When Pope Francis was elected, I wondered how long the enthusiasm would last. The sense of surprised delight in nearly all I encountered was reminiscent of the widespread euphoria among my friends and family at the election of President Barack Obama a few years earlier, and yet by 2013 most people I knew were quite deeply disappointed in Obama. So when asked what I thought of our new pope, I said I thought he was wonderful, but I was nevertheless bracing myself for the day when his “Obama moment” would arrive, and the disillusionment set in.
Is the Obama moment now here? We’ve had the Synod on the Family. It has gone on, it seems, for an awfully long time. It has involved us all being invited to tell bishops what we think on a range of issues, issues that most of us suppose we do in fact know something about. It has raised hopes that change may be possible—change on issues that are deeply important to a range of Catholics, and change in areas where the church has seemed out of step with the instincts of many. But in the end the synod presents us, it seems, with something rather anti-climactic: a concluding document that is more or less a reaffirmation of what we had before. In some areas there is a certain shift in tone (towards cohabitation, for instance); in others, there is none at all (towards homosexuality). As regards the divorced and remarried there is, perhaps, some new element of ambiguity, but the significance of this ambiguity is hard to assess—there is certainly no agreement, from the synod fathers themselves, as to whether anything has shifted. So a long process has led to almost nothing but a little extra ambiguity. For many it will be hard not to be disappointed. Should we conclude that Pope Francis is not, after all, the breath of fresh air we had thought? Or that however good his personal style and vision may be, he lacks the strength, the know-how, the guile, to make any real difference?
I think it would be a mistake to read the situation this way, to imagine this pope as if he were a bit like a president who doesn’t have what it takes to get his policy through Congress. This would be a mistake for at least three reasons.
First of all, the Synod on the Family has in reality been at least as much about synod as it has been about family. The very length of the discussion and debate, together with its freedom and openness, its transparency, and its multi-layered quality (at least in principle involving bishops listening to the laity as well as listening and talking to each other)—these all distinguish the synod from anything that has happened in recent years.
Of course, if one is deeply invested in the hope for concrete change, the fact that bishops have had a better than usual chance at a genuine conversation may seem small consolation. But this synod does have a certain significance if one understands it against the history of the church in the last half century. What we have just watched can be seen as the long-delayed fulfillment—or at least the beginning of the fulfillment—of an expectation that arose at the Second Vatican Council, an expectation of a fundamental shift in the culture of church governance. Indeed, we can take a longer historical perspective: the relation of the papacy to the bishops, considered as a collective, has been a hot topic for Catholicism on and off since at least the fourteenth century. So if something new, procedurally, has happened at the synod, a new step in a seven-century long dance, then this matters at least a little.
And in any case, secondly, we haven’t really come to the end of the process. The synod has finished, and commentators with different instincts and priorities are busy interpreting in one direction or another. But the pope himself also gets to offer an interpretation: it is said he will produce an apostolic exhortation in response to the synod. It is worth remembering that Evangelii Gaudium was a document in this same genre. This suggests that it really is too early to say that nothing much has changed at this synod: at this stage we simply don’t know how what has just concluded may in the end be understood.
Thirdly, in the comments he has made in relation to the synod, Pope Francis has already introduced quite an important shift. Normally, in church debates (Catholic or otherwise) around anything to do with sex, it is pretty clear at what point judgment comes in. The question is precisely whether they—they who engage in one or another type of sexual relation outside the accepted pattern—must be judged more severely or more leniently or not at all. “They” are generally presumed not to be present in the room where the discussion is underway. And the morality or otherwise of those who hold the conversation is not typically a topic of conversation. Each party in the debate may of course consider the other wrong, but disagreements are framed on the level of intellectual difference, of divergent interpretation of text or tradition or situation.
What Francis has done, particularly in his speech at the close of the synod, is to introduce the possibility that the spotlight of moral judgment can swivel: it can be shone back on those who make the judgments, and indeed on their very act of judging. So, describing what he had just listened to for the past weeks, he talked of closed hearts “which frequently hide even behind the church’s teaching”; he spoke of “those who would ‘indoctrinate’ [the Gospel] in dead stones to be hurled at others”; and of the “recurring temptations of the elder brother” (i.e., the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, the brother who resented the father’s mercy). The message is clear: if those in authority judge when they should not judge, if they fail to find a path to mercy when they ought to find a path to mercy, this is not being conservative and cautious in defense of the Gospel: this is being opposed to the Gospel.
Whether Pope Francis will use this sort of principle to sift and interpret the results of the Synod on the Family we can’t of course know at this stage. But even if he doesn’t, the precedent is deeply significant. A whole new way of talking about authority and its use has been introduced, and it has been introduced from the highest level of authority in the Catholic Church.