Reforming the Church

[According to Francis’ vision of the Church summarized in the three-word slogan “collegiality, synodality. subsidiarity” – similar to the Jacobin “liberty, equality, fraternity,” the Bolshevik “peace, land, bread” and the Nazi “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer”]

27 September 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Con­nor summed it up as he twirled the last of the spaghetti all’Amatriciana around the plate with his fork. “Pope Francis is implementing the Second Vatican Council,” he told me over lunch last year in one of his favourite trattorias, La Quercia, just off Rome’s Piazza Farnese.

It was as neat a summary of the programme of this papacy as any that I have heard. And, Cardinal Cormac went on, three words encapsulate Francis’ vision for the Church. The first is collegiality, seen in the character of the men that the Pope is selecting to be cardinals and bishops, and the expectation that they will be tireless preachers of the Gospel and pastors who share the joys and struggles of their people. Then there is synodality, seen as when bishops or priests and laity gather to listen to each other, freely discuss issues and take decisions together. Finally, there is subsidiarity, the letting go of a top-down, centralised model of the Church, the empowerment of bishops and more devolution of responsibility and control to local churches.

These, of course, were some of the major themes of the Council, which 50 years ago sought both to refresh the Church’s mission, open it up to the contemporary world – aggiornamento – recover some of the lost evangelical fervour by rooting the Church more firmly in the gospels and in ancient Christianity – a going back to the sources known as ressourcement.

In recent weeks, with a series of initiatives, Francis has sought to nail his colours more firmly to the reforms of Vatican II. Every papacy has its distinct legacy. The legacy of Francis, it is becoming increasingly clear, will be a papacy that reinvigorated the spirit of the Council in the life of the Church.

“It began a work which is not finished,” the influential French Dominican Yves Congar said some years after the Council closed in 1965. Others have noted that it takes a hundred years for the work of a major ecumenical council to become firmly embedded within the Church. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor knew Francis well and was due to meet him the day after we had our lunch: the two of them had received their red hats on the same day in 2001. The English cardinal was one of those who became convinced that if the opportunity arose, Jorge Mario Bergoglio would be the man to breathe life back into the stalled reforms of Vatican II. More tactfully, in his autobiography, Murphy-O’Connor writes that while Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI preferred to keep their fingers warily on the “pause” button, since his election in 2013, Francis has been firmly pressing “play”.

It was in this spirit that Francis issued a new instruction that restored to national bishops’ conferences the authority to produce translations of the Roman Missal into the vernacular. He gave his document the title Magnum Principium – “the Great Principle”. This, the Pope explained, is the principle enshrined in the documents of the Council, that “liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people” and that this task should be “entrusted to the Bishops”.

And, if greater autonomy over the important matter of liturgical translations is being devolved to bishops’ conferences, other areas of the Church’s life will follow. As the Pope puts it in what arguably is the most important line in his exhortation on family life, Amoris Laetitia: “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”

He is making clear that he is serious about implementing the vision of the Council. Rome can no longer pronounce a one-size-fits-all answer to every thorny pastoral matter. This does not mean a free-for-all. It is a recognition that the application of teaching in particular cases and local circumstances requires careful discernment. This includes the question of whether or not there might be circumstances in which a divorced and remarried parishioner can receive communion. For Francis, the Church needs to understand the contemporary reality of family life better, before rushing to stand in judgment over it. This is why, in another recent initiative, he re-focused the work of the former John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family on the “reality of marriage and family life”, and re-named it the “John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.”

Francis faces increasing opposition from those in the Church who who are uneasy about the reforms of the Council, or prefer a more cautious reading of what the Council called for. Last weekend, a group of disaffected priests, academics and scholars released the text of a 25-page letter sent to Francis in August, which they describe as a “filial correction”. Bluntly, they accuse Francis of allowing heresy to be propagated inside the Church. The signatories include the superior general of the Society of Saint Pius X – the centre of opposition to the reforms of the Council – Bishop Bernard Fellay. Before his dismissal as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller worried that differences over the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia threatened the unity of the Church. He has suggested that the Pope should appoint a group of cardinals who would enter into dialogue with his critics. Another Rome-based prelate, Cardinal Raymond Burke, has threatened to issue his own correction of Francis. He and three other theologically conservative cardinals – two of whom have since died – last year submitted a series of questions to Francis about Amoris Laetitia, known as “dubia”. Cardinal Burke is the highest-ranking and perhaps most visible critic of Francis. However, the word in Rome is that between 20 and 30 other cardinals may share some of his concerns.

