ft.com/Synod setback reveals limits of Pope’s ability to drive reform

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SHAFAQNA – In front of more than 200 bishops bearing their traditional zucchettos – scarlet and amaranth skullcaps – Pope Francis is said to have delivered one of the most powerful, and effective speeches of his 18-month tenure at the helm of the Vatican.

It was the closing session of this month’s gathering of top-ranking Catholic clerics, called by the Argentine pontiff to re-examine the Church’s stance on a range of hot-button social issues related to the family, from marriage to divorce and homosexuality.

Pope Francis had hoped the synod would mark the beginning of a shift away from the Vatican’s rigidity on many of these matters. Some compared its potential to transform the Church with the Second Vatican Council – the 1960s gathering of church leaders that among other things paved the way for Mass to be celebrated in vernacular instead of Latin.

Instead, the meeting turned into an epic feud between the conservative and liberal wings of the Church, ending in the equivalent of a parliamentary stalemate.

The cardinals failed to deliver the two-thirds majority required to pass even watered down language establishing that gays should be welcomed with “respect and delicacy” and merely calling for “further study” into whether the divorced and remarried should be allowed to take communion.

But Pope Francis, who asked shortly after becoming pontiff “who am I to judge?” in reference to gay priests and just last month married couples – some of whom had been cohabiting – in St Peter’s Square, put a brave face on the split.

“Personally, I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits . . . if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace,” he told the bishops.

But Pope Francis also showed he was not altogether pleased with how things had panned out and – with equanimity – warned conservatives not to give in to “hostile inflexibility” and liberals not to be tempted by a “destructive tendency towards goodness”.

The Pope’s speech was met with a standing ovation – and may help patch up the wounds between Catholicism’s factions that opened up during the “extraordinary synod”. But it is hard not to see the turn of events in the Vatican this month as a setback for a Pope who has energised the Catholic world with his quest to make the religion more accessible and modern.

In fact, the family synod has served as a reminder that Pope Francis faces staunch resistance to his agenda that penetrates deep inside the Vatican establishment and has no qualms about fighting him despite his popularity.

Further, it has laid bare the limits of Pope Francis’s reform drive. While he has successfully shaken up the Vatican Bank and the church’s opaque and messy economic structure, securing greater openness on thorny social issues may be a bridge too far.

A case in point is the stance of George Pell, the Australian cardinal. Cardinal Pell has been a very close backer of Pope Francis on economic reforms and was chosen to assume the powerful and newly created post of prefect of the economy secretariat.

But the cardinal – along with Germany’s Gerhard Müller and US’s Raymond Burke – has stridently objected to any big shift on social issues. “We’re not giving in to the secular agenda; we’re not collapsing in a heap,” he told the Catholic News Service towards the end of the synod.

To be sure, the debate is far from over. The final chapter on the family synod will not be written until October of next year. Only then the bishops will gather again to make their conclusive recommendations which Pope Francis can accept, modify or reject.

So assuming his heart is in it, Pope Francis will be hoping that – despite the sharp and effective opposition of some within the Vatican Curia – he will ultimately win the war, despite losing the latest battle. Because even if he is wildly successful in administrative and economic reforms, it may only be by moving the needle on noxious social issues that he will really bring the Catholic church closer to its 1.2bn followers.

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