Sunday, October 27, 2019

As Synod Closes With Call for "Creativity," The Pope's Pledge: "I Will Pick Up the Gauntlet"

Six years ago, even as it initially became clear that the Synod of Bishops would emerge as "the key to [Francis'] shake-up" of the ecclesial order, to sense that a bulked-up assembly could give the Pope a mandate to explore the possibility of female clergy and a "universal approach" to married priests would've seemed like a liberal fever dream.

Yet now, here we are.

A far cry from the pre-2013 rote that saw anodyne texts kept within tight "guardrails" from the Curia, given Saturday's complete passage of a Final Document that even hinted at changes to the church's hierarchical makeup and urged a sweeping, ground-up approach to inculturation, it wouldn't seem a stretch to say that, had this text been presented before Francis, its authors – and anyone who voted for it – likely would've risked being removed from office (or placed under CDF investigation). In that light, that each of the document's 120 propositions secured the requisite two-thirds' approval is simply astonishing in itself.

To be sure, and as expected, the final language of the most live-wire elements – the call for a resumed study of women in the diaconate, and affirming the normative place of priestly celibacy while seeking a local adaptation for "viri probati" "in the most remote areas of the Amazon" – was duly massaged with enough conditionals to make the proposals acceptable to Fathers on the fence. Still, and regardless of what happens from here, that the sheer concepts made the final product and attained passage represents a watershed – not since its 1985 edition adopted the freshly-elevated Cardinal Bernard Law's idea to seek the church's first universal catechism since Trent has any Synod done anything that could impact Catholic life and practice anywhere... and that the editor of said catechism would emerge as the "broker" in this scenario yields a distinct impression of history drawing straight with crooked lines.

Especially as the church has conferred priestly ordination on several hundred married men in the Latin church over the last four decades – first through John Paul II's Pastoral Provision, then Benedict XVI's Anglican ordinariates – it's striking that, by the vote-counts, the notion of possibly admitting women to the permanent diaconate showed itself to be palpably less troublesome for the Synod Fathers than granting a further, merely regional dispensation for married priests.

In any case, the reactions from the warring camps outside the Aula made for a fitting last lap of the circus atmosphere that's surrounded these three weeks: while the Italian press blared that the outcome represented "the triumph of the reformers" – and one progressive lobby-group exulted (presumably with a straight face) that "We are ready to deliver new forms of ministry for women!... The cardinalate!... The papacy!" – the Synod's traditionalist opposition called a demonstration outside today's closing Mass "to prevent the evil" of the stolen Amazonian statues retrieved from the Tiber on Friday from making a last appearance in St Peter's.

Ostensibly to prevent any disturbance of the Mass with an attempt to steal the images again, the now-famous statues were conspicuous by their absence.

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Returning to matters of actual substance, among other perks of being the Roman Synod's sole legislator, the body's president doesn't get just one "last word," but three.

Accordingly, while the closing Mass saw Francis heap scorn on the Pharisee in today's Gospel who "stands in the temple of God, but he worships a different god: himself" – adding for good measure that "many 'prestigious' groups, 'Catholic Christians,' go along this path" today – the more significant final talk (so far) came last night with the Pope's usual programmatic wrap-up in the Aula.

Unlike his prior three Synods, such was the agenda at hand and the pace of developments that the pontiff didn't have a written text for his evening remarks, but gave them off-the-cuff.

Ergo, here's the translated film – and an English translation of the remarks has just emerged:

Of course, the ultimate "last word" yet awaits – and in the Aula close, Francis surprised the group by noting that his Post-Synodal Exhortation (which had been forecast for release in the first months of 2020) would likely be finished "before the end of the year."

As with the discernment that produced Amoris Laetitia – the product of his first two Synods – Papa Bergoglio again faces the challenge of "threading the needle" between what, in that instance, he termed an "immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, [or] an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations."

What's more, though, with this test-pilot for the Synod's fullest capability as a change-agent now successfully in the can – at least, as Francis & Co. would judge it – the Pope slipped another stealth "bomb" into the talk, revealing his thought that the assembly's next edition might just focus on "synodality" itself.

As the rebooted process has, on its own, become an increasing frustration for his critics, the prospect that a future Synod could be made to tackle the substance of decentralizing ecclesial governance in full is the clearest sign yet that, for Francis, the "journey" – and its changes – are far from finished.