the Germans Meisner and Brandmüller, these last two going against some of their countrymen, have publicly asked the pope to dispel once and for all with a clear statement the doctrinal and practical “doubts” put into circulation by “Amoris Laetitia.”
Francis has not responded. Nor could he, without contradicting himself.