A church failed by its Pope
Suite 201 at Casa Santa Marta is only a shuttle bus ride from the Vatican’s Synod Hall, but it seems a world away. And in the spartan suite of rooms which he calls home, Pope Francis must be feeling especially cut off from the 252 leading Catholics who took part in his recent Extraordinary Synod.Under the umbrella theme of “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation”, the Pope, his bishops and a few selected laypeople have spent the past fortnight discussing some of the thorniest topics in Catholic doctrine: divorce, gay sex, and birth control.Even in a Church characterised by its supporters as proudly unchanging (and by its critics as stubbornly anachronistic), these are divisive issues. And when the new Pope last year took the unexpected step of sending out a survey to all Catholic parishes, asking the faithful for their views on birth control, abortion and divorce, the findings made uncomfortable reading: the Church was as split between traditionalists and modernisers as the Conservative Party was at its lowest ebb.The analogy may infuriate those who say that the Church is about eternal truths, not party squabbles. But it conveys the rift that polarises the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. The “universal” Church embraces the Ugandan homophobe and the Manhattan gay rights campaigner; the mother of six who practises the rhythm method and the feminist divorcee on the Pill.Pope Francis has long regarded these controversies as distractions that keep his followers from their true mission: helping the poor, comforting the miserable, waging war on greed and consumerism. He has as little time for them as he does for the liturgical and theological quirks that were so prominent in the papacy of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
For Francis, sexual mores are not at the heart of the Gospel – and they should not be at the heart of his Church’s ministry. The time had come, he believed, to lower the temperature around these issues. If he could persuade the Church to adopt an attitude of compassion towards divorcees, gays and members of other “irregular” unions, he could shift its focus to what really mattered.Alas, the Pope chose the wrong vehicle to effect his changes. The Extraordinary Synod not only torpedoed his hopes for a more inclusive Church – it may have derailed his entire mission.From the moment he swapped the regal apartments to which he was entitled for the no-frills hostel of Santa Marta, Francis sparked speculation about his reforming tendencies. There was talk of a phone call to a woman who, though married to a divorced man, wanted to take Communion. “I don’t see why you should be banned from the Sacrament,” the Pope allegedly told her. He also made headlines when asked about the Church’s attitude to homosexuality: “Who am I to judge?”