In spite of sensational media claims that Pope Francis suffered a major “defeat” at the hands of conservative bishops during the recently concluded synod on the family, all evidence suggests that the Pope got exactly what he wanted: a frank debate on the situation of Christian families in the world today and how the Church can more effectively serve them.
A title blazoned across the Wall Street Journal proclaimed: “Bishops Hand Pope Defeat on His Outreach to Divorced Catholics,” a misleading statement that suffers from two fundamental errors.
The first mistake is the assumption—since that is all it is—that Pope Francis had a predetermined plan for the synod, which included specific pastoral changes regarding divorced and remarried Catholics. Many have labeled Francis as a liberal or progressive, and so imagine that they know his mind even when his words say something else. In point of fact, throughout the synod the Pope railed against preset agendas, begging the bishops to listen to one another and above all to the Holy Spirit.
In his opening address before the synod fathers, Francis stated: “We need evangelical humility to put aside our own ideas and prejudices to listen to our brother bishops and let God fill us.”
“The only method of the synod,” Francis said, is that of “opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit with apostolic courage, evangelical humility and confident prayer” so that He will “guide us, enlighten us, and keep before our eyes not our personal opinions, but faith in God, fidelity to the Magisterium, the good of the Church, and the salvation of souls.”
Moreover, Francis has never said anything more than his predecessor Saint John Paul II when referring to the best ways to reach out to divorced and remarried Catholics. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Pope wants to make the divorced and remarried feel at home and welcomed in the Church—a message in keeping with the tone of mercy and openness that has characterized his entire pontificate. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that Francis ever advocated a change of discipline regarding Holy Communion, because he has never said that did.
A second error is to think that a group of bishops has the power to hand the Pope a defeat. The bishops have no power over the pope of any kind, so to suggest that they could “overrule him” is to apply political categories that have nothing to do with the Catholic Church.
In his opening address cited above, Francis reminded the bishops that the synod is not “a Parliament or a Senate” and that it had no decision-making authority whatsoever. It was merely a forum for the bishops to discuss with one another and offer counsel to the Pope, which he is free to accept or ignore.
Days ago, the Jesuit priest Thomas Reese made a ridiculous comparison between Pope Francis and President Barack Obama, in which he implied that the Pope had been stymied by a cadre of conservative bishops, the way Obama has been held back by the U.S. Congress.
“Francis has the same problem that Obama had,” said 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.”
In the Pope’s important address commemorating the 50th anniversary of the synod of bishops, he reasserted his authority, reminding the bishops that the synod operates “not only with Peter, but also under Peter.”
“The synodal path culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome,” Francis said, who is “called to teach as ‘Pastor and Teacher of all Christians,’ not from his own personal convictions, but as supreme witness of the faith of the whole Church.”
This is not a pope who underestimates the power of his office, so if progressives are looking for someone to blame for a synod that failed to achieve their dreams, they should look to the top.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome