The Pope’s Twin Challenges

Pope Francis has been in office for a little over a month now, but many people still wonder what kind of a pope he is – and will be. It’s not the gestures of simplicity and humility, both of which, in differing ways, have existed in the Vatican since Paul VI’s reforms. Rather, many people are asking: What he will actually do, once the honeymoon is over?

We may have gotten two crucial indicators about that question this week. He confirmed a decision made under Benedict XVI to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) – of which more below. And he also announced the formation of an advisory group of eight cardinals, from all corners of the globe, to help him figure out how to carry out reform closer to home: in the Vatican Curia.   

What should we think of these two moves, which came in rapid succession?

To put them in a larger context, we may be seeing a Church with even steadier ways of acting on the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, of course, over thirty-five years repaired some of the damage caused by people drunk on the new wine in the Council’s immediate aftermath. Both re-affirmed constant Catholic teaching. But it’s no secret that religious orders, universities, chanceries, even some bishops resisted.

This has long been a complaint of so-called “conservative” Catholics – a label applied from the outside, as if following the settled teaching of 2000 years in matters of faith and morals was merely one among many options for Catholics. But as a moderately liberal Catholic friend remarked to me the other day, even he, a former seminarian, grew alarmed at how hopes about Vatican II quickly got out of hand with, it appeared, no one able to do anything about it.

The Council’s vision was a renewed, more evangelical Church. It also encouraged a more “collegial” mode of decision-making – collegiality, properly understood, being subsidiarity applied within the Church itself.  But to move away from the more legalistic and impersonal pre-Conciliar administrative forms did not have to mean also abandoning quite clear theological and moral truths.

It’s precisely here that the recent steps by Pope Francis may be quite encouraging. On the LCWR, he chose what any good pastor – no, any sane human being – would see as necessary governance. In the United States, the mainstream press immediately turned last year’s clash into a political controversy, pitting independent women against a male hierarchy, and the preferential option for social work over an allegedly abstract religious orthodoxy.

        The Merchants Chased from the Temple by James Tissot, c. 1890

But this was the rankest nonsense. LCWR has been practicing something close to goddess worship for decades. Witness their last national conference. (I’m serious about this – spend a few minutes with the linked program.) If the leadership of a religious body cannot ask its members to practice their professed religion, why even have different faith groups? It’s declaring – as many did in the press – that social work or the shibboleth “social” justice is real religion and everything else is debatable, if not sheer nonsense, and merely an excuse for power plays.

That’s why Pope Francis’s second move is significant. Some commentators see his appointment of the eight cardinals to advise him on internal Vatican reform as an example of Conciliar “collegiality.” To me, that’s not entirely clear, though it’s a far better approach than the sweeping first-100-days housecleaning some advocated – slower but surer, and likely to produce greater consensus.

Paul VI also appointed a commission, to advise him before he wrote his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae – and then ignored its advice on contraception, as he should have. In any organization, it helps to consult broadly. But group decisions can be wish-washy or just as wrongheaded as autocratic rule. Ultimately, the boss needs to judge – especially about essential truths, which do not automatically emerge from group deliberations. Still, better to hear from others first.

The common claims that papal power is too centralized actually have a hard case to make. Other than two doctrinal declarations – about the Virgin Mary – over the past 150 years, no pope has declared anything new de fide. Those who want to change Catholicism are the ones seeking power. Orthodox Catholics, including leaders, are passing on what they received, not arrogating power and decisions to themselves.

Francis’s commission, however, introduces some degree of what you can call collegiality where it is appropriate – at the administrative level of figuring out the “how” of being an institution that conveys the Good News to the whole world. The content of the Good News – as Catholics understand it – has long been settled by a far more democratic constituency than during the period of experimentation and disorder after the Council: centuries of voices from different cultures, civilizations, and continents whose lived experience of the Gospel has been sifted, tested, and found good.

The global advisory group will add to that rich experience in continuity with what’s come before. In my view, the Church as an administrative entity is still working out its modern incarnation. In the nineteenth century, the loss of the Papal States was a gain. It freed the Church to be the Church, instead of also a political entity. Similarly, in the twentieth century, eliminating some of the monarchical trappings of the papacy, which began with Paul VI, is of great benefit. Recent popes have been able to speak more directly and personally to the world in an age when this is an urgent necessity.

The challenge for Francis will be two-fold. He’s already made the office of Servant of the Servants of God more visible to a world that doesn’t understand Christian humility. But that humble service must also be joined with strong pastoral governance. He may do right to stay out of the Apostolic Palace and run things from elsewhere. Time will tell. But run things he must, not only to deal with wayward outfits like the LCWR, but to be a real servant to God’s people.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.