As the extraordinary synod on the family comes to a close, one thing has become abundantly clear: Many commentators who made fanciful predictions about what Pope Francis and the synod would do have turned out to be wrong.
In the months leading up to the synod, both progressives and traditionalists, and even some seasoned Vatican reporters, were assuring us of the momentous events about to take place: And sure enough, after the synod commenced, as if to fulfill their own prophecies, words and phrases like “revolution,” “earthquake,” and “seismic shifts,” filled their commentaries. Yet when the synod finally closed, there were no such upheavals. The final message of the synod repeats essential Catholic teaching on the family, calls for further reflectionbut not fundamental changeson how to pastor the divorced and remarried, and clarifies some ambiguous language of the synod’s initial draft-report, particularly regarding homosexuality (though even the imperfect original draft was widely misrepresented).
It has to be acknowledged that Francis has made some controversial prudential appointments, and empowered prelates like Bruno Forte and Walter Kasper, who, at the very least, have caused confusion about where the Church stands on certain “hot button” issues. And yet Francis has also supported Cardinals Mueller, Pell and Napier, who have strongly upheld orthodoxy, and whom the Pope evidently listens to more closely, judging by this synod’s outcome.
The final reportnot a magisterial document, but expressive of the synod’s willwas published with the full approval of the Pope, and is by any measure “conservative” in nature. The statement even quotes from a 2003 Vatican documentsigned by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and approved by St. John Paul IIwhich is quite strong in its teaching against homosexual conduct and same-sex unions. Further, Pope Francis’s concluding speech to the synod not only quotes an outstanding address by Pope Benedict on the teaching authority of the Church, but rebukes those who forsake the Cross and “bow down to a worldly spirit, instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God”; and of employing byzantine language which misleads the faithful.
Claims from alarmists that Francis was about to “rock” the Church, and repudiate the legacy of his predecessors, now look dated and overhyped.
Of course, they should have known better. Francis has called Humanae Vitae “prophetic” and just beatified Paul VI, the pontiff who issued it. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis spoke out strongly against same-sex relations, and when some claimed Francis had changed his views, after becoming pope, the Vatican reaffirmed what he said in Argentina. Francis has upheld Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of Christian marriage, and the all-male priesthood, even as he has called for a new appreciation for women. This is not even to mention his very traditional declarations on sin, Satan, and eternal damnation.
Having been proven wrong about Francis’s alleged radicalism, many of these same commentatorsfar from issuing mea culpasare putting up a brave front, and maintaining that the real changes will come a year from now at the final, larger, concluding synod. By that time, so goes the reasoning, Francis will have appointed more bishops and Cardinals to his likingthus packing the ecclesiastic court, so to speakand the changes he supposedly wanted this time around, but was not able to bring about, will finally prevail. Never mind that the Pope has full authority, and could have intervened at any moment during this synod to express his (supposed) will, and overrule anyone who objected. And never mind that none of us knowhowever healthy and secure we appear to bewhether we will be alive tomorrow, let alone a year from now, when the synod is scheduled to end.
The whole, “Francis will radicalize the Church, in his own good time” narrative, makes Francis look presumptuous and overconfidentif not a sneakand depicts him as weak, foolish and deceptivenone of which this dedicated man and pontiff is.
If could be objected, “Perhaps Francis has enough faith in the Holy Spirit to believe that he will be alive and well in a year, and that his gradual approach toward reforming the Church will ultimately win the day.”
Fair enough, and those of us who have defended Francis against the idea that he is a revolutionary could respond, “Perhaps we have enough faith in the Holy Spirit and in Francis to trust that his inspiring pontificatewhich we pray will be healthy and longwill bring about genuine, as distinct from false, ‘reform,’ and will reaffirm the great truths of the Catholic Church, just as Francis did at this initial synod.”
What has emerged from the coverage of this synodapart from an unwillingness to accept definitive Catholic teachings, and a complete misunderstanding of what the development of Catholic doctrine actually meansis how secularized and time-bound the commentary is (evenand alas, among self-professed Catholics).
In his book, The Timeless Christian (1969)written at a time when there was even more revolutionary fervor in Church-related commentaryErik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn showed how believers could be attentive to their times, without sacrificing their perennial Christian beliefs. Reading it today provides a healthy antidote to the wishful thinking of our times. More importantly, it’s a reminder that, for the timeless Christian, the biggest revolution is the Incarnationand in the Kingdom of Christ, the only “earthquake” of consequence is the one coming on Judgment Day. For that, we should all preparenot in fear and apprehensionbut by a renewed and hope-filled commitment to the teachings of Christ and his Church.