Pope Francis turns up the heat on church's future — behind closed doors

Pope Francis has insisted on an open debate and welcomed people to challenge him at the "extraordinary synod" underway at the Vatican, a move David Perlich says is extraordinary in itself.

Select group meeting in 'extraordinary synod' at Vatican to discuss flashpoints like marriage, divorce

Pope Francis has insisted on an open debate during the 'extraordinary synod' underway at the Vatican. (Getty Images)

A polite throwdown is underway in Vatican City.

A highly select group of around 200 men — and a few women — are meeting to discuss flashpoints: marriage, contraception, homosexuality and divorce. In the church, it’s called an "extraordinary synod." And it is ... extraordinary.

Pope Francis brought together some of the brightest theologians and members of the church’s hierarchy to debate family issues at the recent Synod on the Family. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Pope Francis has insisted on an open debate. He went a step further, and welcomed people to challenge him. “A cardinal wrote to me saying that it was a pity that some cardinals did not have the courage to say certain things out of respect for the Pope, thinking perhaps the Pope thought different. This is not good.”

There's something you don't hear every day.

Ironically, the synod, which is composed mainly of bishops from around the world, is taking place behind closed doors. But debate is everywhere — in cafés and newspapers, on TV, in blogs, on Twitter and Facebook.

From open letters between opposing cardinals to front-page articles suggesting Pope Francis is pulling the rug out from under the legacy of Benedict XVI, members of the church are publicly trading the theological equivalent of slaps upside the head.

Factions are forming — papal favourite German Cardinal Kasper taking one stance on divorce, and cardinals like the American Burke, the Italian Scola and Quebec's Ouellet diverging.

But what’s most important about the current debate in Rome is that we're actually hearing about debate in Rome. Public discord on fundamental issues is not only being allowed, but encouraged.

This may be the latest tactic a politically savvy Pope Francis is using to kickstart the church’s engagement with the modern world. 

Out of touch?

During the conclave after Benedict XVI’s resignation, the crowded restaurants, cafes and private parties around Rome seethed with debate over the future of the church.

“Relevance” was a hot topic: fear the church’s teachings were falling on deaf ears, that Catholicism’s 2,000-year history of moral influence (socially, politically, individually) was fast diminishing.

For a Catholic Church trying to function in modern global society, the evolution of "the family" and issues of sexual morality have created what critics inside and outside the church consider a serious disconnect.

Words like "intransigence" and "out of touch" get thrown around. And it’s no secret millions of believing Catholics ignore — even reject — "church teaching" when it comes to many issues.

Enter Pope Francis.

The Argentine pontiff has brought together some of the brightest theologians and members of the church’s hierarchy from around the world to hash it all out. Significantly, he’s brought together people that he knows will disagree.

Now, anyone hoping for immediate change to the church’s stance on sexual issues had better cool their jets. The institution moves slowly. This synod will be followed by another, larger one next year. It’s all a process.

Still, whatever the outcome of this current discussion, it is sure to ignite further fierce debate. A lot of people are going to be hot under the roman collar.

This may be part of Francis’s political philosophy. A risky gamble aimed at making his church more relevant.

Need for change

In our liberal democratic tradition, the era of declaring universal moral authority is long over — “because the Pope says so” is unlikely to fly.

It’s not so much that contemporary society is destined to be ever more secular. Religions exist and will continue to do so. Like it or not, in our ever more interconnected world, the vast majority of humanity will continue to look to at Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and other creeds for answers.

But these creeds must contend with each other, and find their own space.

That said, we live in a world where people trying to figure out right and wrong, or how to be a good person, are as likely to choose Oprah, (Deepak) Chopra or an Ayn Rand novel as they are to talk to a religious leader. Catholicism, and indeed all religions and dogmas, face stiff competition in the marketplace of ideas.

Of course, religions, governments, even clubs like the Scouts, are based on dogmatic belief. And there is always some kind of authority that defines orthodoxy.

But ideas about right and wrong gain public strength when they're challenged. And more importantly, when it appears reasoned debate can change a particular stance.

There’s always been debate within the Catholic Church. Over the millennia, fights on the finer points of “truth” have led to everything from polite insults to the Reformation to war.

Pope Francis urged bishops to speak their minds about contentious issues like contraception, gays, marriage and divorce at the start of the synod. (Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press)

But under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, many inside and outside the church felt there was little room for the public airing of internal debate. That acrimony was seen as weakness, and thus threatening to the institution.

Among some clergy and ordinary Catholics, resentments built as authority was used to squash divergent opinions. Some scholars were silenced. A united front was put forward on issues of dogma and "church teaching."

There was of course dissent, but it was often just whispered in the corridors, or into the ear of some compliant journalist in need of a story.

It was the media that helped exacerbate the Catholic Church’s problems with public legitimacy. In the era of the internet, contrary opinions among ordinary Catholics could be shared globally. Communities of dissent formed and challenged traditional authority.

But publicly, for many theologians, scholars and members of the hierarchy, keeping your job meant keeping silent.

It was not always so.

The Long Game

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was an internal debate involving thousands of participants, one that substantively changed the functioning of the Catholic Church. Some of it was televised. Much of it was reported in newspapers and written about in books. Bishops took stands. There was open conflict. Ideas were debated — often angrily, if politely. 

When Francis first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s there was already chatter about a "Third Vatican Council." 

That has not happened. But something is happening.

Pope Francis has put a friendlier face on the church recently, not hesitating to pose for selfies. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

Certainly this Pope has put a kinder, gentler face on the church of late. He takes selfies with students in St. Peter’s Square. He kisses babies and says inclusive things about gays. It’s hardly the stuff of revolution.

Still, behind the scenes, Francis has been cleaning house in the Vatican’s curial government. There are a lot of cardinals who have had their red hats handed to them as they were shown the door. Some of these changes haven’t gone down well. And there is, quietly, some anti-Francis talk being heard around Rome.

The Pope has the power to send out a kill order on dissent. He could order his clergy, from Cardinals on down to parish priests, to toe the line. Under church law, this synod is unnecessary. Francis could just rule by fiat.

But he hasn’t.

Francis has himself kindled this very public debate. And it’s unfathomable this Jesuit Pope was unaware of what he was doing.

The synod may help launch the Catholic Church into a new engagement with modern society. It may herald change to the function of the church in substantial philosophical ways that could make it far more relevant for the faithful and possibly even secular society. If this happens, Francis will have put a profound mark on Catholicism.

Still, revolutions are risky. Once the doors to discord are opened, they are notoriously hard to shut.

It’s a lesson Mikhail Gorbachev learned as “glasnost” (transparency) and “perestroika” (restructuring) were turned against him, and he was threatened, discredited and later turfed by his own Soviet hierarchy.

Having invited dissent, Francis risks having it turned on himself: his actions, his decisions, his leadership. But if he shuts down the debate, he risks losing his own public legitimacy.


He has produced television, radio and online programming in Calgary since 1992 — including CBC's 2015 Alberta election special. He worked for Al-Jazeera in Washington, D.C., was the managing editor of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen and also reported as CBC's Vatican analyst in the 2005 and 2012 conclaves. He was born in Calgary, grew up on a farm, and now calls this city home.


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