What would happen if Pope Francis were to fail?

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And if Pope Francis fails? There is no doubt that behind the reform oriented opening up of Cardinal Kasper and the other cardinals, there is the Pope himself, but what could happen if the intended reforms were not realized and the expectation  of a  new spring turned out to be a simple illusion?

During the working of the extraordinary consistory on the family, Kasper maintained that “we should be honest and admit that between the doctrine of the Church on matrimony and the family and the actual experience of many Christians there is an abysmal gap.” This statement,  in as far as it refers to the family, is true, in my opinion, for many other areas of catholic doctrine including, I think, it is valid for the very concept of doctrine, understood as a system of established truths which the believer ought to profess, under the watchful eye of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which formerly was called The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office and before 1908 the Holy Office of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.

It is not difficult to enumerate the many elements which result in making the teaching of the Church find itself so “divorced from life”. Beyond the doctrine of marriage there is birth control, with its disastrous practical and theoretical failure of Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, there is also the subject of sexual identity and of homosexuality, to which we need to stop referring to as a disease as still happens.  At the same time we are faced with the complex field of bioethics which is trapped in the total denial of assisted fertilization and the future of frozen embryos, following upon the diagnosis of embryos before being implanted and the principle of self-determination at the level of biological scope. Evidently, there are other ecclesiological problems which since 1987 Hans Küng  used to define as boring old problems, that is, shortage of priestly and religious vocations, priestly celibacy, criteria for selecting bishops, collegiality as a method of government, the role of the laity, the role of women,  the reform of the Roman Curia, respect for human rights within the Church, of which “the treatment of female novices” has even been denounced by the Pope, is only one aspect, and finally freedom of theological research.

I cannot in this short space enumerate the many theological problems whether of fundamental or of systematic theology which show the fragility of such a celebrated doctrine, if not to say that the real problem  concerns the identity of the Christian message, about which I think the question must be raised: What is today the good news of the Gospel?

I think that that will be the decisive issue to which it is necessary to put mind and reason to work. If we succeed in learning to do so, we will be able to look further ahead, we will understand “what the Spirit is asking of the Church”, and then there will be less fear and pessimism. It is necessary to know to see, in fact, not only what is dying, but also what is being born, because to something that dies, there always is attached something that is born.

What is it that dies? Saint Augustine used to say that he would not have been able to believe in the Gospel if he had not been influenced by the authority of the Church (Contra ep. Man. 5,6. Ego vero evangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae commoveret auctoritas”), sustained in the   model of faith that makes an ecclesiastic of a Christian, that is, a member of a structure, from which one must accept a doctrine.  Today this model is dying out, the epoch of a dogmatic-ecclesiastical faith that implies the acceptance of a doctrine and of an authority that has almost  reached its end, because the experimental method of science has been accepted even in the spiritual life which now the individual wants to experience  personally  and faith in a doctrine mediated by ecclesiastical authority finds itself already surpassed. In its place a non-dogmatic Christianity is being born which moves over from doctrinal exteriority to existential interiority, and which prefers to cross over from ecclesial authority to personal authority. The period of Benedict XVI to Francis is a manifestation of this epochal movement. According to what has been found out in the world survey commissioned by the Vatican, there is a great distance between official doctrine and the faith as practiced. As a consequence, if Christianity wants to return to being perceived as good news that once again brings health and  joy to existence, to offer itself as  truth to the process we call the world in general, it has to undertake a process of reformation. The doctrine on the family is only a first inevitable step. If it does not do so,  the result would be stamped by those words of a young reporter in the conversations at night in Jerusalem with Carlo Martini who said: “I do not know what to do with the faith. I have nothing against it, but what could the Church offer me?” This is what many young people are thinking today.

Some fear that this reform could contaminate Christian identity. But for Christianity , this relevance is part of its identity, and is not something  that comes afterwards.   An irrelevant identity cannot be a Christian identity, much less catholic in as far as it is universal. “You are the salt of the earth”. (Mt 05.13). You are the light of the world” (Mt 5.14). Christian identity is relational and immediate, it is to be-for,  because yeast only has meaning in relation to food,  or flour (Mt 13, 33 “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast which a woman took and put in three measures of flour, till the whole was fermented…”) From this we conclude that if the relationship weakens, the identity too remains undecided. Christianity too survives on the logic of relation and adaptation and this logic leads it inevitably to reform.  To obey is not a concession to relativism; it is simply a duty to the Gospel.

But, suppose Pope Francis does not succeed doing what he proposes? And suppose he cannot heal the IOR, so that the government of the Catholic Church is more in conformity with the wishes of  Vatican II , and does not succeed in changing the relationship with Italian politics giving up definitively the exchange of favors between cardinals and ministers sensitive to interests of the Church? And if he does not succeed in putting order between bishops and superiors of religious Orders, reminding all of a sober lifestyle in conformity with the values of the Gospel?  And if he does not succeed in giving an adequate and just place to women in terms of sharing power, of opening the diaconate and cardinalate to women, in reforming sexual morality, establishing new criteria in the process of selection and formation of the clergy? Finally, if he does not give more freedom for theological investigation? What will happen should Pope Francis fail in all this?

Some days ago the non-believer, Eugenio Scalfari wrote, that thanks to Francis: “Rome has returned to being the capital of the world… Rome, the city of Pope Francis, is the center of the world.”  Scalfari, obviously was referring to spiritual leadership, for which the West has great need to continue believing in the great ideals of humanity, traditionally defined as goodness, justice, equality, solidarity and fraternity.  In a world where everything is power and calculation, the genuine presence of this Pope allows us to become aware that among us not everything is power and scheming. That there is still room for gratitude, sincere love and the will for what’s good and for promoting good.

For him to fail would be the end of the light which has been lit in the existence of all human beings who are still not resigned to cynicism and the cruelty of the fight for existence, and for Rome to return to being  the outskirts of the world, would mark the end of the ideals of western spirituality. Would that the Cardinals, monsignors and theologians who are doing everything possible to block the work of the Pope and have the reform of the Pope fail, remember this.

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Vito Mancuso
Doctor en Teología Sistemática por la Pontificia Università Lateranense. Con Bachillerato en Filosofía por la Facoltà Teologica de Milano y Licenciatura en Teología por la Facoltà Teologica di Napoli. Es Profesor de la Facultad de Filosofia de la Università San Raffaele de Milano y de Teología de la Università degli Studi di Padova.