Friday, June 07, 2024

Pope Francis' volte-face is totally unexpected (Opinion)

Pope Francis looks miserable – he ...

Pope Francis gives interviews all the time and has no problem, even in the most informal of circumstances, delivering off-the-cuff remarks to the delight of reporters, ever anxious to file up-to-the-minute copy. 

Even when his words are misinterpreted and clarifications need to be issued later on, he loses no sweat over it.

A now-established feature of his plane journeys home from trips overseas is a folksy response to whatever questions he’s asked – all part of his relaxed no-nonsense style of instinctive engagement with the public. 

But for more formal occasions, Francis tends to be much more circumspect in his comments and tends to choose his words more carefully.

Which is why his latest comments in an interview with CBS, the major American television network, have generated such a reaction. While all sorts of requests for interviews come from all around the world (and Francis has the luxury of deciding who to talk to or not talk to) CBS and senior journalist, Norah O’Donnell, were out of the top drawer.

Clearly, the platform offered was taken very seriously and Francis used it to communicate a serious message, in overturning a widespread perception that had become a presumption – that the October 2024 synod in Rome would give the go-ahead to the ordination of women deacons.

Francis gave that proposal – long accepted as almost inevitable and without which many believe the synods of 2023 and 2024 (and the synodal pathway on which they were based) would lose all credibility – a robust thumbs down.

The interview, an hour-long special, took place on April 24th and was aired two weeks ago.

This was the key exchange between Francis and Norah O’Donnell.

O’Donnell asked him specifically about the issue of women deacons: "I understand you have said no women as priests but are you studying the idea of women as deacons. It that something you’re open to?" 

His reply was: "If it’s women with holy orders (ordained), 'No’."

He then went on to say that while women give great service in the church that service doesn’t include ordination.

O’Donnell then asked him: "For a little girl growing up Catholic today will she ever have the opportunity to be a deacon and to participate as a clergy member in the church."

Francis bluntly replied: "No."

The categoric and unequivocal repetition of the word ‘No’ left absolutely no room for doubt. Francis had, effectively, encouraged the perception and the expectation of ‘Yes’ to those questions, as his previous comments didn’t warrant or gave any expectation of the dramatic volte-face.

After all, he had clearly indicated his preference. He had established two special commissions to examine the theological and historical questions around the issue of women deacons. In the final report of the synod last October (2023), he specifically asked that the work of the commissions on women deacons should be presented to the next meeting of the synod this coming October (2024). 

In March of this year, he set up ten working groups to study some of the synod’s most difficult questions and one of them was on the question of women’s ordination to the diaconate. The previous month, a Spanish nun, Sr Linda Pocher, who had been asked by Francis to chair meetings on women’s leadership for the Pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisors, said that Francis was ‘very much in favour’ of the female diaconate. And Phyllis Vigano, a respected theologian, who had acted on Francis’ behalf around the issue of women deacons, described his about turn as ‘unfortunate’.

So why is Pope Francis apparently changing his mind? Multiple reasons are being offered to explain it – among them his fear of dividing the Church, even to the extent of a schism; that he has lost his nerve in the face of bitter, recriminations from traditionalist opponents, much of it personal; that he has lost his confidence to deliver significant change and is happy to hand over the reins soon to the next generation; that he feels he has done his bit in bringing his reforms and notably the synodal pathway to their present status; and that he fears that the October 2024 synod may become a trial of strength between traditionalists and liberals over the women deacons issue.

Another more convincing theory is that he may have decided on a change of strategy, that he has concluded that more progress may be made with his reforms not by confronting what he sees as divisive issues – like women deacons or mandatory celibacy – but by extending lay ministries within the present teaching of the Church.

As matters stand at present a priest can do three things that a lay person can’t do: say Mass, hear Confession and anoint the sick. Lay people can be trained and commissioned to do everything else. And as matters stand all kinds of reforms can be introduced.

So lay people (men or women) can do much more than we have seen them do in the past if the need is there. For example, take the present focus on lay funeral ministries – now developing in Killala diocese and in other dioceses in Ireland – now mainly driven by the sharp decline in priest numbers, in turn now rapidly reaching its long-predicted cliff-face decline.

So, this theory goes, he has decided to put the hot-button stuff on the back boiler by setting up study groups to examine them and explore what can be done without changing church teaching.

What might with good reason be described as ‘kicking the can' down the road.