Remember when Pope Francis' pontificate was going to be all about doctrinal reform?
After 34 years of reactionary Catholicism under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the story went, Francis was going to tear down the curtains and throw open the windows to let the brisk air and bright sunshine of modernity into the church. Picking up where Pope John XXIII left off when he convened the Second Vatican Council, the new pontiff would engage with the modern world, drop the defensiveness about feminism and sex, and move the church toward an embrace of liberal morals and democratic norms.
First there were the gestures toward humility: the name taken from an apostle to the poor, the Ford Focus instead of the limo, the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace. Then there was the egalitarian pluralism: washing the feet of women (including a Muslim) on Holy Thursday, welcoming atheists to a dialogue about faith and truth. And then the revelatory moment in July 2013, when on his flight back to Rome from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Francis responded to a reporter's question about homosexuality with a supremely un-pontifical shrug, "Who am I to judge?"
"Who are you to judge? You're the friggin' pope, that's who! If you don't judge, who will?" That, at least, is what flooded through the minds of conservative Catholics upon hearing news of those comments.
And so began The Long Wait, with progressive Catholics patiently biding their time for a sign that genuine reforms were about to begin, and conservatives steeling themselves for the ecclesiastical sky to start falling.
Well, that wait is nearly over. In early October, Pope Francis will convene an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the topic of marriage and the family. (This will be only the third such synod since 1965.) It's not Vatican III, but it's not nothing, either.
The question is: How big of a something will it be?
Vatican watchers, as well as supporters and opponents of reform, have been quick to fasten on to a recent event for a sign that the something might be enormous. At a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica on Sept. 14, Francis presided over a marriage ceremony that included 20 couples. Some of the people had been previously married. Others had given birth to children out of wedlock. Still others had lived with their fiancées prior to marriage. This behavior placed many of them firmly out of step with Catholic doctrine.
Parish priests have always been allowed to make the sacrament of marriage available to sinful Catholics. But more stringent clerics have been equally free to refuse — and the tacit presumption has been that the latter group of less flexible pastors was, strictly speaking, in greater conformity with official Catholic teaching and the wishes of the Vatican. By participating in a ceremony that permitted such marriages, Francis seemed to be sending a signal that priests should default in the opposite direction, by showing mercy toward those countless millions of Catholics who fall short of following church doctrine about purity in sexual morals.
One way to interpret this signal is to see it as a first step toward sweeping doctrinal reform. But I think it's just the opposite: an indication that there will be no direct attempt at doctrinal reform at all. Rather than risk sparking a schism by launching a rancorous, grinding process of changing the church's official teachings about marriage, annulment, divorce, communion, contraception, women's ordination, or homosexual relationships, the pope will merely encourage prelates to follow his example of mercy toward wayward parishioners. The doctrines will remain what they have been; the Vatican will simply let priests know (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) that in many cases it's perfectly fine to ignore them.
On one level, this would mean that Pope Francis isn't much of a reformer after all. Sure, rhetoric matters, as does the pastoral stance of the church. It's important that this pope has a light touch and a charismatic way of talking about the church and its mission. But in the end, it's just PR. Before long, Francis will be gone, succeeded by another — perhaps more draconian, almost certainly less charming — pontiff. And then the church will be right back where it was under Benedict.
But there is one way in which Francis' emphasis on pastoral leniency just might end up planting seeds of sweeping doctrinal reforms much further down the road. Allowing and even encouraging priests to selectively enforce unpopular, frequently ignored church doctrines is, of course, a way of implicitly conceding that those doctrines are in many cases unsuited to guiding the behavior of lay Catholics. After all, if the pope believed the doctrines were sound, wouldn't he instead be encouraging priests to do a better job of explaining the importance of abiding by them? That's what Francis' predecessors and their admirers in the American church hierarchy have consistently advocated.
Francis' contrary approach resembles nothing so much as the refusal of state and federal attorneys to defend bans on gay marriage when they are challenged in court. That refusal isn't an example of mercy. It's an admission that the bans are legally indefensible. And that admission contributes, in turn, to a further weakening of the bans as legal and moral norms.
Decades from now, a future pope might wonder why the church continues to teach doctrines that virtually no one follows and no one enforces. At that point, genuine reform of this institution that is often said to "think in terms of centuries" just might be conceivable.
If and when that happens, those who undertake the change might have occasion to think back on and say a prayer of thanks for Pope Francis, stealth reformer.