The Synod on the family is getting ready to wrap up in Rome, and–not surprisingly–the coverage of it by the mainstream American media shows widespread confusion about what Catholicism is, or about how the Catholic Church understands itself. We find a prominent example of this in the Washington Post‘s latest offering: “Vatican Meeting Reveals Growing Catholic Divide Over Divorce and Homosexuality,” by Anthony Faiola.
Faiola begins by noting “conservative” opposition to certain “reforms” discussed at the synod. Then he says that such opposition shows “just how hard it may be for the pope to recast the church in his image.” This remark betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Catholicism and of Pope Francis. No serious, devoted Catholic would think that it is the part of a good pope to “recast the church in his” own “image.” Such a project would be hubristic in the extreme. It would be a kind of insane ambition for a statesman to try to “recast” his country in his own image. But how much more bizarre would such an ambition be for someone who believed that the Church is founded by God? There is no way that Francis would accept this as a description of his aims.
Faiola, as is very common for secular journalists who report on Catholicism, frames the whole debate as being about possible “policy” changes. This loose sort of language obscures the difference between doctrine, which cannot change, and discipline or rules, which can.
Unfortunately, the confusion is not confined to the reporters. Faiola quotes Rev. Thomas J. Reese as comparing Pope Francis’s position to that of President Obama. “Francis has the same problem that Obama had,” says Reese. “He promised the world, but Congress wouldn’t let him deliver. If nothing much comes of this synod, I think people will give the pope a pass and blame the bishops for stopping change.”
This is silly or wrong on many levels. First of all, Reese cannot produce any statements from Francis in which the pope “promised the world” in terms of changes in the Church. Second, his analysis overlooks the fact that the relationship between the president and the Congress is not at all like that between the pope and the synod. The president cannot change the laws, but the Congress can. So Congress can certainly stymie a president’s legislative agenda. While neither the pope nor the bishops have the authority to change the Church’s doctrine, there certainly is an authority in the Church to change the Church’s disciplines. That authority, however, actually belongs to the pope. So if the changes that Reese seems to want do not come about, it will be because Francis did not want them.
Finally, it is more than a little dismaying and aggravating to see a well-educated man, and a priest no less, like Reese adopting the sloganeering rhetoric of secular politics. The bishops, he says, will be guilty of “stopping change”–as if “change” can be assumed to be good without some examination of what, exactly, it entails.
Faiola spends some time retailing the opinions of certain observers that the pope might, depending on what he does with the synod’s work, see a “collapse of his popularity in world public opinion.” But why would the pope care about this? He is the Vicar of Christ. Jesus told his followers that the world hated him and would hate them, too. I am not saying that it is impossible for any pope, bishop, or any Christian to worry excessively about his popularity. We all have our frailties, and this is a hard one to overcome. But an intelligent treatment of Catholicism would note the incongruity of the suggestion that calculations of worldly popularity are even relevant to a discussion of what the Catholic Church decides to do.