The year now beginning will be the first complete calendar year through which Pope Francis will guide the Church. In nine months so far, he has created something like a sensation. But what can we expect of him in the coming 12 months?
Much of the excitement in the press and over the airways derives from the conviction that Francis is a Pope of change. The more perspicacious commentators note that he is unlikely to bring about the reversal of the Catholic teachings which they so desire. But they credit him with creating a new atmosphere, privileging a pastoral approach which breaks with the image of an unbendingly dogmatic Church, one at risk of becoming irrelevant in a materialistic world little interested in abstract theological ideas and even less inclined to submit to moral strictures which might curtail its rampant hedonism.
In reality, the changes in the first months were largely matters of style. Francis’s style in preaching and teaching is certainly more accessible, with an emphasis on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy. In other words, the new Pope seems more concerned to direct our actions, rather than correct our notions. In one sense this may be a needful redressing of the balance.
As the Epistle of James reminds us, faith without works is dead. Amid the explosion of comment and punditry brought about by the development of the blogosphere, there have been strident voices raised in defence of doctrinal orthodoxy which have sometimes done disservice to the defence of Catholic truth by a conspicuous lack of charity. More worryingly still, some of these show remarkably little concern for the plight of the poor and the cause of social justice. If Francis sometimes shows little patience with “restorationist” currents in Catholicism, it may well be that his attitude has been coloured by encounters with such selective moralising.
Nonetheless, the papal office is by its very nature – indeed, by divine institution – concerned first and foremost with the preservation and defence of the Deposit of Faith. The Pope has so far left this largely to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and its prefect, Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller. This is doubtless to enable him to present himself to the world as an evangeliser rather than a watchdog, at the head of a Church turned outward rather than inward. It does, however, entail dangers.
In recent weeks we have seen a public spat between Archbishop Müller and certain other German prelates of the highest rank, over the possibility of readmitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments. This is not only unseemly, it is also dangerous.
The Pope seems to be waiting upon the extraordinary synod on the family, convened for the coming October, before making a definitive judgment. In the meantime, he will need to steady the barque if the synodal debate is to be serene and the outcome received by the whole Church. If the debate is not well guided, there is a threat to unity. A decision for relaxing the rules would risk alienating and disorientating many who have respected and defended the present discipline, often at real personal cost.
On the other hand, a decision to maintain the status quo might unleash a storm reminiscent of the dissent caused by the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1967. That decision disappointed many who were confidently expecting a different outcome, and proved a turning point in the pontificate of Paul VI. That pope, who had been previously hailed as a confident proponent of reform, often appeared beleaguered and broken afterwards. To avoid such an eventuality, Pope Francis needs to play his role as teacher of the faith and centre of Catholic unity with clarity and courage. It is a daunting task for any human being, and the Pope needs our prayers.
Another area where substantial change has begun already concerns the choice of the Pope’s close collaborators. The eight cardinals who now officially comprise the body providing his closest advisers seem to have been picked principally to be representative of the geographical and cultural diversity within the Universal Church.
It must also be recognised that there exists within the Church (in fact, there always has) a diversity of theological outlooks and convictions on the best way to present the Faith in today’s world. Most popes have favoured advisers corresponding to their own way of thinking, although they have also been careful, whether out of conviction or necessity, to include representatives of different theological currents. Contrary to what was sometimes affirmed, Benedict XVI willingly created bishops and cardinals of a more “progressive” outlook, provided he judged them competent and sincere in their desire to pursue constructive dialogue within the tradition of Catholic theology.
Recent personnel changes in Rome have given some commentators the impression that a factional purge is in progress, with several prominent “Ratzingerians” abruptly shown the door. It is normal for the Pope to favour those he feels he can work with, those from or with a knowledge of Latin America for example. But he needs also to show that he is even-handed, eschews anything smacking of “nepotism”, and does in fact, as he has said, value the advice of those who disagree with him.
In particular, the next few weeks will see the publication of the names of the cardinals to be created at the consistory planned to take place in February. Some should be a matter of course, like that of our own Archbishop Nichols. Others, however, will reveal the direction in which the Pope wishes the Church to move – he is, after all, choosing men who will elect his successor. It is a matter requiring the greatest prudence and balance.
These and other challenges – some known only to the Pope, others as yet unforeseen – await him and the whole Church in 2014. Benedict XVI, with characteristic humility, once said to journalists that the pope, any pope, is not an oracle. He is a human being who makes prudential judgments guided by his own conscience and lights and constantly seeking divine assistance. The Holy Spirit guides him, and the whole Church, in proportion to his own, personal holiness but also to the fervour of the whole Church and the intensity of our prayer. Let us not fail Pope Francis.