Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pope Francis' plans for inclusiveness divide bishops

Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo
New York Times
October 21, 2015

Pope Francis had encouraged bishops from more than 120 countries to speak freely when they gathered at the Vatican nearly three weeks ago for a broad discussion of family matters to guide the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. And speak freely, they have.

The result has been the most momentous, and contentious, meeting of bishops in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council, which brought the church into the modern era. The meeting has exposed deep fault lines between traditionalists focused on shoring up doctrine, and those who want the church to be more open to Catholics who are divorced, gay, single parents or cohabiting.

As the bishops face a deadline Saturday to present their report to the pope, it is increasingly clear that Francis is struggling to build consensus for his vision of a more inclusive and decentralized church. The question is whether the pope, who has won the hearts of those in the pews, can persuade the bishops to help create a church that fully welcomes people with the kinds of family situations it now condemns.

“This is a pivotal moment of this pontificate,” said Roberto Rusconi, who teaches the history of Christianity at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, a state school. Pope Francis is sounding out the world’s bishops “to better understand whether they are going to follow his line or not.”

“The risk,” Professor Rusconi said, “is polarization.”

Already the summit meeting — known as a synod — has had to conduct its debate amid a distracting swirl of intrigue that has included the leak in the Italian media of a private letter to Francis from 13 cardinals asserting that he had stacked the 10-member committee drafting the final report with partisans favorable to his vision of change. Then on Wednesday, an Italian newspaper reported that Francis had a treatable brain tumor — a report the Vatican swiftly declared to be “unfounded.”

The synod meetings are closed to the media, but at daily briefings bishops have said that Francis appears serene and quite pleased to have uncorked a genuine debate. On Saturday, the synod’s final report is expected to be published and the 270 participating bishops, known as synod fathers, will vote up or down on each passage.

Progressives, led by the contingent from Germany, are pushing for a church that is more welcoming toward divorced, gay and other parishioners who are not living the Catholic ideal of family. The German bishops have found allies among some prelates from Western Europe, Asia and the Americas.

The traditionalists — whose standard bearers are the African and Eastern European bishops — have resisted any proposals that appear to soften the church’s doctrine that marriage is “indissoluble” and homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.”

In one indication of their fervor, Cardinal Robert Sarah, who is from Guinea and leads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, told the synod, “What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.”

Bishops from the United States have revealed themselves to be just as divided as their flock back home. Their tensions surfaced here when an Italian newspaper reported last week that Cardinals Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Daniel N. DiNardo of Houston were among 13 who signed the letter to Francis complaining about the drafting committee. On that panel is a fellow American, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.

This week Cardinal Wuerl, usually known as a centrist diplomat, fired back in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America, saying the charges that the pope was trying to manipulate the synod’s outcome or undermine church teaching were unfounded.

“I don’t know what would bring people to say the things that they are saying because we are all hearing the pope, and the pope is saying nothing that contradicts the teaching of the church,” Cardinal Wuerl said. “He’s encouraging us to be open, to be merciful, to be kind, to be compassionate, but he keeps saying that you cannot change the teaching of the church.”

“I wonder,” he added, “if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope.”

The synod can make recommendations, but unlike the three-year Second Vatican Council, it cannot make decisions. That power lies with the pope.

Francis is expected to speak to the bishops this weekend, giving him the last word after the bishops vote on their final report. But it could be many months before Francis issues an official document on the church’s approach to family issues, and it has not been determined what that document will cover and what weight it will have, several Vatican spokesmen have said.

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