As pontiff, Francis has used the moral authority of his office to push a sharply different agenda, demanding a “poor church for the poor” and excoriating free-market ideologies. He has said that the church should show “mercy” toward divorced and remarried Catholics (whom church law forbids from receiving Communion), flouted liturgical rules to wash the feet of Muslims and women, and received a transsexual at the Vatican...
Church leaders have privately complained that the pope’s oft-quoted comment about gay priests—“Who am I to judge?”—has made their job more difficult in upholding church teachings. In November 2013, Catholic legislators in Illinois cited those words to explain their support for a same-sex marriage bill.Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis had not yet made a major statement on abortion, not even during his homily at a special Vatican Mass with antiabortion activists. “I’m a little bit disappointed in Pope Francis that he hasn’t…said much about unborn children, about abortion,” said Rhode Island Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in September 2013. “Many people have noticed that.”
... Pope Francis, by contrast, has called for the devolution of more power. “Excessive centralization,” he has written, “rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”
Just weeks into his pontificate, Pope Francis established a new body consisting of eight (later nine) cardinals, including representatives from each continent, to advise him on major issues of church governance, including a sweeping reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. “The pope is effectively telling [the bishops and cardinals], ‘I need to hear your voices, not just the voices of the people who live in Rome,’ ” says Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.
The most ambitious—and disruptive—way in which Pope Francis has promoted collegiality is through the Synod of Bishops, a representative body established by Pope Paul VI in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. Pope Francis has called a two-part meeting of the synod—the first session was held last fall, and the second will take place this October—to discuss issues relating to the family, including such controversial topics as homosexuality, contraception and the eligibility of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
The synod excited controversy even before its start, when the Vatican sent the world’s bishops’ conferences a questionnaire and encouraged them to seek the views of ordinary Catholics. The bishops’ conference of England and Wales even put the questionnaire on the SurveyMonkey site so that parishioners could fill it out online. Several conferences and individual bishops published summaries of the responses, generating complaints that church teaching should not be fodder for a public-opinion survey.
At the synod’s first session, the pope told the nearly 200 members to speak “without fear” and “to say what one feels duty-bound in the Lord to say.” The ensuing debate, inside and outside the synod hall, was the fiercest the Vatican had seen since Vatican II itself, with sotto voce accusations of heresy and racism and even warnings of schism.
A document issued at the gathering’s midpoint set off a furor because of its conciliatory language toward cohabiting couples, divorced and remarried Catholics, and those in same-sex unions. Australian Cardinal George Pell, the pope’s finance chief, was prompted to denounce the document. “We’re not giving in to the secular agenda; we’re not collapsing in a heap,” he told Catholic News Service...
Such tension was very much in the spirit of Vatican II, which aimed to update the pastoral practice of church doctrine, says Cardinal Wuerl, who helped to draft a final document for the synod’s first session that left the most disputed questions unresolved.
“If your starting point is ‘We already have the answers,’ this process becomes difficult to deal with,” says Cardinal Wuerl. But the pope “is saying, ‘We have the revelation, but we don’t have the application for all times; don’t presume that we know everything and that we have every answer.’”