A pope of impulses

A pope of impulses

A good four years ago: Pope Francis on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica for the first time © Paul Haring (KNA)

For about four years, the Catholic Church has been led by a man who many considered a revolutionary. Since then, perceived and actual reform have gone awry. But Francis should not be underestimated.

When on 13. March 2013, the newly elected Pope Francis greeted the world with a simple "Good evening" and asked the faithful for prayer support, many sensed a new epoch. Breaking with courtly traditions, calling for a poor church, and refusing to break the baton on a homosexual – "Who am I to condemn him?" -, all of which fed hopes or fears that Francis would revolutionize the teaching of the Catholic Church. What has really happened?

Liberal course

Example of homosexuality: the Catechism, the handbook of the Catholic faith, calls homosexual acts "not in themselves okay," but stresses persons with this inclination are to be "treated with respect, compassion and tact". Francis objects to labeling people by sexual orientation; on his 2015 trip to the U.S., he warmly welcomed a former student and his same-sex partner. But he has not changed the current doctrine one iota. There is "no foundation whatsoever" for even a rudimentary equality between homosexual unions and marriage, he wrote in "Amoris laetitia".

This very document from April 2016 is cited as evidence of a more liberal course under the current pope. Indeed, Francis opens there the possibility of granting communion to remarried divorcees after a case-by-case examination. However, he does not touch the indissolubility of marriage. He distinguishes between facts, which can be morally good or bad, and persons, who are always in need of mercy.

This also applies to his recent call for ecclesiastical marriage judges to accompany couples without a marriage certificate with the "gaze of compassion and tenderness". For women who have had abortions, he facilitated reconciliation with the Church; in the same move, he stressed "that abortion is a grave sin, since it puts an end to an innocent life".

First reform balance sheet

In an initial reform assessment of the current pontificate, there is a certain gap between perceived and actual change. Actually, everyone could be happy: the conservatives, because the doctrine remains in place; the open-minded, because this pope's words and gestures set a new style of church. Nevertheless, there is rumbling on both sides. Perhaps because they suspect that in the long run, an ecclesiastical practice cannot remain without repercussions for theology.

"Woman and ministry" is one such area where surprises lurk. On the one hand, Francis categorically denied that women could ever become priests: "This door is closed."On the other hand, he wants to strengthen the role of women in the church, and he set up a commission to study the diaconate of women in the early church – initially just to clarify the history. But of course, one can draw conclusions for current teaching from historical observations.

Francis took it a bit slow with ecumenical theology. There was no lack of contacts, up to the diplomatic masterpiece of the meeting with the Russian Patriarch and the appearance at the Lutheran World Federation for the commemoration of the Reformation. But there were no groundbreaking agreement papers. Instead gestures, questions.

Understanding pope

In November 2015, when asked about the possibility of communion between spouses of different denominations in the Lutheran congregation in Rome, he replied that he "would never dare to give permission for that". But he expressed – understanding. This, too, is a reminder that dogma and canon law do not have solutions for all human needs.

Francis' style is characterized by the fact that he points out dilemmas rather than formulating doctrines. Thus, without great theological casts, the Church under Francis has been set in motion. Even an agreement with the traditionalist Pius brothers is on the cards. They are to be given their own form of organization within the church, if they want to let others be blessed according to their own will. Francis has passed them a ball; now it's up to them.

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Christina Cherry
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