Last night I was having a conversation about Pope Francis and the Synod.
And I believe Pope Francis is deeply misunderstood.
I don't think people understand his motives.
I don't think faithful Catholics are fully confident about his orthodoxy.
Some people think that what's really trying to do is change the practice of distributing communion to the divorced & remarried.
But the Spanish bishops asked Pope Francis point blank about the issue, and he said the doctrine cannot be changed.
So it's highly unlikely the practice will change either.
So what the heck is Pope Francis trying to do with this synod anyway?
I think he's trying to do something that's very useful for us culture warriors, so we'd better pay attention.
Let me begin by stating the obvious. Pope Francis is bored by the culture war. He's bored by the politics of it. He's also bored by what I call "the orthodoxy agenda", that is, the attempt to restore doctrinal orthodoxy in the clergy. It's not that he's unorthodox. It's not that he doesn't think clergy shouldn't be orthodox.
It's not what he's about.
He's about "the heart". He's about bringing people to understand the love of God in their lives so that they can repent and turn to Jesus.
If you think Pope Francis is about anything else, you don't understand a damned thing about him.
This attitude explains his disdain of proselytism and his love of gesture as a means of attracting people. You know how a lot of us culture warriors get on the internet and debate every issue from atheism to abortion to papal infallibility?
He's not opposed to that, but he doesn't think that's the main way people will come to the Church.
And he doesn't like the attitude that hammering people with arguments will get them to change (that's what he thinks of as proselytism).
What he's trying to do is to get people to understand the love of God by feeling His presence in their lives through action and attitude.
This is why he's having a synod and not putting forth another encyclical.
As far as he's concerned, everything that needs to be said about family life has been said, and I think he's correct, in the main.
So he's trying to get clergy to find ways to reach out to those very people who have been spiritually sidetracked by the culture of death: the divorced and remarried, gays, contracepting couples, etc.
He wants to find ways to reach out to them that don't amount to a doctrinal statement. Not because he's against doctrinal statements, but because that's not how people are drawn into the Church.
They need to feel loved.
Now I understand many of us who are already good Catholics are of an intellectual bent, and arguments hold sway with us.
Most people in the world are not like that.
Most people need concrete reasons to believe in God, to repent, to believe in Jesus.
And if they don't have those reasons, they're going to reject God.
Now you're right that human nature does tend to evil and justify itself.
But for most people, an argument doesn't trump the heart. They need to understand what God does to a person. Why should a person ditch the gay lifestyle, or put up with celibacy after a divorce? What's so special about God that makes giving up contraception seem sensible.
They have no idea.
When they see Pope Francis kiss a man with Neurofibramatosis, or severe cerebral palsy, they understand God's love.
They are an initiated into it. They want to be part of it.
Pope Francis wants to take that experience of God's love and put that in the lives of families.
The question is: how?
And that's the point of the synod.
Because if people understand what God's love is, you won't have to argue them into the pro-life position.
They understand that God loves them, and they will come to trust his wisdom. They will be open to God's will, trusting that he knows what's best, and what's best is what's most loving.
If the Synod could just find those ways to help people see the love of God in their lives, they would repent of their sin.
That's what he's trying to do and that's how he would help us.
Of course, I'm not so sure that the bishops will be able to find those "outside the box" solutions. Mostly because they don't think outside the box.
Pope Francis is a pastoral genius. He's one of these people who knows exactly what to say and how to act. He can find that doctrinally correct but pastorally sensitive reaction.
Most people aren't like that.
Most clergy aren't like that.
You really have to pick. Are you forthright with doctrine, or "sensitive" and diplomatic (meaning people don't the message on doctrine")?
Because it's very hard to be both.
I don't know that I've met too many clergy who were both.
That's not to say we shouldn't try. There are all kinds of hurting people out there. Social conservatives tend to be a chattering bunch (liberals, too mind you). We tend not to reach out to people for fear of rejection. Liberals expect not to be rejected, because their values are more in tune with the times. So they reach out with less fear that people will react badly to their politics. Conservatives anticipate what people say, and figure: why bother? Why talk to 100 homosexuals about God's love when 99 of them will tell you to eff off?
That's how a lot of social conservatives think [although it's not completely accurate, it's not very far from the truth]. And that's why they figure: just state doctrine and let the chips fall where they may, and if they don't like it too bad. The onus is shifted onto the homosexuals (or whoever) to change, and not for social conservatives to figure out a better way to communicate God's love.
I think Pope Francis wants to get beyond that barrier. He wants all these marginalized groups to understand God's love so they can come closer to Jesus. Notice, the agenda is not to confirm them in their sin. The agenda is to get their experience of God's love to make them understand they need to change their ways.
If Pope Francis and the bishops could find that magic formula to get this to happen, that would be beautiful. It could be ground-breaking. I don't wish to completely instrumentalize this exercise to fit a political agenda. The ultimate point is to save souls, regardless of what happens in the political realm. But politically speaking, if more souls were to be saved, that would help the culture war.
That's a big if. I'm not betting the farm on it.
But it would be nice.