Is Pope Francis’ desire for a more merciful and decentralized church being realized by the very church leaders most opposed to him? Debates over Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s exhortation on family life, seem to suggest just such a reality.
In order to understand how this dynamic might be working, it is first important to lay out a few news items. I will then explain just what I and others think might be happening at this moment in the Church, and the possible impact for LGBT issues.
This week, Cardinal Raymond Burke threatened a “formal act of correction” against Pope Francis if the pope would not reply to a letter sent to him by Burke and three other cardinals, reported the Catholic Herald.
The four prelates– Cardinals Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmüller, Joachim Meisner, and Burke–submitted five “dubia,” or theological yes/no questions about Amoris Laetitia, but Pope Francis has declined to offer a response. Burke defended the cardinals’ defiant action, telling the Catholic Herald:
” ‘There is, in the tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.’ “
Burke proceeded to say that if ecclesial authority is in conflict with Tradition, it is the latter which is binding. If the pope is in error or heretical, Burke continued, the hierarchy would have not only the option but a duty to correct the pope whose primary purpose is unity. The idea of the pope as an “innovator, who is leading a revolution in the Church” is improper, he claims.
Cardinal Burke, formerly archbishop of St. Louis and then head of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, was demoted by Francis to be chaplain of the Knights of Malta. The two had a private meeting last week following Burke’s laudatory comments for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
Elsewhere, as yesterday’s post noted, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not formally discuss Amoris Laetitia during its fall plenary this week. Cardinal-designate Kevin Farrell, head of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life urged the country’s bishops to collectively address the exhortation, and he even rebuked a handful of bishops who had issued their own, mostly restrictive, pastoral guidelines based on Amoris Laetitia.
Farrell specifically addressed guidelines put forth this summer by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput. These guidelines, among other sanctions, ban people in same-gender marriages from parish ministries and seek to deny Communion to certain Catholics. In response to Farrell’s remarks, which Chaput described as “puzzling,” the archbishop told Catholic News Agency:
” ‘I wonder if Cardinal-designate Farrell actually read and understood the Philadelphia guidelines he seems to be questioning. The guidelines have a clear emphasis on mercy and compassion.”
Besides the Burke and Chaput discussions, conversations, and even quite heated debates, about Amoris Laetitia are happening worldwide.
In Germany, according to the National Catholic Reporter, the bishops have been divided on whether to admit to Communion persons who are divorced and remarried. During their fall meeting, the bishops discussed the exhortation, and pastoral guidelines are expected in the coming months.
In Argentina, it was reported in September that Pope Francis had signed off on pastoral guidelines created by the bishops there, saying their document was “very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia [which concerns people in irregular situations].”
In Rome, the Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has published essays defending Amoris Laetitia against conservative critics in the church. And Farrell has been very clear that the exhortation and surrounding conversations are “the Holy Spirit speaking” and, per the National Catholic Reporter, that the document is “faithful to the doctrine and to the teaching of the church.”
At one level, all of these debates impact LGBT people and their families because the specifics of pastoral guidelines and the new openness to accompanying all people that is intended by Pope Francis can have very real consequences, positive and negative.
But on a deeper level, there are ecclesiological implications of the Amoris Laetitia debate, begun when the pope first called the Synod on the Family and led the church universal into that process. It is ironic that Cardinal Burke is claiming bishops have a right and duty to correct the pope or that Archbishop Chaput is defending the power of local ordinaries to act pastorally in their contexts when they have so often defended a legalist, centralized, even authoritarian understanding of church.
Even more ironically, their protests display episcopal collegiality and ecclesial decentralization that they have traditionally staunchly resisted. This collegial and decentralized perspective is favored by Pope Francis and, in fact, called for by Vatican II. So, for bishops conferences to be debating and even ignoring a papal document is, in a sense, progress. For bishops to understand they have a certain co-responsibility for the church, and that the papacy exists within the college of bishops is progress, too. It is odd, though, that those who have so strongly resisted such practices are now promoting them.
Movement towards a church that, to quote the pope, is “home for all” will benefit LGBT equality. It is good when church ministers have greater autonomy to respond to their contexts and the specific needs of their people. It is good when the coercive powers of the pope and the Vatican are lessened in favor of broader power sharing. It is good when theology is messy and pastoral responses are not entirely clear. This is the chaos in which the Spirit works and from which a renewed church that practices inclusion and abides by justice comes forth.
So what do you think: are these bishops helping the church move to being a home for all? Could it be that Cardinal Burke, Archbishop Chaput, and their confreres who are so forcefully and publicly resisting Pope Francis are actually, if unwittingly, helping to advance the pope’s agenda for the church? Or are their efforts hindering Pope Francis and/or the cause of equality?
–Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, November 18, 2016