One year on, Pope Francis is focusing on changing structures of church governance
‘He will not bring about any dramatic changes in church teaching’
‘Can Pope Francis bring about the “collegiality” promised by the Second Vatican Council?’ Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
When Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, which came out last November, talked about how “the church has to accept the unruly freedom of the Word”, I knew that in all probability we were in a new era for the Catholic Church.
In the founding story of Christianity that we find in the New Testament, we are told that the close followers of Jesus were timid and frightened after he had left them. Then they experienced Pentecost and that turned them into people of courage, strength and considerable wisdom. I believe that something similar happened in the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope.
For those of us who long for reform in the church, that group of old, conservative men who went into the conclave just over a year ago gave no promise of change. When we heard a name unfamiliar to most of us, our first quick background check was not particularly promising.
We heard allegations of authoritarianism and failure to support colleagues who had fallen foul of the junta in Argentina. But something happened to him that evening. He recounts himself that he went from initial feelings of panic to a sense of calm and peace. He came out on the balcony as a man who was on a mission, who had a clear vision and the strength to tackle the task. Nothing that has happened in the past year has changed that impression.
He will not bring about any dramatic changes in church teaching. In that I think he is correct. We realise now that the big failure of the Second Vatican Council was that, though the bishops produced documents with a blueprint for change, they left the power structure untouched. Quickly the power structures and the attendant vested interests reasserted themselves and stymied larger reform.
Francis, who I believe is politically astute, seems to be focusing on changing the structures of governance, on decentralising decision-making, and on giving a voice to the people who have been excluded from the conversation for some time. If he can achieve results in these areas, then it is possible that the necessary changes – for instance in the areas of ministry and of church teaching regarding relationships and sexuality – will come gradually. That may be the wiser course of action.
Can he bring about that “collegiality” promised by the Second Vatican Council? He could call another council, but time and age may be against him on that one. He could attempt to redefine the role of national Episcopal Conferences, and give them real authority for decision-making at local level. (The Irish conference of bishops shows little sign of the type of coherence that would be necessary to perform such a function.)
It is more likely that he will seek to develop the Synod of Bishops. He has called a Synod on the Family for later this year.
During the last two pontificates, bishops’ synods were toothless, their discussions were private and the report was written by the pope. Pope Francis’s handling of this synod will tell us a lot about his real commitment to reform.
If the Synod on the Family is confined to cardinals and bishops, and does not allow married people, especially women – and particularly women who question current church teaching – to be centrally involved, then we will know that the hope of real reform is probably illusory. But I am confident that will not happen.
The fact that he sent out a questionnaire seeking people’s opinions on the matters to be discussed at the synod is itself a very positive pointer.
His task of church reform is strewn with difficulties. The traditionalist groups are very strong, both in the Vatican and around the world, and they have great influence and wealth. Recently, some victims groups have been unhappy with his statements on clerical sexual abuse.
How can he reconcile the enormous disconnect between the official church and the people on issues such as contraception, when he says he regards Pope Paul VI as a “genius” for his encyclical Humanae Vitae ?
It is early days. The first year has been promising. But this time next year we will know a lot more. I am very hopeful.
Fr Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest