How Pope Francis is changing the Catholic Church
This is a feature in the special commemorative issue of America celebrating Pope Francis and his five groundbreaking years. Purchase a copy of Pope Francis: Five Groundbreaking Years here.
Taking a few steps is something most people take for granted. It is a fairly easy process at first thought, just one leg in front of the other. But the physical mechanics of beginning a journey are far more complex. Dozens of muscles must expand as others simultaneously contract, creating various tensions in the body that propel us forward. Though often viewed as something to be massaged away, tension is in fact a sign that we are alive.
If the church functions like a human body, as St. Paul claims, then it follows that within it there must be tensions.
Since the first days of his pontificate in 2013, Pope Francis has dealt with more than his fair share of tension in the church he was elected to govern. Those tensions have become more pronounced in recent months, as Francis tries to extend the center of global Catholicism away from Rome to the peripheries and implement reforms that his supporters say are long overdue.
Whereas popes of the distant past wielded temporal power as effectively as any king, Pope Francis’ most potent tool is his example. The men he has appointed to be cardinals and bishops serve as models of the kinds of pastors he thinks the church needs. His many interviews and press conferences demonstrate his insistence that church leaders must connect with everyday Catholics. And his decision to bring out into the open once taboo topics shows that he wants the church to confront its challenges rather than continue to ignore them out of a mistaken, simplistic notion of unity.
The pope has invited his flock to walk alongside him as he seeks to reinvigorate the church. Taking the initial steps of what promises to be a long trek means tensions in the church are sure not to let up anytime soon. But Francis is unafraid, those close to him say, trusting that God is guiding him and all the faithful on this journey.
ON A CHILLY November morning, 17 men draped in brilliant red robes stood before the imposing altar inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Together, they pledged to be “constantly obedient to the Holy Apostolic Roman Church, to Blessed Peter in the person of the Supreme Pontiff.”
Each man approached Pope Francis to receive a red hat, a ring and a blessing. They exchanged a ritual kiss with the pope and returned to their seats, now part of the most exclusive and powerful body in the Catholic Church. The new cardinals then took time to greet scores of other cardinals who had witnessed the ceremony from nearby. The ritual is designed to send an unmistakable message: Under Peter we are all one.
But days before the ceremony, four cardinals made clear that church unity was, under Francis, elusive. These men, two of whom are in their 80s and no longer in active ministry or eligible to vote for the next pope, had written a letter to Pope Francis in September that read like a Gospel passage.
Teacher, they seemed to ask, if a man divorces his wife and the woman marries again, raises a family and continues to practice her faith, should she be welcomed to Communion, as you seem to suggest in your pastoral letter “Amoris Laetitia,” or should we follow the rules set forward by your predecessor, St. John Paul II, which would prevent her from participating in the sacrament?
The letter, called a dubia, contains five yes-or-no questions. It was written to call into question ideas Pope Francis promulgated following a two-year consultative process with bishops from around the world that ended in October 2015. The pope did not respond directly to the cardinals, which has bothered some church traditionalists, but he has not exactly ignored their concerns either. In a homily a few weeks before the consistory—the ceremony in which new cardinals are created—the pope lamented the rigidity of some churchmen, which many have interpreted as a not-so-subtle jab at those criticizing his reforms.
“Let’s pray for our brothers and sisters who think that by becoming rigid they are following the path of the Lord,” Francis preached. “May the Lord make them feel that he is our Father and that he loves mercy, tenderness, goodness, meekness, humility. And may he teach us all to walk in the path of the Lord with these attitudes.”
The prayer was Vatican-speak for, “Bless your heart,” a phrase uttered with a smile by many Southerners when confronted during a tense encounter.
Then, speaking three days before Christmas to the Roman curia, Francis again made his case for reform, calling it “first and foremost a sign of life, of a church that advances on her pilgrim way.” And he brushed off the criticism, noting that the “absence of reaction is a sign of death!”
