Pope Francis arrives in Cuba Saturday, followed immediately by a swing through Washington, New York, and the World Meeting on Families in Philadelphia. Just a few days after he returns to Rome, the Synod on the Family will open and run through almost the entire month of October. Analysts will pick apart the visits to Cuba and America – rightly so, because they involve the most prominent Communist survivor (Cuba) of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the premier protagonist in the international arena today (USA). But in terms of real impact in the world, it’s quite likely that the Synod on the Family will have the most far-reaching consequences.
Pope Francis has been in Cuba before (never in America), and helped broker President Obama’s recent restoration of diplomatic relations with the island. He was asked to be present during John Paul II’s 1998 trip and even wrote a short book about it later, which set out what we have come to see as Francis’s basic social vision.
In his native Argentina, the Montoneros, Marxists financed and abetted by Castro, murdered over 800 people, kidnapped over 1700 more, exploded hundreds of bombs in cities, and assaulted army and police. Unlike his fellow countryman Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Jorge Bergoglio never felt any love for Marxism.
But as the Cuban book showed, Bergoglio had already developed an equal dislike of what Latin Americans often call “neoliberalism” – an unregulated capitalism that most of us in developed nations don’t recognize as an accurate description of our politics and economies. Indeed, in Europe and America, the national state is more and more involved in every aspect of economics, local governance, and even cultural and moral questions.
As Austen Ivereigh explains in The Great Reformer , his indispensable biography of Pope Francis, the future pope was much influenced by a maverick intellectual and friend Methol Ferré. They “foresaw the Latin-American Church as the catalyst of a common Latin-American destiny – la patria grande – in a global future marked by continent-states. After the failures of both the North American model of economic growth and Cuban-style socialism, they were convinced that the stage now belonged to the People of God.”
As pope, Francis has retained that basic vision. He will likely repeat it in Cuba. More unpredictable is how he will deal with the Cuban regime, which is still a sponsor of terrorism, though a now minor player in global politics. It just released 3500 prisoners in anticipation of his visit – primarily the old and young, no political prisoners so far as we can tell. Benedict XVI arguably made a grave mistake in not meeting with dissidents during his own visit to Cuba in 2006. The famous Damas de blanco, the Ladies in White who have been fearless in calling for justice for political prisoners, again fear they are being shunned.
The pope has not been particularly well served by staff during recent trips – witness the “surprise” gift by Bolivia’s Marxist president of Jesus crucified on the hammer and sickle, and the pope’s misinformed plea for a political prisoner in Paraguay, who turned out to be held by guerrillas, not the government. The Castro brothers are wily propagandists and manipulators; it will take some Christian cunning to thwart their designs.
The pope’s visit to America is already raising hopes and fears in several quarters. It will be an error, however, to read him solely through the lenses of our partisan politics. We’re already hearing Republicans hoping he’ll push his pro-family, pro-life message; and Democrats equally hoping the social justice and environmental teachings will predominate. The pope’s notion of the importance of a “human ecology” has the potential, properly presented, to transcend that partisanship.
The Philadelphia events will offer ample chances for the pope to clarify his real teaching on marriage and the family – far different than what the media extrapolated from the infamous “Who am I to judge?” By contrast, we can expect that in his addresses to Congress and the United Nations, we’ll hear about poverty, inequality, and environmental threats – though these pleas will probably be tempered by Francis’s belief that population control, abortion, etc., are not the answers to such questions.
The beatification of Fr. Junipero Serra, a Franciscan and one of the great Californian evangelizers, will be a boost for Hispanics, but also for everyone who thinks that lately Christians have been too quick to accept criticisms that evangelization is essentially colonialism. In some readings of Vatican II, the desire to see value in all “cultures” and even other religions, took a lot of steam out of what was back then very successful missionary work. It will be interesting to see how Pope Francis negotiates that minefield.
The most demanding process, however, will begin when he returns to Rome. Last year’s Synod left quite a bit of confusion – and outright anguish – among Catholics. The Synod’s primary aim is to aid the family at a time when it’s under attack, not only by radical ideas like “gender theory,” but by the policies of governments, who seem to think that the way to help the family is, in effect, to destroy it.
This is not small matter in Catholic social teaching, and even in ordinary human considerations, because the family is the basic cell of any sound society. Yet the Synod seemed to be edging towards things like full Communion for the divorced and remarried, and the valuing of homosexual “relationships” – and even perhaps of homosexuality itself, both of which cannot help but further damage an already reeling institution.
How did that happen? To find out, you must read Edward Pentin’s splendid new book, The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?: An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  Note the question mark and careful formulation. Pentin is a highly professional journalist. As a Catholic, he hesitated about writing this account, lest he give unnecessary scandal. But the sourcing and analysis are impeccable throughout, and the result is a reliable account of who did what to whom – and may try to do so again.
When the Vatican announced the streamlining of the annulment process this week, several knowledgeable sources, including Pentin, anticipated that it would take some pressure off the Synod on the question of Communion for the divorced/remarried. John Allen, always worth reading, even claimed the Vatican had told the Germans that that was all they would get at the Synod. Shortly after, Cardinal Marx went public saying the reforms didn’t go far enough, and Cardinal Kasper was back singing his usual song.
It’s going to be a very interesting Fall.