How will Pope Francis reconcile process and power in his conclusions from the Synod on the Family?

Pope Francis blesses a baby during a visit to a Caritas center for the homeless near the Termini rail station in Rome Dec. 18. The pope opened a Door of Mercy at the center. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

In the coming days Pope Francis is expected to announce his conclusions from the Synod on the Family—in particular, regarding the status of remarried Catholics. The pre-game commentary has tended to emphasize the question of whether the pope will side with the church's so-called liberals (and expand the rules for the sake of inclusivity) or the so-called conservatives (and reaffirm the rules as they have been).

I suspect, however, that in his own mind, the question is taking a somewhat different form: a choice between process and power, or even between time and space.


In my latest print column for America, I discussed the U.S. presidential debates in light of a maxim that Francis has used to guide his political life for more than 40 years, and which he shared in his exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel": Time is greater than space. In that document he writes:

Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back. Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. Time governs spaces, illumines them and makes them links in a constantly expanding chain, with no possibility of return. What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity (No. 223).

Part of what Francis most hoped to achieve with the Synod on the Family was a reform in process, not just a particular outcome; he wanted to foster a more collegial approach to church governance, one in which his fellow bishops would have more opportunities for participation. Another ambition, surely, was to practice the principle of mercy that is the focus of the present jubilee year; he has given strong indications that, to his mind, using his power on behalf of mercy entails a more inclusive pastoral approach to church teachings on the family. Yet the tumult of the synod process has indicated that many bishops do not share his view.

Process (as shared governance) and power (to practice mercy) seem in conflict; so, too, are his understandings of time and space.

Regardless of how Francis decides to act, I bet it will be worthwhile to interpret his decision as one about more than just a choice between “liberal” or “conservative” factions. This will be a chance to see how Francis holds his own guiding principles in balance.

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William Rydberg
3 years 8 months ago
With the exception of policy wonks, IMHO almost nobody is interested in additional Synodal processes, they want to know what the decision will be.... There are about 5,000 active Bishops worldwide, barely enough to fill a Section at one of the NCAA College Football "Domes". To contrast, there are about 225,000 Comissioned Officers in the USA Military alone... All that hundreds of Synods will do is provide steady work for Church bureaucrats. And University Professors perhaps? I find it interesting that the mega-rich German Church is the strongest proponent. I think they may have invented modern Church bureaucracy. It's certainly no secret that American Catholic's like their bureaucracy, might it be a coincidence that the largest segment of American Catholic's are ethnically Germans? Just a thought, because Germans have a reputation for process... :) Gott segne unser Papst Just my opinion, in Christ,
Nathan Schneider
3 years 8 months ago

To understand the roots of Francis' collegial impulses, look no further than his own biography and experience as a Latin American bishop. He and his fellow bishops experienced considerable stifling under John Paul II, and it is from that experience in the Global South—not in Germany—that his call for the synod arose. Note, also, that among the most active and conservative voices in the Synod on the Family were those of the African bishops; while many of them may have disagreed with the pope's favored positions, I suspect he was glad to see the process elevate their voices more than is usually the case.

William Rydberg
3 years 8 months ago
I disagree, the Germans were the ones driving the Synod push. Their fingerprints were all over the Issue from the beginning. And it's no secret that their Wallet and enormous German Church Bureaucracy gets them a hearing in worldwide Catholic circles. There are a lot of "Professor Doctors" pushing for increased bureaucracy in the Church and German Catholic Academia. The sad consequence is that the German Church is choking on its own money, and is dying in Germany. If you have the time, look into to Pope Francis remarks at the time of the latest ad lumina. He talks about "perfect systems" designed but not working. Interesting stuff, IMHO. Interesting statistic-40% of all Germans are either atheist or classified as "irreligious" as of 2007... in Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity


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