Pope Francis visited both the weak and the powerful as he barnstorms from Washington, D.C. to Philly to New York City. The hype is understandable, though it must be added that this is merely a pre-party before the main event.
That would be next month’s meeting in Rome which is officially known as the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The focus of that meeting is “the family,” so this will be a real opportunity for the pope, the cardinals, the bishops -- and Catholics all across the world -- to discuss those vexing issues that (and let’s be clear about this) have inflicted real pain upon the faithful.
Or not. Who’s to say, after the synod runs its course from October 4-25, that real change on family-related issues like divorce, contraception and homosexuality will even be discussed, much less formally proposed? A recent New Yorker article, for example, noted that Pope Francis is not quite as radical as many people think.
“Even with the decision to hold a synod on the family, he was careful not to move without firm church precedents: John Paul II held a synod on the family in 1980, but in a different spirit,” wrote Alexander Stille, who then went on to quote the always insightful best-selling author and Jesuit priest Father Thomas Reese.
“Most bishops spent an inordinate amount of time in their speeches quoting Pope John Paul II to himself,” Reese wrote recently. But there was, as Reese noted “a notable exception.”
Back in 1980, Irish American Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco was also president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Quinn believed at the time that the synod was too big an opportunity to pass up. It had barely been a decade since the church upheld its ban on all forms of contraception, a decision that outraged some so greatly that they left the church, while others saw fit to merely chuckle at or ignore the ban.
Quinn, however, “suggested opening a dialogue on possible exceptions to the contraception ban,” as The New Yorker noted.
Reese added, “The negative reaction from the Vatican was fierce. Many felt that Quinn’s influence in the church declined speedily after the synod.”
Pope Francis has clearly brought a new openness to the church. But, for all of the powerful and provocative things he has said, he has often tempered them by pointing out he is a traditionalist on many key issues.
Nevertheless, reformists’ can be excused if they are getting their hopes up for some real change when it comes to, say, contraception or the role of women in the church. The synod will be a good forum to at least begin official Vatican discussion about these topics.
Because such things are already being talked about by the people out there in the pews. Or people who used to sit in the pews but got fed up.
Reformists at the synod may need to hope -- even pray -- that some hero will emerge like Archbishop Quinn if it appears that little of substance is being discussed. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the hunger among many devout Catholics for real change.
Just this week, over 40 prominent Catholic women released a book of essays which sometimes gently, sometimes firmly, demand a greater role in church affairs. Among the contributors to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table is Irish American nun Sister Margaret Farley, whose views have already been targeted by the Vatican.
But it’s not just the usual suspects who are hungry for change. In last Sunday’s New York Times, another Irish Catholic named Quinn -- Francis A., the former bishop of Sacramento -- outlined ideas for how “the pope might renew the church.” Among them: optional celibacy for priests and a greater role for women.
Quinn even believes Pope Francis should call a Third Vatican Council to undertake debate on issues that might “slow or reverse the flow of the faithful out of the church.”
The time for change is now. Who else will stand up to demand it?* Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.