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.