The recent Synod of Bishops on the Family concluded with a Mass in which Pope Francis beatified one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI. Was staging the ceremony at the end of that tumultuous summit an indirect way for Rome to dampen expectations of radical change under Francis? It would seem so.
Giovanni Maria Montini, the given name of Paul VI, was a former archbishop of Milan and the Vatican’s former Secretary of State. He brought the Second Vatican Council to a conclusion in the mid-1960s, in a period marked by immense social change.
Paul VI received both praise and criticism for his reform of the Catholic liturgy, for instance, making it looser and more accessible to an ordinary worshipper.
With all the debate over the significance of a daring interim report from the synod on homosexuality and other topics, followed by more cautious language in the final document, a possible motive for holding the beatification at the end may have been overlooked.
Ironically, the Synod of Bishops was a creation of Paul VI “to make ever greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church” and to enjoy “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority,” in a decree of Sept. 15, 1965.
The synod did not even exist in 1963, when Paul’s predecessor John XXIII announced the creation of a special commission to examine whether in light of contemporary realities, the church’s age-old ban on birth control should be revised.
On the side of upholding tradition, commission member Dr. Daisy Kulanday of India famously said, “The earth has enough resources to feed the neediest, but not enough to feed the greediest.” The majority of members, however, had another view, and by a vote of 72-7 they advocated a change to the birth control ban in 1966.
Two years later, the world was shocked – particularly large parts of the Catholic Church, which had expected Paul to follow that recommendation – when instead he reiterated the traditional teaching in the 1968 document Humanae Vitae. It proved to be the most controversial papal encyclical of the 20th century, based on the widespread criticism it received from theologians, bishops, priests, and ordinary believers.
Two episcopal conferences, in Canada and Austria, publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the encyclical.
Given that history, what could be the reason for holding the beatification of Paul VI right now?
Saints are alluring characters, and it’s no secret their recognition is used at different times in church history to promote a particular cause. The secular media obviously picked that up with the canonization of St Maria Goretti in the Holy Year 1950 – here was the new “poster girl” to encourage chaste young ladies!
Synods, like papal commissions, do not have any sort of juridical authority. They are consultative bodies, with any recommendations they make having no permanent bearing, except by the decision of the pope. In this case, no decisions will be made until after a much larger synod in twelve months’ time.
For instance, not so long ago, there were a number of continental synods held in Rome. In 1998, it was the turn of the Synod for Oceania.
Early the next year, the Australian TV current affairs show Four Corners, in an episode “The Vatican’s Verdict” spoke about what happened. One of the reporters noted that the Australian bishops “argued for major changes – married priests, a greater role for women in the church, an understanding of homosexuality and more emphasis on social justice.”
In stark contrast, the Holy See stunned the world at the synod by issuing a very brusque “Statement of Conclusions”, which was a criticism by a number of curial heads of a perceived laxity which had become part and parcel of ordinary Catholic life in Australia, with the approval of John Paul II.
Similarly at this current Extraordinary Synod for the Family, the whole world has witnessed an apparent openness by the Holy See to progressive opinions on matters of sexuality, which only a short time ago would have been inconceivable.
But by beatifying a pope who was the scorn of the secular world and even large parts of the Church for an encyclical that seemed to belie the attitudes of modern persons, Rome may be sending a discreet message to anyone expecting significant revisions of Catholic doctrine out of the current two-synod process launched by Pope Francis.
That message would be: “Don’t get your hopes up”.
Andrew Rabel writes for Inside the Vatican magazine and other publications from Melbourne, Australia.