16 October 2014
A shift in the
A shift in the
Pope Francis and his papacy are clearly marked by his heartfelt pastoral priorities and his desire to make the Catholic Church more compassionate and merciful. For a Church that was in danger in the past of falling short when it comes to visible compassion, he is a refreshing reminder that time and again the Bible says that God is slow to anger and rich in mercy.
Any change in the Catholic Church comes slowly and in measured steps, and the Pope cannot be expected to change traditional doctrine, dogma or core teachings. But he expects his Church and the bishops to lead with their hearts and to be visible expressions of the love of Christ. The Synod on the Family, which continues in Rome until Sunday, has been called as a visible sign and a symbol of this Pope’s commitment to listening to the voices and the hearts of both ordinary Mass-going Catholics and those who have been pushed to the margins by Church leaders who seem in the past to show little of the love that is supposed to be at the heart of the Gospel.
It may be too soon to say whether an earthquake is hitting the Catholic Church, but the tremors are being felt this week with the draft document presented to the bishops at the synod. It is of equal importance that the document challenges old prejudices and was applauded by the majority of bishops. For the first time ever, a Vatican document understands the gifts and qualities gay people bring to the Church, and talks in inclusive language of making them feel included in the Church. Nor is it possible any longer to say that for all time divorced and remarried couples are excluded from Communion. The debates have begun and open discussion has been legitimised.
The document is still subject to change, and the final version may row back to some degree. But there has been a real change in tone and in attitude. The bishops have placed questions about sexuality, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage on the agenda. Politicians under pressure from conservative lobbies can now rely securely on a defence that at least some bishops are sympathetic to changes in our laws on, for example, divorce or same-sex marriage. Catholic teaching may not change, but doctrine can develop, Catholic practice is changing, and there are now two Catholic views that can claim authenticity.
The bishops return home on Sunday. The Gospel reading for the following Sunday (Matthew 22: 34-46) is a sharp reminder to the Pharisees that the commandment to love one’s neighbours has equal standing with the commandment to love God. It was a shocking message in its day, but its implications today are obvious: without showing love and compassion for those it has pushed to the margins in the past, the Church is not living up to Christ’s expectations.