News Analysis

Pope Francis has the tools to reduce tensions. Will he use them?

If there were a way to convey in a single sentence what is needed amid all the talk of schism, it would be, “Everybody calm down: Things aren’t as bad as they seem; they’re worse.”

Since Pope Francis dropped the “S-word” in response to a question from the New York Times in early September, there has been a lot of ink spilt over who the “real” schismatics are, and from what quarter a genuine threat of schism comes. The main candidates are, on the one hand, a group of mostly American malcontents said to be well-funded and organised; and, on the other, the undoubtedly well-funded and highly organised German bishops.

The former don’t like Pope Francis much. They don’t read the Pope very carefully – even when they read him closely – but they’ve been effective in stirring up animus against him in quarters not terribly well informed and generally ill-disposed to the reigning Pontiff and what they perceive to be his programme for the Church. Pope Francis hasn’t helped himself with them, and has driven many people who were well disposed to him (or at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt) over the edge.

The German bishops (or at least the majority of them) have a detailed and highly developed agenda, significant parts of which fly in the face of Pope Francis’s vision of “synodal” governance. Their plans are published, their organisation highly institutional and their determination adamant: the German bishops are staying the course they’ve charted for their “binding synodal path”, despite warning shots from Rome.

All the worst that’s been said and written about the US-led anti-Francis machinations could be true, and the “movement” would still be doomed to failure from the start, for it lacks both effective leadership and institutional support.

The US bishops are behind Pope Francis. Their motives are not uniform: some are doubtless true believers in his leadership, while others have a sense of institutional loyalty, and others don’t know what else to do. Corporately, the US bishops seem to have recognised that they can more plausibly let Pope Francis take the blame for their own troubles at home – for their failure to deal with the crisis now threatening the Church in the US with institutional collapse – if they act as if they really believe he is the only one who can do anything about the mess.

Francis, meanwhile, has the tools with which to govern but is manifestly shy about using them. The reason for that reticence remains largely a mystery. He has not disclosed his mind to the faithful in these regards. Meanwhile, there is a lot of waiting and guessing.

Pope Francis has also said some things that in effect buttressed the “schism” narrative. The schism business has been around for a while, but it really kicked off when Francis, on his way to Africa, accepted the gift of a book by La Croix’s Nicolas Senèze, purporting to detail the doings of a group of reactionary agitators in the US. Maybe the book has the goods, and maybe it doesn’t – this Vatican-watcher has only read excerpts – but Pope Francis gave the volume a pretty hefty endorsement, calling it “a bomb” (even though he hadn’t actually read it).

Meeting Jesuits in Mozambique last month, Francis also praised two essays in La Civiltà Cattolica by Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ and the Rev Marcelo Figueroa, one of which was titled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: a Surprising Ecumenism”. Spadaro and Figueroa described the Catholic-Evangelical alliance in the US as an “ecumenism of hate”. The essay was broadly panned. Even the US Jesuit publication America and the usually supportive magazine Commonweal were critical.

There was some question regarding whether – and if so, to what extent – the essay represented the mind of Pope Francis. The Secretariat of State vets La Civiltà Cattolica, in which the piece appeared, and Fr Spadaro has the Pope’s ear. But folks wondered whether maybe the essay hadn’t just sort of slipped through the cracks. Now we know that it hadn’t.

Meanwhile, it’s full steam ahead for the German bishops, who have strained relations with Rome over their “binding synodal path”, which the Vatican considers to be ecclesiologically unsound and canonically out of bounds. High Roman officials are piqued by the Germans’ behaviour, especially that of their leader, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who is said to have told the Central Committee of German Catholics – the main lay organisation, which has been seeking a direct role in Church governance for decades – that the “path” is a “synod” and that it is “binding”.

Cardinal Marx has also reportedly told senior prelates in the Roman Curia that the “binding synodal path” is non-binding, sui generis and nothing to be exercised about.

So the question remains: will Pope Francis govern the Church?