ROME – Pope Francis concluded a tumultuous Synod of Bishops Sunday by beatifying one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, who presided over the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting coda to the past two weeks.
Seasoned Vatican-watchers believe the Catholic Church hasn’t seen the kind of pitched battles between reformers and traditionalists witnessed in this synod since Vatican II some five decades ago. Like Paul VI before him, Francis is striving mightily to hold the camps together, delivering a speech last night urging a middle path between extremes.
In advancing Paul VI to the final step before sainthood, Francis praised him for leading the Church through the storms of his era with “farsightedness and wisdom,” adding that he did so “at times alone.”
It’s a feeling with which Francis may be able to connect, in the wake of a two-week debate inside and outside the synod hall that was remarkably pointed and at times took on a nasty edge.
In some circles, suspicion mounted that the deck was being stacked to promote a progressive agenda, eliciting an equal-and-opposite conservative pushback. Along the way there were mini-dramas centering on protagonists on both sides, such as stray phrases uttered in the heat of the moment which became a momentary cause célèbre.
A final report revealed deep divisions on three core issues:
- How much of a welcoming tone to adopt for homosexuals, without blurring Church teaching on marriage.
- To what extent the Church can recognize positive elements in relationships that fall short of the Catholic ideal, such as same-sex unions, couples living together outside of marriage, and people who have divorced and remarried outside the Church.
- Whether Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church could be allowed to return to Communion under certain precise circumstances.
Compromise language in the final document on those points could be seen as a victory for conservatives, since it represented a retreat from the more daring formula in an interim report released Oct. 13, but reformers could also claim a breakthrough in that they survived at all, albeit with the most “no” votes of the document’s 62 paragraphs.
The report is intended as a guide to discussion over the next year in advance of a second synod convened by Francis in October 2015, and in the abstract there’s little reason to believe the divisions revealed at this meeting will magically disappear over the next 12 months.
Knowing all that, Francis Saturday night gave what aides described as one of the most important speeches of his papacy as the synod finished its work.
Acknowledging that there had been moments of “desolation” and “tension” during the past two weeks, Francis ticked off a series of “temptations” that he believes the Church faces.
- A “hostile rigidity,” closing oneself off behind the letter of the law and “not allowing oneself to be surprised by God.”
- A “destructive do-goodism,” based on a “false mercy” that Francis said is a special temptation for “progressives and liberals.”
- Transforming “bread into stone” and hurling it “against sinners, the weak and the ill” by imposing “impossible burdens.”
- Coming down off the Cross by “bending to the spirit of the world rather than purifying it.”
- Neglecting the “deposit of faith” by seeing oneself as its owner rather than its servant, and neglecting reality by using “a smooth language in order to say a lot without saying anything.”
Francis urged the bishops not to let fear of those temptations stifle their willingness to entertain new ideas, saying he personally would have been disappointed if there hadn’t been “animated discussion” at the synod.
He urged them to trust that despite impressions of “a Church in a quarrel, with one part against the other,” the Holy Spirit will guide them toward “unity and harmony.”
For those with long memories, it was a performance eerily reminiscent of Paul VI, whose first encyclical letter, Ecclesiam Suam in 1964, featured a call for healthy dialogue in the Church.
Pope Paul’s invitation also came with a warning: “A spirit of independence, bitter criticism, defiance, and arrogance is far removed from that charity which nourishes and preserves the spirit of fellowship, harmony, and peace in the Church,” he wrote.
“It completely vitiates dialogue, turning it into argument, disagreement and dissension – a sad state of affairs, but by no means uncommon,” he said.
With a few notable exceptions, Paul VI succeeded in holding the Church’s contending wings together by always striving to blend innovation with fidelity. He approved sweeping changes in Catholic worship, for instance, but also reaffirmed the traditional birth control ban in 1968’s Humanae Vitae.
In his homily for the beatification Mass, Francis called Paul VI “this great Pope, this courageous Christian, this tireless apostle,” saying he never lost “his joy and his trust in the Lord.”
In his speech last night, Francis seemed to signal he wants to walk the same path as Paul VI, trying to cajole the Church towards the future without forgetting its past.
Perhaps he can take some consolation in the almost five-minute standing ovation he received. Unlike those occasional moments of isolation that Paul VI felt, for now, at least, Francis doesn’t seem quite alone.