Searching for a 'Francis Effect' at the Synod on the Family

Within months of the moment that Jorge Bergoglio stepped out onto the balcony as pope, people began talking about the “Francis Effect,” that is, the positive influence his approach was having on both general morale within the Catholic Church and particular things like vocation numbers or attendance at Mass.

The pope’s effect on spirits has been undeniable—and not just within the church. Indeed, far more than most any of his predecessors, Pope Francis has been embraced by people and faiths around the world as “their pope” for his message of mercy and concern for the poorest and most marginalized of humanity.

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But I’d be very surprised to learn that there are now more Americans going to church on a Sunday. (In fact, a recent Pew study suggests exactly the opposite.) Because while we may have had this new inspiring leader for the last two plus years, a lot of other things remain the same. Administratively the church is largely a trickle down organization, changes in direction at the top making their way unevenly down to we in the pews, depending on the reactions of local bishops, pastors and others.  

In large part, that’s the fundamental question American Catholics, and I suspect others, have as the Synod on the Family draws to an end—not, “What will the Synod fathers say on issue X or issue Y?”—though that’s obviously important; nor, “Which Cardinals raised a fuss?”—a drama that has captivated elements of the media and some professional Catholics for the last week, and few others; but, “Will the church show the kind of understanding and pastoral respect for the experiences of its members that the pope has?” Is church leadership at a point where it is able to bring its ideas into conversation with the material of people’s actual lives, or will it remain largely detached and seem out of touch?

In point of fact, on many issues that the synod has been discussing, American Catholics have more or less already made up their minds: contraception and remarriage are fine; divorce is something painful that we should help people through, not something we should condemn them for; and a civil form of gay marriage is not a big deal—a position that seems more and more universal among younger people, if still debated among those who are older. 

That’s not to say the church shouldn’t offer its own perspectives and challenges. What is the synod if not a moment for the church to offer meaningful theological reflection on issues like love, family, sin and sexuality, and to push Catholics of different cultures to see beyond their own set of assumptions and experiences and appreciate the variety of practices and expectations in our world?

But at this particular moment in the life of our church, especially after all the effort that has been put into consulting with ordinary Catholics, I suspect what most of us in the pews are wondering is less, “What’s the Church’s vision of humanity or human sexuality today?” than, “Did they listen? Do they ‘get it’”?

Is the common sense, pastoral mercy approach of the pope shared more broadly among the hierarchy, or is it mostly just him? When we talk about a ‘Francis Effect’ how far down does that actually extend?

Put another way, when the synod fathers contemplate these important pastoral issues, what place have they made for the question, “Who am I to judge?”

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Carlo Lancellotti
2 years 1 month ago
“Who am I to judge?” Judge no. Teach yes. If your implication is that the bishops should model Catholic teaching on the decadent mores of the rich and moribund West, I find it ridiculous. And if you imply that their pastoral approach should be completely separated from what their faith tells them about the human condition (including sexuality), that's ridiculous too.
Anne Chapman
2 years 1 month ago
far more than most any of his predecessors, Pope Francis has been embraced by people and faiths around the world as “their pope” for his message of mercy and concern for the poorest and most marginalized of humanity.....But I’d be very surprised to learn that there are now more Americans going to church on a Sunday. (In fact, a recent Pew study suggests exactly the opposite.) Because while we may have had this new inspiring leader for the last two plus years, a lot of other things remain the same. Administratively the church is largely a trickle down organization, changes in direction at the top making their way unevenly down to we in the pews, depending on the reactions of local bishops, pastors and others. As a person, as a spiritual leader, Francis is indeed embraced by many - those of many religions, those with no formal religion, and including many no longer active Catholics. But, as you note, that does not mean more people are going to mass, joining or returning to the Catholic church. You have noted that most American Catholics, most Catholics in developed countries really, have made up their own minds about matters such as contraception, divorce-remarriage and communion, gay relationships and communion, etc, and they either stay or go, but if they stay, they stay on their own terms, not the terms the bishops have laid out. But the one thing we cannot do, just by following our own consciences, is choose women to be our priests, or our bishops, or our popes. The absence of feminine insights and understandings, the absence of "feminine genius" in the ranks of the ordained means that the governance of the church and the definition of doctrine reflect only the male mind, and only the minds of celibate males at that, who don't even have wives or daughters to teach them. This has hurt the church, this has hurt real people and families, and will continue to do so. Changing the tone does little good unless there are changes in substance also. Until people see some real change in doctrines, governance etc, few will wish to join or return to the Catholic church if they have left it, even though Francis has done his best to change the tone, change the perceptions of the church as a harsh, rigid, judgmental, authoritarian, cold institution to one that reflects Jesus and the gospels. He himself reflects the goodness of Jesus and the gospels, but, at least based on this Synod and on the public pronouncements and actions of American bishops, there are too few bishops who do, not nearly enough to change what needs to be changed.
Wayne Miller
2 years 1 month ago
It would be nice to have a Pope that upholds Church teaching rather than impose his own will on the Church.

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