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Andrea Gagliarducci FAITH MAGAZINE March - April 2015

The creation of 20 new cardinals in February may represent a turning point in Pope Francis’s pontificate. The Pope’s choices not only show his sensitivity towards the world’s peripheries and a certain pastoral approach, they also indicate a change concerning the pivotal issues at stake in this papacy. This change cannot be underestimated.

Before the arrival of Pope Francis, the main themes of discussion in the Church had solid theological roots. Even the questions concerning the pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, and of homosexual couples – both topics of heated debate at last October’s Synod of Bishops – are in the end based on theological foundations, and deal with the application of doctrine. The criticisms aimed at the Pope’s plan for curial reform, the other issue at stake in this pontificate, are also founded on theological and juridical grounds.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis demonstrates that he is moving on completely different grounds. It is not by chance that one of his favourite quotes about ecumenism is taken from the conversation between Blessed Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras: “If we were to close ourselves off in a room together and leave the theologians outside, we would accomplish ecumenism in one hour.” In similar fashion, leaving theological discussions aside, Pope Francis wants to propose a model of a Church that evangelises through attraction, and not because of the strength of its concepts.

His choices in two consistories mirror this intention. Beyond choosing a few candidates with strong institutional ties, Pope Francis has selected as cardinals mainly bishops whose primary interest is not in some theological position, but in pastoral practice. The Pope bypasses theological discussion and aims to go straight to the heart of the people.

These new cardinals will all bring their own perspectives to the consistory the Pope has convened to discuss reform of the Roman Curia. The reform seems to be stuck. The first comprehensive draft was heavily criticised by Vatican dicasteries, and there is a real risk that the structure will remain as it is for the moment, in expectation of a definitive change that will not take place before the end of this year – as Pope Francis has admitted. But there is another option, which one insider designates “St Peter’s option”.

It can be explained this way. During the construction of the current Basilica of St Peter in the 16th century, the old basilica was gradually dismantled, step by step, while its replacement was being built. This is the way Pope Francis works, by establishing new structures around the existing one, which is then removed once the new structure is complete.

Through this lens we can better understand the process by which the Vatican first hired expensive external commissions and then established the Secretariat for the Economy, the Council for the Economy and the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. These bodies were born without statutes and they set to work while waiting for their specific powers and competences to be drafted.

This is the way curial reform will be carried out. During their recent ad limina visit, the Lithuanian bishops reportedly asked Pope Francis about the reform. He replied that two super-congregations would be established: one for Justice and Charity, the other for Laity and Family. How the competences of the many minor dicasteries that will be subsumed into these new congregations will be arranged is yet to be decided. But establishing them is a first step toward the much anticipated reform of the Curia.

The rationale is that the curial structure must be reduced in size to bring it closer to the people. Beyond the theological discussions that characterised the major curial reform begun under Bl Paul VI and concluded under St John Paul II, Pope Francis’s reform is mostly intended to be functional, allowing the voice of the Church to reach to “the end of the world”, as he referred to his own native land when he was elected. For Francis there is no need for structures; instead, there is a need for credible witness.

This rationale is reflected in his choices of new cardinals. Several keys to reading these decisions have been suggested. It has been argued that Francis wanted to privilege the geographical peripheries of the Church, or that he wanted to combat careerism, and that for this reason he was not awarding the red hat to bishops in dioceses that have always had a cardinal by tradition, or else that he wanted to make the College of Cardinals more international.

All of these reasons are intriguing, and even true if one glances at the cardinals’ profiles from the perspective of their assignments or their geographical locations. Nevertheless, these interpretations may be misleading and may even betray Pope Francis’s spirit.

Broadly speaking, the Pope selects bishops whom he appreciates for their pastoral touch. In a recent interview, the archbishop Soane Patita Mafi of Tonga, a surprise pick among the new cardinals, emphasised that he would take with him to Rome the cry of the poor of his country. He is not the only one. Cardinal-designate Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Bangkok, Thailand, is working to foster Christian communities in a country where Christians are a small minority.

Pope Francis got to know many of these new cardinals during the last Synod of Bishops. He appreciated their human touch and their pastoral sensitivity. The impression they gave when they took the floor at the synod, the way they defended and supported mercy and closeness to people – these were more crucial to their selection than what they were currently doing in their homeland.

