Pope Francis' Machiavellian strategy to liberalize the Catholic Church
Maybe you can help me. I'm confused.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares as a matter of binding doctrine that homosexual acts are "acts of grave depravity," "contrary to the natural law," and "intrinsically" as well as "objectively disordered." "Under no circumstances" can those acts "be approved." Although people who feel same-sex attractions "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," they are called by the church to take up "the Lord's cross" and embrace a life of "chastity" through "self-mastery" of their desires. That is the only way for them to "gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection."
That sounds pretty unequivocal, wouldn't you say?
Now let's look at Tuesday's edition of The New York Times, which contains an above-the-fold front-page story about a 12-page document released on Monday by the synod on marriage and the family that Pope Francis has convened at the Vatican. In the second paragraph of the story, we are informed (quite accurately) that the document "does not change church doctrine or teaching." And yet the story also states (in the third paragraph) that the document is "the first signal that the institutional church may follow the direction Francis has set in the first 18 months of his papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy."
And indeed, the document does say some nice things about homosexual relationships, but also about "cohabitation" among heterosexual couples. If you're a noncelibate gay Catholic, or a Catholic who's divorced and remarried and so technically excluded from receiving the sacrament of Communion at Mass, these words no doubt come as a comfort.
But how significant are they? The answer to that question depends in large part on what the pope has in mind. And that's where I become confused.
Even if the language of the document released on Monday is approved in total at the conclusion of the synod, it will still change nothing at all in church doctrine or teaching. Homosexual acts will still be deemed intrinsically and objectively disordered. It's just that the Vatican will now be urging pastors to soft-peddle the doctrine to parishioners. Priests and bishops will be urged to accentuate the positive, to talk about the "gifts and qualities" that gay people "offer to the Christian community," and to acknowledge that gay couples often provide each other "mutual aid" and "precious support."
That sounds like a modest expansion on or elaboration of the Catechism's injunction to accept gay people "with respect, compassion, and sensitivity," combined with a suggestion that priests and bishops not shove down people's throats the much harsher official doctrine about homosexual acts.
But the doctrine itself will remain unchanged.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this makes no sense whatsoever.
To see why, consider the fate of Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke. Burke was a major player in the Catholic hierarchy under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, spearheading the move to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights (including Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry) during the 2004 election. His long history of stringent statements has continued right down to the present, with remarks in the past few weeks about how the church's teachings about marriage and annulment, and the "intrinsically disordered" character of homosexual acts, cannot change.
Whereas Benedict rewarded Burke's combativeness by elevating him to the College of Cardinals in November 2010, Francis has gone in the opposite direction, removing Burke in December 2013 from the Congregation for Bishops, a position from which he exercised influence on the future leadership of the church.
Liberal Catholics were understandably cheered and encouraged by the demotion. And if Francis were poised to change the doctrines that Burke so fervently upholds, his sacking would make perfect sense as an act of ecclesiastical power politics.
But once again, there has been and looks to be no imminent change in those doctrines.
In sum, Burke appears to have been punished for forthrightly stating and defending in public the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church — just as the pope appears prepared to reward those who deliberately refrain from stating and defending those same teachings.
That seems like an exceedingly odd way for the head of an institutional church to behave.
I submit that there is only one way to make sense of the pope's actions, and it goes like this:
Francis would like to liberalize church doctrine on marriage, the family, and homosexuality, but he knows that he lacks the support and institutional power to do it. So he's decided on a course of stealth reform that involves sowing seeds of future doctrinal change by undermining the enforcement of doctrine today. The hope would be that a generation or two from now, the gap between official doctrine and the behavior that's informally accepted in Catholic parishes across the world would grow so vast that a global grassroots movement in favor of liberalizing change would rise up at long last to sweep aside the old, musty, already-ignored rules.
If this is what Pope Francis is going for, I don't blame conservatives for beginning to express serious misgivings. It's a brilliant, clever, supremely Machiavellian strategy — one that promises to produce far-reaching reforms down the road while permitting the present pope both to claim plausible deniability ("I haven't changed church doctrine!") and to enjoy nearly constant effusive coverage in the secular press.
What's happening in Rome isn't yet "revolutionary change." But it just may be what eventually prepares the way for exactly that.