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Is this Pope Francis’s ‘Paul VI moment’?

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After 'Querida Amazonia', liberal activists are starting to realize that Francis may not give them all they want

After months of agitation around the Amazonian Synod, the Holy Father’s post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia was received with relief by many. 

Pope Francis simply ignored the radical reforms demanded by rich, bourgeois liberals in Germany. 

They funded much of the Amazonian synod, and they wanted results. They wanted exceptions to compulsory priestly celibacy — the Pope gave them none. They wanted the door at least opened to the possibility of female deacons — the Pope told them not to clericalize women. After months of synodal and curial intrigue around the so-called viri probati — the Pope said we need holiness and evangelization instead to bring the Eucharist to the Amazonian peoples.

As one liberal commentator on curial affairs put it, “people are starting to adjust expectations.” There has been a kind of slow-burn realization among agitators that Pope Francis is not the bridge to their shag-carpeted dreams. 

The bizarre and irrational attacks last month on Cardinal Sarah and Benedict’s co-authored book on priestly celibacy now make more sense. When furious critics and behind-the-scenes courtiers insisted that Benedict had not co-authored the book on priestly celibacy, they were also signalling their profound frustration that even with every office of curial power available to them, they still were running up against roadblocks like these. Having just made their boldest play in history for dismantling priestly celibacy, they were frustrated that the best episcopal minds in the Church were making the case for its utter necessity. But what, in retrospect, must have truly frustrated them is that the current Pope seemed increasingly to incline to his predecessor’s view than to the synodal campaign. 

The German response to Querida Amazonia exhibited the same anxieties which preceded it. Thomas Sternberg, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) — a lay group which advocates for the blessing of same-sex marriage in the Church and which enjoys influence and authority in the national bishops’ conference — expressed his disappointment that Pope Francis “did not find the courage to implement real reforms in the questions of the ordination of married men and the liturgical skills of women, which have been discussed for 50 years.” 

“Fifty years!” The disappointment was palpable. President Sternberg wrote: “Our expectations regarding specific steps towards reform, especially with regard to access to the priestly office and the role of women, were very high. We very much regret that Pope Francis did not take a step forward in his letter.” The ZdK president spoke of the Holy Father’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation as if he were paying a bill for a product he never ordered. 

Some in Germany have been asking impossible things of Rome since at least the sixteenth century, but now, with their outsized wealth and influence, they apparently must make it known to the Successor of Saint Peter that they are “very disappointed in him.” If it were not for their extreme arrogance, impiety, and presumption, one might almost feel sorry at their deflation. 

Alongside Sternberg’s honest disappointment came Cardinal Marx’s “expectation adjustment.” In his statement as president of the German bishops’ conference, Marx said with equally sharp hauteur: “Anyone who expected concrete decisions and instructions for action with the post-synodal letter from Pope Francis will not find them.” 

Despite the fact that the Holy Father chose not to give papal approval to the final synod document, nor cite it at all in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Cardinal Marx seemed unwilling to acknowledge that the Pope had not embraced the aims which he had funded, and so forcefully pressed in Rome. 

The fact that a majority of synod fathers had supported exceptions to compulsory priestly celibacy is relatively meaningless if the Pope does not carry this up into the magisterium. Pope Francis never even once uses the word “celibacy” in Querida Amazonia, and yet the view from Munich is that the fifty-year-fight goes on. Since Cardinal Marx announced that he is stepping down as president of the bishops’ conference, the exact nature of his fight remains to be seen. One thing seems sure, though — those pushing for change will not let the work of a lifetime be unravelled by Rome. 

Which brings us back to Pope Francis and what has been the closest thing to his Paul VI moment yet. When theologians and other experts were advocating in the 1960s that the Church should approve “the pill,” it was almost expected as a foregone conclusion that Pope Paul VI supported the change. He was, after all, encouraging an open discussion in the Church about contraception. He set up not a synod but a commission, and he took every argument seriously. He listened like a pope, like a pastor. But many thought that he was listening in order to carry out some “consensus,” or majority opinion. They were sorely disappointed. Good popes don’t listen to follow, they listen in order to lead the Church in truth and fidelity to Jesus Christ. Paul VI listened, and gathered everyone’s voice, but then he spoke Humanae Vitae with the Church’s one voice, and it shook the world. 

Now Querida Amazonia is not Humanae Vitae. That is not my point. By saying that Querida Amazonia is the closest thing to a Paul VI moment yet, I only mean that it is a moment in the pontificate of Francis in which you can hear a certain “click”— both in those relieved and those disappointed — the “click” of false expectations adjusting. It’s a moment to trust that the Holy Spirit never disappoints.