Still, no theological preference seems to drive the Pope’s choices. Instead one finds a human touch, a peculiar instinct that guides him in understanding who the prelates are with whom he feels more at ease.

Renunciation of worldliness may also imply for Pope Francis a renunciation of intellectual debate. Pope Francis wants shepherds who live with the smell of the sheep, and he has been clear about that since the beginning of his pontificate. Other qualities do not seem to matter so much to him; they seem to be mere add-ons that he applies to his discussion of bishops when it suits him to do so.

These new cardinals (Pope Francis has chosen 40 so far) will have an impact in this coming week’s consistory on curial reform. Now that the Council of Cardinals has met eight times, the Pope is seeking a turning point, and to bring this about he is filling the College of Cardinals with people who he believes share his vision.

Although the reform issue might be solved through the so-called “St Peter’s option”, the struggle looming in the forthcoming synod seems more complicated. Again, the Pope’s intention is to free the Church from an over-dependence upon doctrine in order to find a pastoral approach that will bring the Church closer to people. But how can doctrine and pastoral practice be reconciled?

This continues to be a hotly debated topic. The discussion evidences a strange convergence between the Roman Curia and some local churches, many of which, as it happens, are on the peripheries. Not by chance, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, underscored in an interview with the Italian weekly magazine La Settimana that the strong points of the last Synod of Bishops were the doctrinal framework, the Gospel of the Family, and the push for young people to receive an education about love.

But these issues were included in the synod’s final report only after the small groups (circuli minores) strongly criticised – and pushed for a substantial rewriting of – the synod’s midterm report. Cardinal Baldisseri’s words signalled that the synod war had already begun, and that – despite the slogan “We don’t turn back”, which accompanied the presentation of the next synod’s guidelines – the majority of bishops do not endorse a pastoral practice that is completely detached from doctrine.

And Francis would probably not support such an approach either. The Pope is always very orthodox in his declarations. This fact has been demonstrated several times. Francis backed the Slovakian bishops in their commitment to promote a referendum to defend the traditional family in their country.

He invited Filipinos to be wary of the ideological colonisation of the family. He expressed a strongly negative judgement on gender theory, which he also defined as “demonic” during a meeting with Austrian bishop in an ad limina visit. Taken together these interventions indicate that Pope Francis is anything but progressive.

So, who is the real Pope Francis? The one who supports liberal bishops and priests, or the one who speaks in an orthodox way? The answer may be more obvious than expected.

Simply put, pastoral practice is more important for Pope Francis than any given theological debate, because the latter, in the end, may be no more than a worldly exercise. Perhaps his famous declaration about preferring a “poor Church for the poor” may be interpreted to mean that he prefers a Church light in structure, and with limited emphasis on philosophical debate, but rich in pastoral love.

But such an approach is not new. Benedict XVI spoke in almost the same terms about the need to escape worldliness and to move beyond the self-referentiality of ecclesial structures. And he underscored the value of mercy, as is evidenced in the homily he delivered at the Mass for the inauguration of his petrine ministry. Time and again Pope Benedict preached about a Church that should not be constructed on ideas, but should be engaged in lively evangelisation.

Nevertheless, a shift is taking place. Pope Benedict was convinced that a solid theological background was needed so that the Church’s pastoral practice would be correct. In fact, the search for truth was pivotal in his pontificate. Pope Francis, on the other hand, sets aside any given theological problem in order to seek immediate, personal contact with people.

Bishop Eduardo Horacio Garcia, who was Cardinal Bergoglio’s auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, recounted shortly after Pope Francis’s election that “at the end of the Jubilee Year, for which Cardinal Bergoglio had called a missionary year, we priests of the archdiocese asked Cardinal Bergoglio to call a synod in order to discuss how to harvest the fruits of our mission and draft guidelines. But he responded that a synod was good only for producing useless documents, while the only thing we need to do is to continue our missionary efforts and to remain in a state of permanent mission.”

These words perhaps explain better than anything else the inner sense of this pontificate. Pope Francis is putting everyone in a state of permanent synod in order to understand each bishop’s perspectives. But the direction of his reforms will proceed from a pastoral approach, and nothing else. Perhaps this is the real change of paradigm.

Andrea Gagliarducci is the Rome correspondent of the Catholic News Agency. 

Faith Magazine