ROME – There’s a “Simpsons” episode, one of those Halloween “Treehouse of Horror” specials, where characters from TV commercials come to life and start rampaging through town. A panicked Bart and Lisa seek out a marketing guru for help, who offers this advice: “Well, sir, advertising is a funny thing. If people stop paying attention to it, pretty soon it goes away.”
He pens a quick jingle to persuade people to ignore the characters (sung in the episode by Paul Anka, by the way, along with Lisa), the catchy refrain of which is, “Just don’t look!”
For a while now, that’s bascially seemed Pope Francis’s strategy with regard to his critics over Amoris Laetitia, the 2016 document on the family which, in a bombshell footnote, opened a cautious door to Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. For all intents and purposes he’s ignored them, and it hasn’t seemed unreasonable to think that over time, they would either go away or dwindle into insignificance.
For one thing, two of the four cardinals who submitted a list of five critical questions about Amoris in 2016 to the pope, formally known as dubia, have since died: German Cardinal Joachim Meisner in July 2017, and Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra two months later in September 2017.
By now, few media outlets are carrying detailed dissections of Amoris and its footnotes anymore, and the opposition hasn’t found anything original to say for a while. Aside from a small circle that keeps the flame of dissent alive on Twitter and so on, the wider Catholic world largely seems to have moved on.
In response, a Rome summit of what one might call the “anti-Amoris” wing of the Church on Saturday seemed to reverberate with frustration, insisting, “Confirm us in the faith”
Judging by the content of the summit, however, it’s not clear the anti-Amoris group yet has the elements that might be necessary to force Francis’s hand.
(Of course, that’s not to suggest that forcing the papal hand is the bottom line for this group, since they’re clearly convinced that their stand is both correct and necessary. However, they do seem to want the pope to at least acknowledge their case, and it’s worth asking, if only from a purely political point of view, whether what one saw on Saturday appears likely to accomplish that.)
For one thing, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, another dubia cardinal, once again strongly hinted at the possibility of a formal public correction of Francis, but he didn’t actually deliver it.
“Since the pope can’t be subject to a judicial process, the situation has to be addressed and remedied based on natural law, the gospels, and canonical tradition, and that’s a two-step process,” Burke said
“First, one corrects the presumed error or abandonment of duty directly to the Roman Pontiff,” Burke said. “If he doesn’t respond, then one proceeds to public correction,” drawing strong applause from the crowd.
There had been speculation the correction would be issued in the final declaration issued at the end of Saturday’s summit, but instead the brief six-point statement restricted itself to rejecting the teaching of Amoris. The declaration didn’t carry any specific signatories, but was issued in the name of the “People of God.”
Outside Rome’s Church Village Hotel, where the event took place about two miles from the Vatican, one long-time observer of the traditionalist Catholic scene expressed skepticism a correction would ever come.
“I doubt it will ever be delivered in an explicit way,” he said. “More or less, the correction was implicit in the declaration.”
Another way to alter the status quo might be to expand the anti-Amoris coalition, building alliances with Catholic leaders and opinion-makers upset with Francis for other reasons.
That appeared to be the strategy behind inviting retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong to deliver a ten-minute briefing on the state of the Church in China on Saturday. Rumors of a deal between the Vatican and China over the selection of bishops have Zen and other China hawks livid, among other things because it strikes them as a betrayal of underground believers who, over the decades, have paid in blood for their loyalty to the pope and their refusal to tolerate Communist encroachments on the Church.
That dream of projecting a “Grand Coalition,” however, fizzled when organizers had to announce that Zen wouldn’t be showing up because he was sick, but that he had promised to speak to the pope on his next visit to Rome.
A brief video message from Zen was played, in which the cardinal complained that some voices about the church in China don’t seem to be reaching Rome.
“I would have been there gladly, but at my age, I’ve decided not to travel too much,” said the 86-year-old Zen.
On the subject of China, Zen said, “The church in all the world is a great family, with its center which is the Holy See. The center is very important, even if the pope insists that we have to give great importance to the periphery: Center and periphery are both necessary.”
“Our periphery, the church in China, is in great difficulty today, and many voices from this periphery aren’t arriving at the center,” Zen said. “For this reason, we desire there be more communication between the center and the periphery.”
In principle, the idea of joining forces isn’t a bad one, because it’s not like there aren’t other disgruntled constituencies – pro-capitalist free marketeers and advocates of limited government, for instance, or fierce critics of Islamic jihadism upset with what they generally see as Francis’s excessively soft touch. Granted, critics of Amoris believe they’re defending core matters of doctrine, whereas these other issues are more purely political. Still, the point is that unease with Francis takes more than one form, and potentially could bring multiple actors together.
The evidence of Saturday, however, would suggest that however conceivable such an alliance might seem in principle, it’s not really there yet.
On the other hand, there was one constituency strongly represented on Saturday, which was the Italian pro-life movement. People in those circles have been frustrated with Pope Francis’s apparent unwillingness to exercise his influence in Italian politics in at least two instances — the recognition of de facto couples, including same-sex couples, in 2016, and the recognition in 2017 of “living wills” allowing patients to choose in advance if they want treatment withdrawn in terminal situations, which some critics see as a possible precursor to euthanasia.
Finally, there was a clear undercurrent of urgency among many of the hundreds of lay participants who packed the hotel conference room. At one point, a contingent in the crowd leapt to their feet and began shouting, “People of God, stand up! We are the ones who have to act!”
However, there didn’t appear to be any concrete plan for translating that impulse into action, or at least one that was announced on Saturday.
At the end of the day, therefore, there seemed to be two conclusions from perhaps the largest gathering of critical voices on Amoris Laetitia since it was issued two years ago.
First, those critics are not going away. They are convinced, in the words of the final declaration, that the ban on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving Communion “is a norm that applies always and without exception,” and they intend to stand and fight.
Second, if the aim of Saturday’s event was to jar Francis out of the “Just don’t look” strategy, time will tell, but early returns don’t make that seem a foregone conclusion.