Phase 2 of the Pope Francis era: The honeymoon is over

Phase 2 of the Pope Francis era: The honeymoon is over

A kerfuffle broke out last week over a lecture given by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and sponsored by First Things magazine, generally considered the smartest journal of conservative Catholic opinion in America. In itself it may not loom especially large, but it’s illustrative of something broader. We are entering Phase

A kerfuffle broke out last week over a lecture given by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput and sponsored by First Things magazine, generally considered the smartest journal of conservative Catholic opinion in America.

In itself it may not loom especially large, but it’s illustrative of something broader. We are entering Phase Two of Francis’ papacy, in which a period of good feelings has given way to an era of edge.

Before moving on, a caveat: This analysis largely applies to the West. People in, say, Ukraine or Nigeria or the Philippines – all with large Catholic populations – aren’t necessarily having the same conversation.

Though Chaput’s speech was not on the 2014 Synod of Bishops in Rome, he took a question about it from the audience. Stressing that he hadn’t been there and wanted to talk to bishops who had before reaching conclusions, Chaput nevertheless said that the “public image” of the event had created confusion, and that “confusion is of the Devil.”

An interim report from that summit contained some daringly progressive language on homosexuality and other hot-button topics, although the final document adopted Oct. 18 was considerably more restrained.

Two longtime observers of the Catholic scene, David Gibson of Religion News Service and Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter, wrote pieces suggesting Chaput had blasted the synod. Winters went further, implying that Chaput had criticized Pope Francis by proxy since the synod was the pope’s event.

In return, several conservative Catholic bloggers and writers took Gibson and Winters to task for distorting Chaput’s point – and round and round we go.

In a way, the contretemps is reminiscent of what happened to German Cardinal Walter Kasper during the synod. Kasper is a progressive hero for championing change to the ban on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving communion. A stray line from him about African bishops “not telling us what to do” became a cause célèbre, mostly driven by media outlets perceived as conservative.

Now something similar has happened to Chaput and his “of the Devil” sound-bite, this time from sources seen as leaning somewhat to the left.

Two observations suggest themselves.

First, both the Kasper and Chaput controversies illustrate the importance of context in presenting comments from public figures, in this case senior churchmen.

Anyone who knows Kasper realizes he’s a gentle soul who wouldn’t deliberately insult anyone. He served as the Vatican’s top official for relations with Jews and other Christian churches precisely because of his ability to get along with pretty much everybody. He’s the guy you bring in to put out fires, not to start them.

In context, his admittedly ill-advised remark about Africans seemed to mean that different parts of the world have different problems, and should be allowed to develop their own solutions. That nuance didn’t come across in much of the discussion – in part, perhaps, because some people weren’t interested in saving Kasper from himself.

A similar point could be made about Chaput. Anyone who knows him realizes he’s a man of strong opinions about the risks of assimilating to secular culture, and not shy about voicing them. It’s legitimate to suspect he may be a bit uncomfortable with some of the new winds blowing in the Francis era.

Yet Chaput is also a papal loyalist, and the idea that he would publicly accuse a pontiff of fostering the work of the Devil is implausible. If you read the full text of his response, it seems clear he was talking about media presentations of the synod, not necessarily the event itself. (Whether he was being fair to the media is a conversation for another time.)

Second, we have entered the next phase of Francis’ papacy.

We’ve passed from a honeymoon period in which most Catholics were content to bask in the fact that the pope was the most popular figure on the planet, to an era in which a growing number of people seem to have a hair-trigger.

For that, we probably have the Synod of Bishops to thank. It brought into sharp focus the battle lines in the Francis era, at least as regards the family and sexual morality.

Those battle lines are:

  • Should the Catholic Church make its peace with same-sex unions – not in terms of giving moral approval or abandoning its teaching on marriage, but finding a less confrontational way to talk about these relationships and a more welcoming posture for people living in them?
  • Can the Catholic Church identify moral value in all sorts of lifestyle choices that fall outside the bounds of its teaching, such as couples living together without being married? Can the Church say that although such arrangements aren’t ideal, they still may have positive elements such as fidelity and mutual support?
  • Will Catholicism relax its ban on giving communion to Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church, as an act of mercy, or would that amount to a retreat from the doctrine that marriage is permanent?

Those are all incendiary questions, and people on both sides bring deep passion. The progressive camp tends to feel emboldened, presuming that the pope is with them. Many conservatives feel alarm for exactly the same reason, fearing that Francis may not back them up.

In this environment, many activists and thinkers seem to be slipping into battle mode, ready to pounce on any perceived misstep or faux pas from opponents. In other words, the undeclared Cold War in Catholicism, between those excited by the pope’s new tone and those ambivalent about it, is turning hot.

In general, Francis navigated phase one brilliantly. What will it take for him to get through phase two?

One key may be to reach out to conservatives who suspect that Francis, or his allies, tried to stack the deck against them in the synod, and who in general wonder if the pontiff appreciates their concerns.

In that regard, Francis may have helped himself on Monday when he attended the unveiling of a bronze bust in honor of Benedict XVI at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where Francis praised his predecessor as a “great pope.”

Benedict, he said, is great “for the strength and penetrating quality of his intelligence, for his important contribution to theology, for his love for the church and for human beings, and for his virtue and religious character.”

“Far from dissipating with the passage of time,” Francis said, Benedict’s spirit “will seem ever greater and more powerful in each passing generation.”

Though Francis undoubtedly meant every word, such a tribute to a pontiff who is still a hero to the church’s more traditional wing was also good politics.

As a final thought, here’s a prediction as to when Phase Three of the Francis era will begin: Sometime after October 2015, when the process of reflection ends with the next Synod of Bishops on the family and the buck arrives firmly on the pontiff’s desk.

There’s nothing like some actual decisions to shake things up again.

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