ROME — Following a landmark Vatican summit of bishops in October that debated a greater opening to gays and lesbians as well as Communion for the divorced and remarried, many people are wondering if Pope Francis has the Catholic Church poised for major changes in its teaching on sexual morality and family life.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, a member of the Dominican order and an influential Catholic expert in bioethics, has a clear message about those expectations.
It boils down to: Don’t hold your breath.
“The pope was absolutely clear from the start,” Fisher said. “The pastoral goal is to see how we’re going to help people who are hurting. In this way things will change, and hopefully we’ll find some ways to help them.”
“But in the end, we’re not going to say ‘No, God got it wrong’.”
That prediction seemed bolstered on Monday when Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, one of Europe’s most influential prelates, came out against Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the Church. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Scola said he believes that stance has a “decisively larger following” among the bishops.
Fisher said that although Pope Francis has called for a year-long process of reflection ahead of next year’s summit of bishops from around the world, it’s not setting the stage for radical doctrinal alterations.
“After a year of discussion, we’re still going to say what Christ said,” Fisher said.
The Australian prelate, who was appointed to take over in Sydney from the pope’s finance czar, Cardinal George Pell, in September, spoke in an exclusive interview with Crux in Rome during a mid-November conference on “complementarity” between men and women.
For Fisher, the fact that people are now interested in marriage, children, and family is the actual “Francis effect.” People who usually wouldn’t want to talk about religious or moral topics because they are perceived as irrelevant, complicated, emotional, or divisive are now more willing to discuss them, he said.
“Mothers in clubs, people in pubs, are willing to talk,” he said. “So I think we’ll get some real discussions.”
The following are excerpts from the interview with Fisher.
Crux: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has said that media reporting on the recent Synod of Bishops created confusion. Do you find Pope Francis’ language about the family confusing?
Fisher: People have said Francis has caused confusion because he hasn’t been clear enough. I think he wanted a discussion, he wanted points of view. It’s a dangerous strategy, no doubt. There can be a lot of emotion and polarization, [including] people taking political positions against each other. That’s inevitable, that’s human relationships.
Clearly he believes that that’s the way to get some progress in thinking and ultimately some clarity, even if at the time it felt like there was a fight going on, and people don’t like fights.
I’m a big disciple hundreds of years later of Thomas Aquinas. Everyone who knows the Summa [Theologica] knows that’s the way he goes, all the way through: Here’s one point of view, here’s another, let’s see what’s right in each and have a conclusion. It might be a compromise, or it might be all one side. But one way or another, look at what’s true in both sides. That was his way of doing theology. That kind of dialectic is something Francis clearly thinks is useful right now.
In a recent talk to the Italian Association of Catholic Doctors, Francis defended Church teaching on abortion, euthanasia, and genetic manipulation. He also said to your conference that every child has the right to grow with a mom and a dad. Do you think he’s been pressured to speak on these issues?
It’s true, the addresses to the doctors and to the conference here were a lot more what like what people were used to hearing from John Paul II or Benedict. But it’s not unprecedented with Francis.
It could be that he was adapting to the particular group he was talking to. It’d be odd if he spoke on a conference about the complementarity of men and women and didn’t talk about marriage. And if he talked to the doctors, he had to talk about life. He didn’t need to talk about all of them [life issues]; he could have chosen one.
I think that some of what he’s been saying about the throwaway society, throwaway babies, and throwaway people is the same thing. He’s talked about these many times, but not everybody picked it up.
It might be also that after the synod, someone told him that there was some confusion and that it’d be good to have something that nobody could misquote.
Some have suggested that Pope Francis is being pressured to take back what he’s said on certain issues or to “tone down” his reform. What are your thoughts?
I think that’s a radical misreading, because nothing he said in those two talks differs from what he’s said many times before. It might not be what some want to hear.
An image of the pope has been created, that he’s this man of the age who will say what everyone wants to hear. But he’s not that, so it shouldn’t surprise us. Even if he does like to surprise people in ways that make people wonder …
What do you think will happen on the issue of the divorce and the remarried hoping to receive Communion?
I think that a lot of [people going through] these things, the divorced and remarried or same-sex marriage, had a chance to express their hurt, [and to] vent some of that hurt, in the synod. The truth is that if, after the hurt they’ve experienced, they still want to go to Communion, it’s a positive thing.
Many in these situations say, “to hell with the Church. They don’t welcome me, they don’t care for me. There are lots of other places where I can spend my Sunday.”
But there are people who still want to go to Communion, despite the irregularities in their lives. And that’s a positive thing on itself.
The real issue is, I believe, that in the Western world, many people are really struggling to love well. The idea of a lifelong commitment seems too hard or impossible, so they try a set of short-term commitments that then get them into the habit of short-term committing.
People start believing that self-sacrifice isn’t worth it. The best marriages you meet have gone through some rough patches; there has been a lot of sacrifice. Today, many say, ‘Why would you do that? Drop it and move on with your life.’
I believe that this difficulty to love is a big problem in the Western world. We talk a lot about love, with love songs, and I love ice cream, and I love my puppy. But it’s not a good love. People are hurt on the way. Children miss having a mom and a dad who love each other.
I’m not avoiding a very real question, which is: What can be done for the divorced and the remarried? But I think that is symptomatic of a bigger crisis. If we don’t address that, we’ll only be putting on a Band-Aid. It’s going to keep breaking, and the wounds hemorrhaging.