Letter from Rome

Where Francis Stands on Developing Church Doctrine

No synod assembly ever has captured, even remotely, the interest of so many people around the world as the one underway right now in Rome. And on Monday it got a lot more interesting.

The publication of the controversial document summarizing the interventions made during the Synod on the Family’s first week brought both rapturous praise and fierce criticism. In the last few days a cross-section of just about everyone in the Church has added his or her two cents to the mix. And you’d better believe Pope Francis is paying close attention – especially to what the men wearing miters are saying. He asked for an honest and open debate and now he’s got one.

In crude terms, it comes down to those who favor a further development of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality and those who want to merely bolster its current doctrine. Anyone who doubts where Papa Bergoglio stands on this divide need only re-read the blockbuster interview he gave in the summer of 2013 to Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica. He was asked how the church should respond to the “anthropological challenge;” that is, our changing conception of what it means to be human. “The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching,” he said.

“We grow in the understanding of the Truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong,” the pope said.

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Keep your eye on Fr. Antonio Spadaro. The forty-eight-year-old Italian is one of only six men that are not bishops but, nonetheless, are full voting members at the current synod assembly. Three of them are Jesuits, including the general of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas. He and two other religious order heads were elected by the Union of Superiors General. Instead, Pope Francis personally appointed Fr. Spadaro and the other two priests to be Synod fathers. Among them is François-Xavier Dumortier, SJ, rector of the Gregorian University. Of these three Jesuits, Spadaro’s participation at the synod is the most interesting. In fact, the journalist/editor has been more and more present in the Vatican ever since his interview with the pope was published last year. And people on the inside say he’s even very much involved behind the scenes.

Francis obviously trusts him, and fellow journalists have found in Padre Antonio a reliable interpreter of the mind of the pope. The synod is yet another proving ground for the bright, friendly, and media-savvy Sicilian. Rumors have been swirling the past several months that he is being groomed to replace his seventy-two-year-old Jesuit confrere, Fr. Federico Lombardi, as director of the Vatican Press Office or head of Vatican Radio. But Pope Francis could appoint him to be first head of a new office to oversee all the Vatican’s media operations. That bureau is likely to be created once Lord Patten and his eleven-member commission finish reviewing the various communication sectors at the Vatican and offer recommendations to better coordinate them. That should happen sometime next spring.

But Fr. Spadaro is probably not the only one who is likely to emerge from the synod with new and more important responsibilities. Also watch for Archbishops Bruno Forte (Italy) and Victor Manuel Fernandez (Argentina) to be tapped for important jobs.

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The last two popes have spoken about the need to make more room for the contribution of women in the church. But, unfortunately, even Pope Francis has not done much to make good on that pledge. The current synod was a typical missed opportunity.

This is a synod of bishops, so there are no non-ordained members, which de facto excludes women. But there could have been more women among the experts, especially because so many of them throughout the world teach in Catholic universities in all disciplines (including theology), work in church tribunals as canon lawyers, and hold other important roles in society. There are sixteen experts at this assembly, but only four of them are women; one is part of a husband-wife tandem. They are from Italy, Korea, Lebanon, and Spain. But among the thirty-eight observers (or auditors), women outnumber the men twenty-one to sixteen. There are thirteen married couples in this category. Of course, experts and observers do not get a vote, but they do have the opportunity to speak before the general assembly and offer input in small group discussions. It all seems very much like tokenism.

Just look at the synod in session. In a meeting room filled with more than two hundred people, mostly clerics (bishops, priests and seminarian-aides), only twenty-five are women. It’s not exactly an edifying image of inclusiveness. But you don’t have to be inside the Synod Hall to see how clerical-heavy the church is, especially at the Vatican. An official from a major U.S. diocese was in Rome last week and he made an interesting observation after attending Pope Francis’ general audience. He complained: “Everyone that was near the pope on the platform or had a role in introducing him was wearing a dress – priests and bishops in cassocks.”

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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