Steven P. Millies

The Francis papacy turns 5

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

“The people are sovereign.” No one noticed when he said it, and no one who reported on it initially caught its revolutionary meaning. After all, Pope Francis was talking about a Colombian referendum in one of his free-wheeling, airborne press conferences on the way home from Azerbaijan in October 2016. What he said was not an infallible statement, and it did not come in the context of any other official church teaching. This was just a conversation with some reporters. All he really told us was what the man, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, thinks.  

But Bergoglio is not just any man. As pope, he stands in a line that does not have to trace very far back to reach Leo XIII (who nearly condemned Americanism in 1899) or Gregory XVI (who condemned liberty of conscience in 1832). The papacy and the Catholic Church have not accepted democracy or individual liberties easily and, at the level of official teaching, the process of accepting the modern world still is getting underway.

The institutional church still is shaped by its medieval past. The Second Vatican Council reversed that only partly. The council accepted religious freedom with the lowest level of teaching authority, and Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray lamented how the church-state question had been left mostly unaddressed. The church never has been in a hurry to acknowledge how the world around it has changed, but the man chosen to lead the church had noticed the change and absorbed it fully. For Pope Francis, the idea that people should govern themselves seems as natural and uncontroversial as it does to us. “The people are sovereign.”

It is much the same with some questions of marriage and sexuality. The prevalence of divorce today could be a sign of moral rot, maybe. But maybe, also, the sort of abuse, abandonment, and loneliness that ends many marriages today is no more prevalent than it ever was. We know there are many innocent victims of bad marriages. Perhaps easier divorce has opened a way out that was not available to people who were in terrible situations in the past. Should innocent spouses be trapped in those marriages? Should they be forced to choose between the sacraments and companionship? Those questions do not have easy answers. But they were in the air as urgent pastoral concerns long before Francis became pope. With “Amoris Laetitia,” we are free to discuss them openly.

Things are not so different with the church’s posture toward LGBT people. For decades, evidence has poured in to tell us about a biological basis for sexual orientation. Much like the fossil record pointed irrefutably toward a theory of evolution that challenged the biblical account of Creation, here once more our reason acting through scientific discovery discloses a new challenge for how we understand an aspect of our faith. 

These and other changes in the world around the church have been underway for longer than the five years (and counting) of the Francis’ papacy. They come about because of changed circumstances or some new understanding. They sneak up on us, nestle quietly into how we think so we do not even notice when a pope says something remarkable like, “The people are sovereign.” For such changes to be recognized and institutionalized by the church is another matter. That happens more slowly, with greater difficulty.

It can be easy to fear that everything will go up for grabs once we start making changes, and that fear has unleashed discord in some corners of the church over the past five years. But change will not stop so long as women and men are living, and the church must be responsive to the conditions of the world. We do not spread the Gospel to hypothetical people. We know the church is better when it acknowledges that. Pope Benedict XVI accepted evolution. The Second Vatican Council accepted religious freedom. After all, it is the Gospel that never changes. The church always has been changing.

A Latin American pope reminds us that Europe no longer is the center of Catholicism. The Francis papacy was made possible by a rare papal resignation. Extraordinary things happen all around us. Five years into the Francis papacy, and not without difficulty, we have begun the journey from asking whether we will respond to the world toward asking how we will respond.



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