One major piece of disappointment came with Pope Francis’ endorsement of the on-going inquisition of American nuns. I’m not sure entirely what to make of it – is it an early indicator of Francis’ theological conservatism or simply acquiescing to a process already long underway? We will see by the disciplinary actions eventually taken (or not). The nuns would seem to have more in common with the Jesuit Francis, if only because he is aware of the need for outreach among religious orders – even to places and people that discomfort others. That was Jesus’ call, and Saint Francis’ and St Ignatius’. We’ll see what transpires in the end, but, obviously, I hope the Sisters can soon renew their vital work without constantly looking behind their backs.
But three other developments strike me as encouraging. The first – and least sexy – is the establishment of a global council of advisers in the governing of the church. This may seem a trivial reform. It isn’t. It restores the Second Vatican Council’s desire to place the Pope in a less dictatorial position, and to open up areas of authority within the global church as a counter-balance. And so this new governing commission – made up of highly effective cardinals in every continent – is a big shift:
More profound thinkers have read the Pope’s creation of a group of advisers as a bold new step towards fully implementing a model of ecclesial government evoked by the Second Vatican Council – one that is less centralised, more collegial and based on the principles of subsidiarity.
“What Pope Francis has announced is the most important step in the history of the Church of the last 10 centuries and in the 50-year period of reception of Vatican II,” said the noted church historian Alberto Melloni. Writing in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, he said the Pope had “created a synodal organ of bishops that must experiment with the exercise of the consilium”. In other words, shared governance of the Church between the Bishop of Rome and all the world’s bishops.
Detailed proposals for this were put forth in Archbishop Quinn’s book, ["The Reform of the Papacy"] which in 2005 appeared in Spanish. Pope Francis read that work when he was still just a cardinal in Argentina and, at around that time, he reportedly expressed his conviction that at least some of its ideas should be adopted.
More surprising is the support for civil unions for gay couples that seems to be percolating on the margins. The Pope argued for them in Argentina within the Jesuit branch he ran (it was the sole argument he lost in his years in president of the Conference), and earlier this year, some wiggle room for gay couples in civil law was mentioned by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. This was only a defensive action against civil marriage rights for gay couples, but it was a concession to reality one cannot imagine Benedict XVI ever making. Now this:
The latest expression of support for civil recognition as an alternative to gay marriage comes from Archbishop Piero Marini, who served for 18 years as Pope John Paul II’s liturgical master of ceremonies. “There are many couples that suffer because their civil rights aren’t recognized,” Marini said.
The third indication of good news is the fact that Pope Francis has unblocked Oscar Romero’s path to beatification:
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints has been studying the Romero case since 1996, after the church in El Salvador formally opened the procedure in 1990. At the end of his 20-minute homily Sunday, Paglia said: “Just today, the day of the death of Don Tonino Bello, the cause of the beatification of Monsignor Romero has been unblocked.” Paglia had been received by Pope Francis on Saturday, and presumably the decision to authorize moving forward with the cause came out of that session.
Romero was shot to death while saying Mass in El Salvador on March 24, 1980. While he is seen as a hero to many because of his solidarity with the poor and his opposition to human rights abuses, his cause has also been viewed with suspicion in some quarters, partly because of Romero’s links to the controversial liberation theology movement.
(Photo: Crocuses in bloom. By Oli Scarff/Getty Images)