ROME – As the Synod of Bishops continues to produce drama, coming today in a surprise decision to release frank internal reports of its debates, one big-picture question captured by the event seems to be coming into clear focus.
Here it is in a nutshell: Is a tipping point drawing close, when conservatives who have been inclined to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt will, instead, turn on him?
Granted, labels such as “liberal” and “conservative” often conceal as much as they reveal, especially when applied to the Church. That said, they capture something at a big-picture level, and the fault line between left and right has seemed especially clear over the past two weeks.
Well before the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, there was a small but vocal wing of traditionalist Catholic opinion fiercely critical of the pope.
In February, Italian Catholic writer and historian Roberto de Mattei posted a piece on the website of his Lepanto foundation asserting that developments since the election of Francis, including his famous “Who am I to judge?” sound bite about gays, risk “a road that leads to schism and heresy.”
Another Italian writer, Antonio Socci, has a new book out titled “It’s not Francis: The Church in a Great Storm,” basically implying that the resignation of Benedict XVI was invalid and that Francis isn’t really the pope.
Most mainstream conservatives, however, have argued that media hype, or perhaps unintentional ambiguity on the part of the pope himself, has been to blame for mistaken impressions that he’s engineering a radical overhaul.
In recent days, however, some of those voices have taken on a harder edge.
We’ve seen a Paraguayan bishop post the following on his personal blog: “Inside the Church, and recently from some of its highest circles, new winds blow that aren’t from the Holy Spirit,” referring to what’s happening at the synod.
Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano, formerly of the diocese of Ciudad del Este, said, “The situation is very grave and I’m not the first to notice that, regretfully, we’re facing the danger of a great schism.”
Livieres, who belongs to the Catholic organization Opus Dei, also accused retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper and the Jesuit-edited magazine Civilità Cattolica, which ran a celebrated interview with Francis early in his papacy, of being “the active propellers that lead this confusion in Bergoglio’s church.”
On Monday night, American Cardinal Raymond Burke openly faulted Francis for allowing Kasper to sow confusion about Church teaching on marriage by touting his proposal to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, and basically suggested the pope owes the world an apology.
A clear affirmation of Catholic doctrine by the pope, Burke said, is “long overdue.”
Both Livieres and Burke have had their wings clipped by Pope Francis, so some of their grumbling may be personal. Both also represent the fairly hardline edge of the Church’s conservative wing.
The same can’t really be said, however, of Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, who this week complained that the synod’s emphasis on mercy, one of the spiritual touchstones for Francis, has been overplayed.
“It created an impression that the teaching of the Church has been merciless so far, as if the teaching of mercy were beginning only now,” Gadecki said.
To some extent, this synod serves as a proxy for Francis, so that criticism of it is often, at least indirectly, also criticism of the forces he’s unleashed.
It remains to be seen to what extent dissenters from the synod’s interim report on Monday, which contained a fairly strongly positive evaluation of same-sex unions and other “irregular” relationships, will be tempered in the final report due to be adopted on Saturday.
If the final document contains anything resembling Monday’s draft, it’s likely criticism of Francis will intensify.
Combine that with speculation that in the near future Francis will remove Burke from his position at the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court, and it’s not difficult to imagine that many on the Catholic right could conclude, once and for all, that Francis is not on their side.
Livieres invoked the specter of a formal schism, but for now, most observers regard that as a long shot.
For one thing, a schism requires a bishop willing to break with Rome to create a parallel church, and so far no one’s actually volunteered for that role.
For another, conservatives unhappy with the present drift don’t have the same exit option as disgruntled Catholics on the left, for whom their tie with their institutional Church sometimes isn’t as much of a value.
On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that the last time we had a moderate in the papacy, under Paul VI, was when the seeds were sown of the only formal schism to follow the Second Vatican Council – the traditionalist rupture led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
When Francis beatifies Paul VI on Sunday in the closing act of this synod, he may have a whole other reason to pray to him for guidance.
The most likely scenario is less a full-blown schism than two other options.
First, many conservatives may settle into a kind of internal exile, focusing on their local parish and diocese and ignoring the Vatican. One prominent American conservative said this week that he’s got a good bishop and good situation in his local church, and he’s decided to pay no attention to Rome for his own spiritual health.
Second, some conservatives may stop defending Francis, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, and become locked into a cycle of suspicion and dissent about virtually everything that he says and does.
If that happens – and, to some extent, the process is already underway – it will hardly be a novelty. Both of the foregoing options were common practice among liberal Catholics during the John Paul II and Benedict XVI years, so the only difference now is that the shoe is on the other foot.
Yet there will be a price to pay.
What people generally think of as “conservative” Catholics are often among the Church’s most dedicated members, among other things serving as major financial donors. Already, one head of a conservative think tank in Rome this week said he’d gotten a call from one of his benefactors saying that if things keep going the way they are, he was going to stop ponying up.
More broadly, Catholics typically labeled as “conservative” are often people who carry water for the Church at all levels, from the local to the universal. If that pool of human capital begins to dry up, it could make it more difficult for Francis to advance his agenda.
Whatever else one might say about Francis, he’s not politically naïve and has already demonstrated a capacity to disarm his critics.
One example was his surprise phone call to Mario Palmaro, an Italian writer who had co-authorized a critique of Francis for the newspaper Il Foglio with the deliberately provocative title, “Why We Don’t Like this Pope”, as he lay seriously ill in the hospital. When Palmaro tried to say something about his essay, Francis interrupted him. “I know you wrote those things out of love,” the pope said, “and I needed to hear them.”
Francis may need to offer such gestures of generosity in the near future … assuming, that is, he actually wants to avoid the tipping point that seems to be getting closer by the day.