First real tests of Pope Francis to begin tomorrow

Emphasis on Church’s dogmatic teaching means change in rules inconceivable

Two forthcoming events will be the first real tests of what Pope Francis proposes to do in order to renew and reform the Catholic Church. The first of them is the opening session of the Council of Cardinal Advisers, the new group of nine Cardinals he hand-picked from six continents soon after his election.

Their role is to advise him in general and, specifically, to consider what changes should be made to the operations of the Roman Curia. This begins tomorrow and continues until Friday.

Pope Francis is known to be critical of the authoritarianism and over-centralisation of the Roman Curia. Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, quotes him as wanting "no cosmetic changes or minor modifications to the existing system".

Less emphatically, the cardinals have said their intention is “to emphasise the nature of the service on the part of the curia and the universal and local church in terms of subsidiarity, rather than the exercise of centralised power”.


Subsidiarity means that decisions should be taken by the lowest competent body. The Second Vatican Council used it to insist that the world's bishops should be able to decide on matters the Roman Curia was reserving to itself.

A decision by the Cardinals to advise the pope to restrict the Curia’s jurisdiction would be widely regarded as the solution to one of the Church’s fundamental problems.

The second meeting, which begins on Sunday next and continues until October 14th, is an extraordinary general session of the Synod of Bishops, the advisory body Pope Paul VI created to meet the subsidiarity issue.

The purpose is to deal with what it rather ponderously calls the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation.

Its work, spread over the next three years, is to develop answers to moral questions affecting the family. These include such matters as contraception, abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, sex abuse, same sex marriage and whether divorced people should be permitted to receive Communion while a spouse is still alive.

The pope ordered the distribution as widely as possible of a questionnaire designed to establish how far ordinary Catholics understood and observed Catholic teaching on these issues.

The majority reaction from the world's Catholics was that the Church's teaching on these subjects showed, as Archbishop Martin of Dublin put it, that it was "little understood and (was) disconnected from real-life experience of families – and not by just younger people."

This disconnection can be traced back to 1968, the year Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae. To the surprise of most Catholics, this rejected the judgment of the Papal Commission on Birth Control that there is no justification in natural law for banning all contraception.

Since then the Church’s teachings on many aspects of morality are being widely ignored. This does not mean that they are considered wrong but that they do not seem to make sense in the modern world.

The obvious corollary of this is what must be concerning the pope. The longer the Church is unable to address these moral issues in a way the ordinary Catholic understands and accepts, the quicker will be the drift from the Church and the higher the numbers of drifters.

How the Church proposes to close this gap is what will occupy the synod for the next three years. Whether a gathering of 125 celibate bishops is the best forum for determining some of the most intimate problems of ordinary men and women is dubious.

Given the pope’s repeated emphasis on the Church’s dogmatic teaching, a change in the rules is inconceivable. This is why he is using the synod for two related purposes. One is to develop the way today’s Catholics can be helped to understand the ethical implications in developments such as IVF, stem cell research, abortion, surrogate mothering, euthanasia, assisted suicide and similar matters.

The other is to launch an evangelical crusade to equip them to face the uncertainties these developments present and to live the sort of life that the Church thinks they should live.

So far, the Church seems to be on the losing side on both counts. How to change things round is the challenge facing Pope Francis.

Desmond Fisher covered the Second Vatican Council for the London Catholic Herald, which he edited from 1962 to 1966.