Nearly four years into his pontificate and just after his 80th birthday in December, Francis continues to use a blend of consultative deliberations, confident decision-making and appeals directly to the Catholic faithful to drive his agenda. There are hints today that he may yet fail at reforming the church—insiders and traditionalists are emboldened because of efforts like the dubia—but Francis appears as determined as ever to move the church forward.
SYNODALITY, widespread consultation with the greatest number of people from the far reaches of the church, is key to understanding how Francis governs.
Pope Paul VI established the synod of bishops in 1965, an institution designed to continue the collaborative ethos among church leaders that emerged during the Second Vatican Council, one that harkened back to the earliest days of the church. But by the 1980s synods had become stultifying and routine, with little real work or dialogue breaking through the Vatican’s infamously rigid bureaucracy.
The mood inside the synod hall began to loosen up a bit in the mid-2000s, thanks in part to Pope Benedict XVI, who introduced happy hours after the dry plenary sessions had wrapped up. Bishops began to open up with one another over a drink.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the newly named archbishop of Newark who worked in the Vatican for several years under Pope Benedict XVI, said that previous synods often failed to live up to their stated goal of fostering dialogue. Cardinal Tobin, who was recently given a red hat by Francis, participated in three synods under St. John Paul II and two under his successor.
“It was a very clear process that didn’t allow for real reflection or questioning,” he told America during an interview at the motherhouse of the Redemptorist order in Rome. “Instead, and this is probably exaggerated language, people were frog-marched to a conclusion.”
Pope Francis announced less than a year after his election that he would convene a special synod of bishops. Bishops would discuss family life, and nothing was off the table. The following October, in 2014, close to 200 bishops from around the world descended on Rome for the first part of the synod. They were tasked with crafting ideas to strengthen families, and that is what they spent most of their time considering.
But they also talked about the pain experienced by divorced and remarried Catholics who feel cut off from parish life. They considered how gay and lesbian Catholics and their families sometimes feel judged and ashamed. And they reflected on the complexities young couples face when discerning when to marry and how many children to have—all with the pope’s encouragement.
It was not business as usual.
Though most cardinals put on a face of unity when talking to the media circus, they could not conceal the tensions developing inside the synod hall. A draft document of the synod’s deliberations, which contained some of the most astoundingly positive language about gay people ever to come from inside the walls of the Vatican, was leaked to the press in order to undermine the deliberations, and the notion that divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion became a dividing line between reformers and traditionalists.
The synod concluded without clear consensus on the most sensitive topics and the pope asked the participants to return home and thoughtfully consider what had transpired. Another round of deliberations would take place in one year. To avoid shutting down the dialogue, Francis refrained from tipping his hand.
When the delegates returned, tensions remained high. At the start of the meeting, 13 cardinals signed a letter addressed to the pope suggesting that his synod was designed to lead to a predetermined conclusion rather than foster open dialogue. Some bishops felt that the proceedings had gone off track.
“About halfway through, I thought the synod was a complete and utter mess,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of the Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia, and a synod delegate, told America in a recent interview. “I couldn’t see where it was going or how it would get there.”
Archbishop Coleridge, who had worked in the Vatican’s secretary of state’s office under St. John Paul II, said that though he found parts of the synod “unnerving,” he never doubted that Francis had a plan.
Six months later, in April 2016, the pope released “Amoris Laetitia,” which summarized the findings of the synod process. In addition to describing the beauty of family life and the need for the church to support families more effectively, the pope also offered a suggestion on how to move forward on the Communion question.
He appeared to suggest that through a process of discernment and penance, in consultation with a priest, divorced and remarried Catholics who wished to receive Communion might be readmitted to the sacrament. The pope sought to move forward on the issue in a footnote, a signal that the teaching was not the main thrust of the letter. That a single footnote in a 325-paragraph document on family life is receiving the most attention is distressing to some Catholics.
Helen Alvaré, a lawyer and advisor to the U.S. bishops’ conference who often writes on marriage and the family, told America that the outsized attention paid to the divorce question, and the lack of attention paid to other important family issues, is “heartbreaking.” Further, she said, “the ‘who’s-up-who’s-down-who’s-out’ coverage of the varying responses of bishops to A.L. is a missed opportunity to take A.L. and make it the Magna Carta of a new marriage focus for the church.”
