Commenting on the ecclesiastical politics of a church that is no longer one's own confession seems, audacious, or perhaps at best a misplaced concentration of one's efforts.
Yet, for how long this former ecclesiastical association comprised my religious experience, it seems only natural retain an amount of concern. The only hope is that the ideas expressed offer both objectivity and sobriety in their retrospective.
The recent revelation that four cardinals in the Roman Church have demanded Pope Francis respond in the affirmative or negative to a series of dubia raised in response to the teaching expounded in Amoris Laetitia, the product of the controversial twin synods on the family in Rome, has given some strength to more conservative or traditional leaning quarters that have spent the better part of the last 3 years frustrated by the direction of this pontificate and the sense that Francis has a set agenda to both deconstruct the Latin tradition and align the Roman Church with contemporary Western globalism. Supporters of Francis, comprised largely of persons and groups who felt disaffected during the pontificate of John Paul II, and positively dejected during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, have predictably rallied behind the current pontiff. The caveat here is that this circling of the wagons is only present among sectors that actually think their could be some traction behind the dubia raised by the four cardinals - in point of fact, it seems the majority of "Pope Francis Catholics" think this is something more appropriate to conspiracy theories, as they pay it little attention.
Ascribing any particular intention to a Bishop of Rome is always tricky business. The pontificate of Benedict XVI is prime example. His detractors automatically dismissed most of his teaching and liturgics. His champions, meanwhile, read their own cause into his often non-ideological statements and teachings. A fine example of this was demonstrated by Traditionalists after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum. By conveniently failing to note that the Bishop of Rome refused to celebrate the liturgy of the early modern liturgical books, and cherry picking various statements made regarding the prior missal and Pauline Missal, Traditionalists were able to frame Ratzinger's liturgics as in alignment with their own, frequently omitting his basic orientation towards the Pauline missal: 1) that, apart from a few minor criticisms, he was thankful for the Missal of Paul VI, 2) whatever reform of the reform he had in mind, he envisioned the Missal of Paul VI as the basis upon which the Roman liturgy resists, 3) liturgical reform was needed.
It was easy enough for Joseph Ratzinger's teaching to be lost on an entire religious association. In part, the dawn of the new media was to blame. Looking back at John Paul II's papacy, whatever tumult that existed as a result of the Second Vatican Council, there was little in the way of distortion of his teaching. Truth be told, the propagation of his teaching was heavily vetted, presented by persons and agencies that had established credentials making them precisely sufficient to detail theological content and ecclesiastical discipline. In large part, John Paul's was the last papacy guarded by conventional channels. By comparison, Benedict's papacy coincided with the meteoric rise of "new media." Credentials in matters theological or ecclesiological were increasingly trumped by "web presence." It soon became apparent that voices with little credibility in such matters were gaining formative influence on public perception. The result was a "lost" papacy, a papacy that had been so misrepresented and distorted (even by the pontiff's alleged devotees) that the common perception of its teaching, discipline and praxis had less to do with actual content and more to do with the innermost projections of numerous ideological wings in the Roman Church. The greater tragedy is that this was very much a "teaching papacy," Benedict was an anti-ultramontanist pope who put the focus not on the cultus of the Papacy (a phenomenon that only came into focus with the media image of Pius XII), but the content of the Tradition.
After the disastrous impact of the "new" media on the collective perception of Benedict's papacy, it is necessary to ask if Francis' papacy is undergoing a similar distortion.
To be true, Francis' papacy is the return of the papal cultus. He stands in line with Pius XII, John XXIII, and John Paul II who brought the ecclesiology of Pius X to its logical fulfillment, coalescing an entire tradition around one man. In truth, not since Pius XII has history seen a Bishop of Rome with a strident authoritarian streak borne from a conviction that in his will resides the deposit of an entire tradition. Yet, he is in full continuity with recent "tradition." The difference may be that not since the first ten years of John Paul II's papacy have we seen a pope of Rome so strongly bend the Roman Church into a direction he perceives to be not only correct, but divine.
The dubia raised by the four cardinals has merit. Amoris Laetitia is deliberately ambiguous in certain passages. Although, it strikes me as somewhat incredulous that the same people questioning the ambiguity of the document's teaching are also the same people who hold to the teaching authority of the Second Vatican Council. In that instance, one has content with a collection of documents whose main source of notoriety is the nearly all pervasive ambiguity in its documents. That some of these seem cardinals previously advocated for Benedict's theory of a hermeneutic of continuity and a hermeneutic of rupture only underscores the point. Ascribing to a "hermeneutic of continuity" implicitly acknowledges that one accepts as authoritative documents or teaching that are openly ambiguous. This is not to dismiss the questions surrounding the more controversial passages of Amoris Laetitia - they exist and will persist until such time as a successor to the document is published that either a) rejects the teaching; b) reaffirms the teaching; or c) develops the teaching in another direction. Rather, it is to be asked where is the consistency? Where is the similar push to definitively resolve the ambiguities in the documents of Vatican II be either explicit "yes" or "no," or through an official process of rebuking the teaching? We simply do not find a similar initiative among any members of the Roman hierarchy. Amoris Laetitia is the product of worldview that was fundamentally accepted by both liberals and conservatives at the close of Vatican II - the only distinction pertains to how said worldview should be implemented.
