The seventh anniversary of Pope Francis (March 13) falls at a time when the pontificate’s agenda has run into difficulty on two key issues – synodality and curial reform. The first appears to have turned in on itself, the second disintegrated into something of a shambles.
Soon after his election Pope Francis put the Synod of Bishops at the heart of his programme. He announced not one, but two, synods on the family to be held in 2014 and 2015. The purpose of the synods would be to relax the Church’s discipline regarding Holy Communion for the civilly divorced and remarried. Cardinal Walter Kasper explained as much in February 2014. Two years later came the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.
But the family synods did not bring consensus as much as division and confusion. Two more synods followed, on youth in 2018 and the Amazon in 2019. But even this last, carefully prepared with only a select group of regional bishops, did not bring concord to the Church but a global controversy.
When Querida Amazonia was released last month, the synodal aftermath resembled that of four years ago. Then conservatives were destabilised by Amoris Laetitia; the same was true of progressives this time.
The upshot is that four synods in less than six years have brought the opposite of what was intended. The more Pope Francis spoke of making room for the Holy Spirit, the more bureaucratic manipulation came to the fore. The more the Holy Father insisted that the synod was not a parliament, the more factions developed. This pontificate stressed going out to the peripheries; the synods drew vast amounts of energy to intra-ecclesial disputes.
So when it was announced on March 7 that the next synod in 2022 would be on “synodality” itself, there was a sense of a once bold idea now exhausted. The synods have not been a spur to evangelical activity looking outward, but rather occasions of internally fixated discord. Now a synod on synodality itself threatens to lock the entire Church in the sacristy discussing how to order internal affairs.
The other great initiative of the pontificate – curial reform – marks its seventh anniversary next month, dating from the creation of the Council of Cardinals. The major project of this council has been a new constitution for the Roman Curia. After six years a draft, entitled Praedicate Evangelium, was sent to bishops for consultation last spring, with an expected publication date of June 2019.
The reviews were widely negative.
A closed-door meeting of apostolic nuncios in Rome last June eviscerated the document. Bishops from around the world sent in multitudes of criticisms and amendments. The whole document was sent back for revisions and remains delayed indefinitely.
Reform became ridiculous last week. The Vatican announced on Friday a new “General Directorate for Personnel” within the Secretariat of State, a sort of centralised human resources executive. The new office was described as of “great importance in the path of reform initiated by Pope Francis”.
The very next day it was announced that the important new office wasn’t so important after all; in fact, it wasn’t even a new office at all.
“To be precise… [the office] is a proposal advanced to the Holy Father by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, President of the Council for the Economy, and Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, President of the Council of Cardinals, to institute such a structure,” the retracting statement said.
“The Holy Father will study the proposal, and, if he thinks it’s opportune, at the right time he’ll institute the structure in the way he decides with a motu proprio.”
The outward-looking, evangelising curial reform has now reached a point where bureaucratic infighting means that an announcement of a major reform today is downgraded to a mere proposal tomorrow.
Respected Vatican commentator John Allen wrote that the shambolic “flip-flop” statement could have been expressed more succinctly: “Right now we’re in disarray, rife with power struggles, and one of the things we’re fighting over is control of human resources.”
And so the Holy Father’s seventh anniversary falls amid an embarrassingly public conflict in the heart of the Curia, with a supposed reform of “great importance” strangled in the cradle, and the rest of the reform agenda increasingly looking like an orphan.
After the synod on synod-holding, perhaps the next will be on the Curia itself?