Getting the Vatican’s finances under control is a another growing headache for the Pope. Last weekend saw the Holy See’s first financial auditor-general, Libero Milone, go public with accusations that he had been forced out of his job after he had uncovered irregularities. The Vatican hit back, accusing Milone of having contracted an outside agency to spy on superiors. If he had not resigned, it insisted, he would have been arrested. Cardinal Cormac – who had sat on a Vatican finance committee – did not give me the impression that he was overly worried, although that might say more about the late cardinal’s insouciance when it came to money than about the real state of the Church’s financial affairs. “They will work themselves out,” he told me. However, that was before the Pope’s treasurer, Cardinal George Pell, flew home to Australia to defend himself against charges of historic sex offences. Francis now has no auditor-general, either. The Pope does not obsess over the detail of the Holy See’s balance sheet, but has firmly re-set the direction of travel towards greater transparency and accountability. The same is true for his approach to reform of the Roman Curia: how precisely the departments are to be re-structured is less important to him than changing the mindset: the emphasis is expected to be that the Curia should serve the local churches, not the other way round.

For this Pope, Christianity is not a museum piece but is something dynamic, alive. There is a phrase often heard in Rome that Francis dislikes more than any other: “But it’s always been done this way.”

Vatican II sought to rejuvenate Catholicism for the contemporary era and harness the spirit and energy of the early Church. Undergirding the faith of the Council Fathers was the belief, which Francis shares, that the power of God is not a relic from the past but continues to live on in his Church. From the first few hours of his election, Francis has been clear about the Church of the future that he is urging the people of God to help him build: a Church of mercy, compassion, dialogue and of reconciliation. A Church of the poor, willing to roll up its sleeves to serve refugees, the homeless and anyone on the margins of society.

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  1. [For some the speed and fervor of the Bergoglian revolution is not enough; thus, their equivalent of party whips and political commissars must go into action]


    The Francis papacy

    The London Tablet Editor
    27 September 2017

    Why has there not been more progress in taking up the priorities which Pope Francis has defined for his papacy? Since his election in March 2013 Francis has published four major documents that together clearly map out his programme. The apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is a vibrant, inspiring call to create a Church that is of and for the poor; the encyclical Laudato Si’ spells out a moving and beautiful theology of the environment; and his second exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, addresses issues in sexuality, marriage and family life with freshness, realism and compassion. There has also been the bull Misericordiae Vultus, which initiated the Year of Mercy, reinforcing “mercy” as the theological hallmark of this extraordinary papacy.

    Yet how much of this has filtered down to the parishes? Attention has too often focused on a number of controversies triggered by some of his words and deeds. The latest attempt to undermine his authority comes in the form of a “filial correction” published by 62 theologians who not only accuse Pope Francis of spreading heresy, but wag their fingers at him as if he were an errant schoolboy. “Most Holy Father”, they declare, “the Petrine ministry has not been entrusted to you that you might impose strange doctrines on the faithful, but so that you may, as a faithful steward, guard the deposit against the day of the Lord’s return …” The organisers apparently had difficulty collecting more than 62 signatures; not one diocesan bishop was prepared to join them.

    The alleged heresies concern Pope Francis’ endorsement of the commonplace pastoral practice that, in certain cases, Catholics who have divorced and remarried and not had their first marriage annulled might be encouraged, after due discernment and in consultation with their pastors, to receive Holy Communion. The signatories do not doubt that this is what Francis intends to be understood by readers of Amoris Laetitia, even though some conservative Catholics – who can therefore take no comfort from the 62 – maintained that this could not be what he means. The controversy around a handful of passages in Amoris Laetitia can only distract from the many profound teachings that the Pope has proposed, not only in his key documents but in the way he speaks and acts. There are those only too happy to be distracted because they do not like his overall message. They are the stony ground on which these seeds of faith have fallen.

    Pope Francis has clearly decided that certain neglected teachings of the Second Vatican Council need to be presented anew. Two of those are collegiality and subsidiarity, which means giving bishops and lay people much more freedom for initiatives favouring the Gospel. He has also made clear what those initiatives might be. There has been a wonderful sense of relief in parts of the Church. But the response, among cardinals, bishops, religious and lay people, has been, for the most part, lacklustre. At its grass roots the Catholic Church in 2017 is much as it was in 2007, or even in 1997. John Henry Newman said “To live is to change … and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Why is change not happening?

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