The Roman Catholic Church is hands down the most conservative institution in the world.
By this I don't merely mean that it upholds a set of conservative religious ideas, although it most certainly does. I'm talking about the institution itself and the way it interacts with those ideas. With 2,000 years of tradition weighing on its shoulders, a theological commitment to defer to that tradition, an ecclesial habit of "thinking in terms of centuries," and a baroque structure of governance headed exclusively by appointees, run by often-corrupt, back-scratching bureaucrats, and lacking in even the slightest semblance of democratic accountability, the Catholic Church is one of the most sluggish, inertia-prone institutions imaginable.
This was much on my mind when I wrote a cover story about Pope Francis for The New Republic back in August 2013, just five months into his pontificate. Right from the start, progressive Catholics thought they saw signs that this first Jesuit pope, a pope who is the first to hail from outside Europe, would fulfill a long backlog of wishes, some dating back a half-century to the Second Vatican Council: loosening strictures against artificial contraception, allowing married priests, sanctifying same-sex marriages, and ordaining women.
On all of this I threw a bucket of ice water. Although I expressed some skepticism about whether the pope really had a progressive agenda (wrongly it turns out), the core of my argument focused on the church as an institution. Even if the pope wanted to make bold doctrinal changes, he would be prevented from doing so by institutional obstacles and impediments. Over 34 long years, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had appointed an enormous number of conservative bishops. If Francis moved to break seriously with theological tradition, those members of the hierarchy would strongly oppose him — meaning the pope would be facing the very real possibility of schism.
That's why I concluded that the most Francis could do, besides move papal rhetoric in a more pastoral direction and work to reform the corrupt Vatican bureaucracy, is stay alive and appoint as many bishops as possible. If the College of Cardinals (the body that votes for the next pope) sees fit to place another progressive on the throne of St. Peter, that successor's appointments, combined with Francis', just might begin to slowly pave the way for serious doctrinal change 50 or 100 years down the road.
I was, in some ways, wrong. Recent events have shown that the pope may have other options for reform.
At first sight, the outcome of the just-completed Synod on the Family seems to confirm the practical limitations on Pope Francis' power. There is considerable evidence — from the people he appointed to draft the document published at the conclusion of the meeting to the uncharacteristically irritated tone he struck in his own remarks at the end of the synod — that the pope hoped to soften or rescind the church's traditional requirement that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can only receive the sacrament of communion if their first marriages have been annulled. Because conservative-minded bishops loudly and repeatedly refused to endorse any such statement, the pope and the reformers on the drafting committee were forced to settle for language about individual priests showing leniency in individual cases. The doctrine wasn't changed, just the requirement that priests apply it identically in all cases.
But this outcome, far from representing a setback to Francis' reformist agenda, is actually the best scenario the pope could have hoped for. Instead of explicitly overturning doctrine and sparking an ecclesiastical conflagration like the one that's been tearing apart the Episcopal Church for the past decade and a half, the pope has set a course that's likely to bring about his desired results with a minimum of conflict — and at a faster pace than would be likely if he limited himself to appointing progressive bishops.
If you want to institute sweeping change in a deeply conservative institution, maybe the best approach is not to alter the rules, but simply to stop enforcing them.
I laid out this alternative, non-confrontational strategy a little over a year ago in a column that updated my take on Francis' approach to reform. Since then, the pope has shown over and over again that he favors precisely this tactic. It's there in his talk of mercy for those who fail to abide by church teaching on a range of subjects, from homosexual couples, to men and women who cohabitate outside of marriage, to unannulled civilly remarried laypeople who wish to receive communion. It's there in his emphasis on the importance of priests using their own judgment ("discernment") in deciding when to follow, and when to deviate from, the letter of the church's rules. And it's there in his repeated calls for a more "synodal" church in which doctrinal decision-making would more often be left in the hands of local church officials.
This last proposal is especially noteworthy. Think of it, in an American political context, as a form of nullification by whim. If bishops and priests in more conservative dioceses in Africa and North America decide that the church's most stringent teachings should continue to be enforced, then that's what will happen in those places. But in less conservative dioceses throughout Western Europe and the Americas, where those same teachings are unpopular and often disregarded by laypeople, bishops and priests would be free to ignore them.
Now let me ask you: What is likely to be the consequence, over the coming years and decades, of the church ceasing to defend and enforce unpopular doctrines? I submit that the result will be a dramatic drop-off in support for those teachings — and from already low levels. Think of what happened in the U.S. in the years leading up to the Obergefell decision declaring same-sex marriage a constitutional right, when state and federal attorneys refused to defend in court democratically enacted bans on gay marriage. Those acts of refusal — and the lack of consequences for them — conveyed the potent message that the bans were legally indefensible. And that message contributed, in turn, to a further weakening of the bans as legal and moral norms.
Years or decades from now, when today's controversial doctrines are ignored by broad swaths of the church, a future pope will realize that there's little standing in the way of eliminating them in a more formal sense. The doctrines will have been developed out of existence — and without anyone ever having to make a strong positive case for the change or defend it against critics.
That's how a pope changes the church.