As one of the world’s oldest institutions still alive today, the Roman Catholic Church has been at the intersection of traditional versus contemporary many times before. The most recent example of this occurred in October, when Pope Francis called on leading clergy to discuss the Church’s approach on family values.
Among the topics discussed at the synod, a meeting of bishops to discuss or determine changes in doctrine, were some of the most controversial issues facing the Church today. These included gay marriage and whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion. Halfway through the two-week discussion, the Vatican released a preliminary report that caused shockwaves within the Catholic community. The section that prompted the most debate was titled, “Providing for homosexual persons,” and included unprecedented language like, “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.”
The ensuing response from conservative bishops and Catholics was overwhelmingly negative. American Cardinal Raymond Burke claimed the Church was manipulating information and misrepresenting the discussions going on behind closed doors. The Vatican responded by stating that this was only a preliminary document serving simply as a summary of the topics being discussed. On the last day of the synod, the bishops voted on the final document that had a less welcoming approach than the previous one. The final version no longer contained the “gifts and qualities” sentence and the title of the section was changed to “Pastoral attention to people of homosexual orientation.” Even this watered down version did not get the two-thirds majority vote required to be included in the document. However, per Pope Francis’ request, the paragraphs were inserted in the final document along with the vote count. The Vatican stated this was because the synod will reconvene in a year’s time to discuss the topics once more, and thus the paragraphs can act as a framework for future discussions. This give and take between conservative Catholics and more liberal ones may resemble the internal conflict among Catholic leaders in steering the future of the religion.
To understand why the topics discussed and the actions of Pope Francis are unconventionally progressive, it is helpful to take a closer look at the steps Pope Francis took during the synod in the context of traditional Catholic doctrine. Last year, when asked about his beliefs on gay priests, Francis replied, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” To put this quote in context, Pope Benedict XVI called homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil.” Additionally, Pope Francis convened the synod to discuss the ways in which the Catholic Church can be more welcoming to the LGBT community. For a religion that deems homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered,” even discussing these topics is unprecedented.
However, convening the synod was not enough for Pope Francis. Halfway through, per Pope Francis’ request, the revolutionary preliminary document containing never before seen language in the history of the Catholic Church was released. Even when the controversial language was then watered down and did not pass, Pope Francis still included it in the final document. In his final speech at the synod, Francis said that bishops were becoming too attached to doctrine, were guided by “hostile rigidity,” and demonstrated a “destructive goody-goodiness.”
Pope Francis’ actions raise two questions that are closely related and are worth considering: Is the Pope too progressive for the current Catholic climate? or Is his progressivism exactly what the Catholic Church needs to reshape its image in the 21st century? I believe the latter.
The Catholic Church is no stranger to controversy. The recent sex abuse scandals, the abrupt resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, and harsh doctrinal language about homosexuality and female leadership roles have tainted the Church’s public image in an increasingly liberal global population. The world has become more receptive to empowering historically marginalized communities. 17 countries have legalized gay marriage and 22 countries have women as President or Prime Minister. Yet, the Catholic Church still does not allow women to become priests and views homosexual activities as sinful. If the Catholic Church wants to remain relevant to the youngest generation and cultivate a sustainable base of support, they must adapt, and this is what Pope Francis is attempting to do.
The last time there were substantial changes to the Catholic Church was during the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965 where institutional modifications, like changing the language used in Holy Mass from Latin to the vernacular, helped ease the Church’s transition into the modern world. Vatican II was called because the Pope at the time (Pope John XXIII) was receptive to the cultural changes ushered in from the aftermath of WWII and wanted to ensure the Church could adapt. The similarities between the Catholic Church’s efforts in the 1960s and Pope Francis’ efforts today are evident, and perhaps Vatican III could be around the corner.
The bishops who convened at October’s synod will be outlived by a generation far more receptive to the needs and desires of communities that have been suppressed. The Catholic Church needs to ensure that it not only has enough support to remain relevant, but also promotes ideologies that are compatible with what it means to be Catholic in the 21st century. However, there is a flipside to this argument. The region with the fastest-growing Catholic population is Sub-Saharan Africa. The Catholics from this region also tend to be the most conservative. Out of the 47 countries on the African continent,36 have outlawed homosexuality and 4 have the death penalty for homosexual acts. Sub-Saharan Africans could become the next major Catholic population, and the future of Catholic doctrine could be heavily influenced by their beliefs.
For the moment however, Pope Francis is doing nearly everything in his power to help usher in a new age for the Catholic Church. His controversial and progressive tactics are causing ripples through an institution that has traditionally clung to its centuries old doctrines and beliefs. Pope Francis is getting senior clerics to talk about some of the most contentious issues that have remained taboo in the Church for quite some time. He could be exactly what the ancient institution needs to mature into the 21st century without losing its relevance and legitimacy.