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ROME – Pope Francis successfully closed the books on a somewhat dismal 2021 over the weekend, repeating basically familiar themes, from the importance of solidarity in facing the Covid pandemic to a call for people of goodwill to become “artisans of fraternity.”
The pontiff pulled out of leading his own New Year’s Eve vespers service at the last minute, choosing instead to allow Italian Cardinal Gianbattista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, to preside, while Francis simply delivered the homily. The Vatican still has offered no official explanation, though it’s widely assumed it had to do with a flare-up in the pope’s sciatica.
Of course, for an 85-year-old pontiff who’s still coming off a major colon surgery in 2021, there’s nothing particularly surprising about an occasional need to cut back. (Slightly more surprising may be that to pick up the slack, this 85-year-old once again tapped someone who’s actually older than he is – Re is 87 – but that’s the Vatican for you.)
Francis is forever a pope of surprises, so as he barrels into 2022 there’s no telling what the New Year may bring. The fact we don’t know, however, doesn’t have to spoil the fun, because we can still guess.
Herewith, then, five predictions for Pope Francis and the Vatican in 2022.
The ‘trial of the century’ collapses under its own weight
The Vatican’s legal system first began trying to get this mega-trial going over the summer, initially involving ten separate defendants – including, for the first time, a Prince of the Church, Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu – all facing charges of embezzlement and other financial crimes, mostly relating to the Vatican’s failed $400 million land deal.
Over the last six months, two points seemed to become clear.
The Vatican’s small criminal justice system, which is more accustomed to dealing with cases involving pick-pocketers arrested in St. Peter’s Square, is being pressed beyond its limits to handle the logistical dimensions of a trial with so many defendants, so many separate charges, and so many lawyers.
Second, Vatican prosecutors also appear stubbornly unwilling to comply with court orders to produce key bits of evidence, suggesting there may be something in their files they’d rather court a mistrial than turn it over.
Prediction: The trial ends in 2022 with no significant convictions.
The Synod on Synodality becomes a lightning rod
To reset, the Synod of Bishops on Synodality convened by Pope Francis is currently in the phase of diocesan consultations, originally set to end in April but the deadline has been pushed back to August. In September a continental phase will begin, intended to sort through the results at the diocesan level, with the physical assembly set for Rome in October 2023.
So far there’s been relatively little hubbub about the synod, for the basic reason that relatively little has happened yet. However, as with most things in the Francis papacy, today’s calm is likely deceiving.
In the spring and summer of 2022, dioceses in various parts of the world will report the results of their consultations with priests, religious and laity, and most of that material will become public knowledge. As it rolls in, some Catholics are going to have issues with the content – perhaps especially because the diocesan bishops most gung-ho about the synod are Pope Francis loyalists, so the first phase may elicit largely “progressive” input.
As that picture begins to take shape, conservative Catholics likely will begin issuing warnings about where the synod may be headed and start organizing for the next phase. One soundbite worth preparing for: “My God, this is Germany on a global scale!”
Prediction: Especially in the second half of the year, the Synod on Synods will become a leading Catholic debating point.
There will be a Sant Gallen Group of the center-right
Famously, this informal group of influential center-left prelates, inspired by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, was named for the Swiss diocese where they held their initial sessions in the late 1990s. At various points the lineup included figures such as Cardinals Godfried Danneels of Belgium, Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann of Germny, and Cormac Murphy O’Connor in the UK.
The idea was to talk strategy for what would happen after the long reign of Pope John Paul II, ideally to find someone who could lead the church in a more progressive direction. The group more or less fell apart after the conclave of 2005, but several participants later played leading roles in the conclave of 2013 that produced Pope Francis.
I don’t know if there already is a Sant Gallen Group for center-right prelates, but if there isn’t, I’m sure there will be soon.
Twenty years ago, it was Catholic liberals who felt beleaguered and alarmed and felt the need to get their act together. Today the shoe’s on the other foot, and it’s the conservative wing among bishops feeling dazed and confused.
In the era of Covid, whatever “group” emerges may be more fluid and virtual than the original, relying not on face-to-face meetings but Zoom or whatever else online system is handy. Nonetheless, the conversations will go on.
Prediction: Cardinals and other senior prelates will talk in 2022 about what comes next, though behind the scenes and off the record.
More bishops will fall
It may be difficult to believe that there are still Catholic bishops in power anywhere in the world still vulnerable to disclosures regarding clerical sexual abuse, either mismanagement of charges against others or accusations regarding their own personal conduct. Yet the reality is that the Catholic Church likely may still be nearer the beginning of this crisis than the end.
The past year brought the latest wave of painful disclosures about the church’s failures, most notably in a controversial bombshell report in France suggesting there may have been as many as 330,000 victims of abuse by church personnel over the past 50 years. While critics question the method of statistical sampling used to generate that number, the report nonetheless created a tsunami for the French church.
In 2022, a similar report is expected on the Catholic Church in Spain. Beyond that, many experts believe Poland is beginning to come to grips with its own past with regard to abuse and expect further revelations throughout the year. Outside Europe and North America, the bomb has yet to go off in quite the same way, but some observers believe the Philippines, for example, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, may be poised for similar upheaval.
Prediction: There are at least 10 Catholics in power right now around the world who will resign in disgrace over the abuse scandals at some point in 2022.
The U.S. is again a headache for Pope Francis
Since he was elected as President of the U.S. Bishops Conference in 2019, the perception has been that Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has led the conference in a somewhat more conservative direction that the tone being set by Francis. Gomez’s term is up in November 2022, so the bishops will have to elect a successor, and whatever they do will be read as a referendum of where they stand now vis-à-vis Francis.
The usual thing would be to choose the conference’s vice-president, currently Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit. Because Vigneron too is generally seen as center-right, should he ascend, many observers would interpret it to mean not much has changed – and that will be especially so if the bishops also choose another perceived conservative as their new vice-president.
All this, by the way, will be unfolding against the madness of mid-term elections in the United States on November 8, which many political observers will see as a verdict on President Joe Biden’s leadership at the two-year mark. Abortion is likely to be a hot issue, especially if the Supreme Court upholds a controversial Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which many analysts say would amount to a de facto reversal of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
All this means the U.S. bishops inevitably will be political players throughout the year, both ecclesiastically and civilly, and at least some may play that role in ways of which Francis and his Vatican team don’t approve. Naturally, all of this will be hyped beyond all recognition on social media.
Prediction: At some point in 2022, the Vatican will once again feel compelled to issue some sort of guidance or exhortation urging American bishops to remain “pastors” rather than “politicians” – and, as in previous cases, it will find a mixed reception.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr