Rompere gli schemi: it’s an Italian expression that means something between “to break the mould” and “to upset the balance”. It’s what Pope Francis has done, again, with his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia.
Lots of ink has been spilled since its publication last week in efforts to figure out whether Francis has merely temporised on the question of priestly celibacy, or definitively “closed the door” on further relaxation of the long-standing discipline in the West. More broadly, people have wondered whether he has given the German bishops who managed and bankrolled last October’s Amazon synod the two-fingered salute or merely the cold shoulder. They’ve wondered whether this is a pause in the revolution, or an announcement that the revolution has been cancelled.
The document itself is what Pope Francis says it is: “[A] framework for reflection that can apply concretely to the life of the Amazon region a synthesis of some of the larger concerns that I have expressed in earlier documents, and that can help guide us to a harmonious, creative and fruitful reception of the entire synodal process.”
How the document is being discussed is another matter.
In a column at mondayvatican.com, veteran Vaticanologist Andrea Gagliarducci described it as “Humanae Vitae 2.0” – and that’s not a bad comparison, not at all. He also noted that Pope Francis’s every decision has been touted and hailed as the start of an ecclesiastical revolution. “This revolution,” he wrote, “never took place.”
Sic et non.
Paul VI came into the Petrine see at a time of great upheaval. He had not unleashed the forces in play when he came into the papal office – neither those militating in favour of reform or those resisting it. Francis, on the other hand, certainly readied the ship to catch the revolutionary wind.
In 1968, Paul VI affirmed a constant teaching rooted in reason. In 2020, Pope Francis vociferously demurred on a disciplinary question, the raising of which he himself had allowed.
We are told that he complained to a group of US bishops to the effect that Querida Amazonia wasn’t about celibacy (he’s not wrong) and that he was frustrated by the focus on the question. “You could see [Francis’s] consternation,” Bishop William Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee told the Catholic News Service on the sidelines of his ad limina visit last week, “when he said that for some people it was all about celibacy and not about the Amazon.”
Auxiliary Bishop Joel Konzen of Atlanta told CNS that years can go into producing documents, after which the news media focus is on “one line”, or the sum of the business reduced to the idea that “the Pope didn’t have the courage to change the rules of the Church”.
Whether Francis is the great hero, standing athwart history and shouting “Stop!” or the erstwhile revolutionary with cold feet (in reality, he is neither), he shouldn’t be surprised at the attention the question garnered, or the criticism he has faced. That’s what happens when you raise the gale and refuse to come out of port.
So how will Francis rule the Church in the time he has left? Paul VI continued in office for eight years after Humanae Vitae, but made few major decisions (though he did promulgate a new Missal and suppress the minor orders and the order of subdeacon). He wrote no more encyclicals, and seemed not to be particularly at pains to see that Catholic teachers toed the line he drew in Humanae vitae.
He reigned, but he did not rule.
We’ll see whether Francis will take a similar tack. On the one hand, he still has several irons on the fire: the reform of the Roman Curia awaits not only promulgation but implementation, to name just one. On the other, we’ve often heard that Francis likes to start processes. He might well promulgate the curial reform law, declare victory, and sit back.
The fact is, however, that Francis is not Paul VI, any more than he is Benedict XVI, John Paul II or John XXIII. Francis is very much his own man. He keeps his own counsel, for good and for ill, and he appears to believe deeply – another key insight of Gagliarducci’s column – that the head man shapes the institution. “The Church in Argentina and Argentinian theology have never been anti-Roman,” Gagliarducci writes. “They have instead been anti-institutional,” he says, “and so is Pope Francis.”
What that means for the institutional reforms with which his electors entrusted him right from the start remains unclear. One thing is certain, though: we have entered a new phase of this pontificate.
It is highly likely that observers will henceforth be paying less attention to what Francis says in this phase, and more to the way he actually governs the Universal Church.
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