Still, the divorce question is one that has shaken up the church and offers a clue to where the pope intends to lead the faithful. So last September when bishops in Argentina released a more concrete framework for the process of opening up Communion, which was subsequently met with a papal nod of approval, it was the clearest indication to date that through the process of synodality, Francis is intent on refashioning church structures.
“The notion is, in this worldwide, global church, to put greater provision for governance in a less centralized manner, with a creative tension with the center,” Cardinal Tobin said.
Ask difficult questions, deliberate with as many minds as possible and then make a decision. Take one more step along the journey. Pope Francis may not know where the process will take him or the church, but he is confident that staying in one place is not an option.
MORE THAN 6,000 MILES away from the Vatican, in sunny San Diego, Calif., about 125 Catholics spent the late summer months last year studying “Amoris Laetitia” and asking how the document could be best applied to the diocese’s nearly one million Catholics.
Their task was set by Bishop Robert McElroy, who has earned a reputation as something of a policy wonk in the U.S. hierarchy. He spent most of his priestly career in his native San Francisco before being appointed to lead the Diocese of San Diego by Pope Francis in 2015.
Bishop McElroy is the type of leader Pope Francis said he wants as a bishop: A pastor who does not give in to the temptation to be a culture warrior but instead focuses on preaching the breadth of Catholic social teaching in the public square. Recognizing that something new was happening in Rome during the two synods of bishops, Bishop McElroy decided to follow the pope’s lead and hold a similar meeting at home.
“When the pope talks so much about synodality, I thought, this could be a way of doing diocesan deliberation and pastoral planning in a way that’s focused and that brings laypeople substantially and robustly into the process,” Bishop McElroy told America during an interview at the November meeting of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore.
Having promised the delegates that their time would not be wasted and, barring any doctrinal errors, that their ideas would be implemented, Bishop McElroy was a bit nervous about where the synod would venture. The delegates read “Amoris” and considered how its lessons applied to local Catholics. The results surprised the bishop.
Take families experiencing separation. The military has a large presence in San Diego, and as a result, many families in that diocese endure long deployments that keep spouses and parents apart for long periods. “Amoris” talks about fragmented families, of course, but not necessarily in this way. Localizing the pope’s universal message, San Diego Catholics said the church has to be better at offering resources to families separated by deployment.
Then there were L.G.B.T. issues, also considered at the Rome synods but reinterpreted through a local lens in gay-friendly California.
Gay people were not categorized as threats to marriage by most San Diego synod delegates. Instead, they said that gay and lesbian concerns should be considered in a wider framework of family spirituality, a surprising departure from the tone of much of the Catholic conversation about L.G.B.T. issues in recent years.
And when delegates were struggling to wrap their heads around the divorce and remarriage question—some of them were not comfortable with the idea of opening up Communion—one of the theologians on hand pointed to the model created by Argentine bishops and endorsed by the pope. The delegates said they wanted something similar in San Diego. But they also said the diocese should educate local Catholics about the Catholic tradition of conscience more broadly, going well beyond the divorce question.
Bishop McElroy accepted their recommendations, and in the coming months the diocese’s administrative structures will be reorganized and priests will be trained to accompany those currently barred from the sacrament of Communion toward reconciliation.
“We’re going to do what the pope’s asked us to do, and I’m certainly going to do it because the people asked us to,” Bishop McElroy said.
He acknowledged there is some tension in the church created by the pope’s leadership style, but he said that at heart is a bigger issue that is not new in the church.
“It’s an ecclesial question that goes to the heart of everything Francis tries to do: Does everything have to be centralized decision making?” he explained. “This is where there’s a huge dispute.”
“The fundamental question is, does everything have to be centralized so that everything will be uniform?” he said. “My answer is no.”
