Sunday, June 09, 2024

Is the Francis pontificate entering its ‘Third Age’? (Contribution)

Final Conversion of Pope Francis ...

In the abstract, suppose you learned a Roman Catholic pontiff had done the following things in just the past couple of weeks:

  • Told a major American news outlet that he has no intention of ordaining women as clergy, certainly not as priests and not even as deacons.

  • Used an off-color bit of slang in a session with Italian bishops to imply that there’s too much of a gay culture in Catholic seminaries, hinting at caution about calls to relax standards for the admission of gay candidates to the priesthood.

  • Forced a bishop from his home country to resign who had a reputation as a progressive, supporting both Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and also outreach to the LGBT community while playing down public opposition to abortion. (There’s no suggestion that those positions are why the bishop was removed, but his record is nonetheless clear.)

  • Dispatched his top doctrinal adviser to Egypt to tell the Coptic Orthodox Church that the Vatican endorses “everything” in a March 7 Coptic analysis of “Fiducia Supplicans,” a Vatican document on blessing persons in same-sex unions. That Coptic reaction included an assertion that practicing gays are worse than adulterers and should be cut off from Communion.

If that’s all you knew about this particular pontiff, you’d likely conclude that we’re dealing with a conservative defender of tradition. The fact that it’s actually Pope Francis, whose typical profile is instead as a progressive, means there’s some explaining in order.

Oswald Spengler famously theorized that civilizations are analogous to living organisms, in that they’re born, experience rapid growth and change, then stabilize in adulthood, and finally go into decline. One could probably apply the same analysis to papacies, which tend to begin with a creative period in which everything seems new and fresh, then enter a long span of stability and repetition before things eventually start shutting down.

To be clear, no one’s suggesting that the end of the Francis papacy is necessarily near. On the contrary, the pope we’ve seen in public recently, whether it was during a demanding day trip to Verona on May 18 or presiding over the Vatican’s May 25-26 first World Day of Children (which, in typical Vatican fashion, was actually a two-day event), seemed energized, resilient, and basically good to go.

The fact that Francis appears to have bounced back from recent health struggles, however, does not, in itself, tell us much about which phase of his papacy we’re actually in.

For the last few years, it has seemed clear that we were in the repetitive period of adulthood, in which the main lines of the papacy were well-established and becoming a matter of muscle memory.

When Francis would turn to a familiar theme in one of his public addresses — the issue of war and peace, for instance, or the question of inclusion of people who identify as LGBT in the church — Vatican-watchers jokingly competed with one another to see who could predict the most closely what the pope would say, and, in many cases, those projections were almost word-for-word accurate, because frankly we’d heard it all before, and way more than once.

Now, however, it’s possible that we’re entering the papacy’s “Third Age,” which is a polite term these days for getting old.

It’s not simply that Francis is now 87, although that does make him the oldest reigning pontiff in 121 years, but rather that the experimental character of his papacy, the sense that anything might be possible, appears to be giving way to a more cautious and restrained phase, in which one principal concern may be not to leave behind too many unanswered questions or overheated expectations for a successor to have to confront.

Francis’ recent comments both on women deacons and on gays in seminaries would appear to cut in that direction. Both reflect questions that have been much in the air vis-à-vis his ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, and the fact that Francis has decided to intervene personally rather than allowing the discussions in the synod to take their course, could be read as his effort to make sure the process doesn’t run off the rails.

In the background, of course, is also the über-controversial synodal path of the German church, with the fear that it may yet spin off in directions that Rome not only cannot approve, but can’t even control. 

None of this necessarily implies that in his “Third Age” as pope, Francis will metamorphosize into a conservative. All indications are that he fully intends to continue his quasi-pacifist stand on armed conflict: for instance, he’ll continue seeking détente with China, he’ll continue pressing for a more pastorally inclusive Church, and he’s not suddenly going to embrace the Latin Mass.

Such positions are unlikely to warm the hearts of traditionalists and hawks in the Catholic fold.

On the other hand, this new phase does suggest that on certain neuralgic issues, where Francis believes his more pastoral tone may have aroused expectations of change he’s unprepared or unwilling to meet, he’s becoming more inclined to give answers rather than simply to leave things hanging. In part, that’s the natural lifespan of any papacy; in part, too, it’s likely out of a sense of trying to smooth things out, as much as possible, for whomever may come next.

How Francis navigates the tension between continuing to sail ahead, without setting so far out into the deep that he can’t get back to shore in time, may well frame the drama of this new stage … and, as with everything involving this maverick pontiff, it will undoubtedly be fascinating to watch.