STANDING ON THE ROOF above the offices of the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., looks out at the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the late afternoon sun low in the sky. For the past several months, Father Spadaro has kept a frenetic schedule, using every means of communication available to defend the pope from attacks from within and outside the church.
Both Pope Francis and Father Spadaro are Jesuits, and the order’s emphasis on discernment guides the pope’s style of governance. This can be disorienting to people who are used to a more top-down model of leadership or who still abide by Augustine’s famous “Rome has spoken; the cause is finished” ethos.
“If the process is real, you don’t know the end,” Father Spadaro told America.
As he crisscrossed the rooftop, eager to point out the various Roman landmarks off in the distance, Father Spadaro compared the pope’s governing style to a stroll through windy, cobblestone paths in an ancient city. Whereas people today rely on their G.P.S. devices to guide them to their destinations, with no meandering turns or surprise adventures, Francis is decidedly old school in his approach.
“You know the street, and how to walk along the street, because it feels inspired and guided by God,” Father Spadaro said. “But Pope Francis doesn’t know exactly where it’s going. He learns and he understands things step by step.”
Each step can cause tension for people who are anxious about the new route Francis is undertaking.
At the conclusion of the 2014 synod of bishops, Francis talked about the disagreement inside the synod hall. Instead of expressing disappointment, however, he said he was heartened that bishops felt free to express themselves. Indeed, he would have been “very worried and saddened” had the bishops chosen a “false and quietist peace” over robust dialogue.
Archbishop Coleridge pointed to the pope’s 2015 remarks at a Vatican ceremony commemorating 50 years of synods in the postconciliar church. In that speech, Francis repeated his desire that consultation and dialogue become the norm in the church. He said those words helped him see how synodality can guide the church today. The archbishop said that Francis is intent on removing the mystique around the papacy that reached its apotheosis under St. John Paul II, whom some regarded “as a kind of oracle who could pronounce the last word on any given issue.”
“For Pope Francis, it’s more that he is part of a great conversation that belongs to the whole of the church,” he said.
“At times there’s a different kind of authority at work when it allows the discussion to run to a new stage,” he continued. “But I think it in no way diminishes the exercise of the Petrine ministry. If anything, it shows the truth, the power and the beauty of it more clearly.”
Turning to another interview to promulgate his ideas, this time with the Belgian Catholic newspaper Tertio in December, Francis described his synodal vision for the church.
He said, “Either there is a pyramidal church, in which what Peter says is done, or there is a synodal church, in which Peter is Peter but he accompanies the church, he lets her grow, he listens to her, he learns from this reality and goes about harmonising it, discerning what comes from the church and restoring it to her.”
Francis said there would always be movement and dialogue in a synodal church—but that the pope would always be in charge.
“But there is a Latin phrase that says the churches are always cum Petro et sub Petro,” he continued. “Peter is the guarantor of the unity of the church. He is the guarantor.”
Moving forward is never easy. It can unsettle those used to the ways things are and have been. So it is unsurprising that Francis is facing some resistance. Still, Father Spadaro said critiques of the pope receive too much attention. After all, nearly all cardinals, save for a few, have voiced support for Francis. Most Catholics, Father Spadaro contends, are not bothered by internal church debates.
“If we read ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ it’s pretty clear what the pope intended to do: to install discernment inside the processes of the church,” he told America. “He’s trying to say to the pastors, your work is not just to apply norms as something like mathematics or theories. Your job is to look at the life of your people and to help them to discover God and to help them to grow in the church without excluding, without separating anyone from the Gospel and the life of the church.”
Father Spadaro considers a question about the pope’s overarching goals and concedes that there is no master plan. “He decides what to do by looking at events and praying, which means he doesn’t build big plans,” he said. “He goes step by step, step by step.”
Each of those steps, of course, is more complex than the pope might like, revealing tensions along the way. But that does not worry the pope, Father Spadaro said. “He’s aware of the risks, of course; but if the path is guided by God, you don’t have to feel troubled or anxious.”
As for those unsure of the style Francis has chosen in leading the church, Father Spadaro offers some advice: “You have to follow the direction that Peter is giving the church.”