The dubia demonstrates the very real divide among the Roman hierarchy, a divide which, in many respects, is the result of our all too human nature. The divide in the Roman hierarchy aptly mimics the divide in Western Culture as a whole. There is a fairly consistent acceptance of the contemporary Western paradigm. The apparent disagreement pertains to how much the Roman Church should reflect the trends in the West. This said, we must be cautious before simply lading the motif of cultural assimilation on to Pope Francis' intentions, not only with regard to Amoris Laetatia, but indeed his whole pontificate. Like his recent predecessors, Francis straddles the line between modernity and the Tradition - he is a product of his context. And like his predecessors, he is attempting to do what he believes is right for his church. Francis is genuine in his belief that in such areas as divorce and remarriage or cohabitation, the Roman Church is often getting distracted from its main purpose and getting bogged down in the details. To some extent, he has a point. The Christian kergyma rests on the person of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection and our redemption. The Church, whether Catholic or Orthodox, only has credibility in so far as it preaches and constantly points towards Christ. More so than discarding Roman teaching on divorce and the indissolubility of marriage, the source of controversy, it seems to me, is the degree to which Francis' apparent agenda is influenced more by the pressures of contemporary Western norms versus a radical rediscovery of Christ over and against ecclesiastical conventions. There is, to be sure, a noticeable skepticism that Francis is preaching a radical rediscovery of Christ so much as he is assimilating the norms of the contemporary West. Praising such figures as Emma Bonino does nothing to quell the skepticism. Francis' proposition for a radically rediscovery of Christ seems accompanied by politics and the desire to make such politics hospitable to Christian discipline even when their proposition seemingly defies Christianity. This said, Francis would not be the only pope to have embraced one or another political agenda and attempt to sublimate Christianity into it. One may ask, wouldn't a radical rediscovery of Christ be accompanied by his own intense eschatology and apocalypticism?
To question Francis' sincerity (as pertains preaching the radical rediscovery of Christ) seems impudent. Questioning the prudence of his pontificate, however, is legitimate. The Bishop of Rome officially enjoys a level of authoritative influence over his church that is unparalleled by any other Patriarch. He defines dogma and due to the exchange between adherent and religious authority, any Bishop of Rome exercises a formative role on the collective psychology of Roman Catholicism. This influence produces a perilous situation given the way a religion the size of Catholicism works. The distinctions Francis makes and the foundational shift he would like to see in his church to some degree depend upon subtlety and discernment that are not possible on a large corporate level, being better suited to individual or more communal contexts. Of course, religion in general does not rest on subtleties and discernment. The exchange between religion and the adherent is based largely on the religion's promise (by either ritual or doctrine) to provide the adherent with stability and immutability where the rest of the elements of his or her existence afford no such promise. The moment a religion entertains mutability and transience (largely through confusion of ritual or doctrine), it begins to elicit questions surrounding its verity and surety in the minds of its adherents, as it no longer delivers on two of the main promises of religion (implicitly, the third most common promise of religion, that of transcendence or eternal life, comes into question as a result). To this extent, Francis' staunch insistence on the Pauline liturgy and his campaign to put a clamp on the "reform of the reform" is understandable - the Roman liturgy needs to enter a period of stability in order that it may cease being treated as a "creative product" and accepted as a "received liturgy" to which the local and universal church assents.
Corporate dynamics considered, there is another matter of Francis' personality, which tends to summarily dismiss or trivialize people who do not completely assent to the direction in which he is trying to steer the Roman Church. Francis does not dismiss ideas - he dismisses people, and this trait ought to be a cause for concern among alleged liberals with a keen eye on the history of the Roman Church in society. His recent response to the four cardinals who submitted the dubia in the pages of Avvenire illustrates this point, as does his dismissal of the motivations of persons who prefer the liturgy of 1962 over the Pauline liturgy. Francis spends scant time engaging the ideas in either instance, rather, he out of hand paints the people in terms that are designed to make his audience question their psychological make-up. Were we to view this from the perspective of sociological and political categorization, we would not hesitate to state that Francis' approach is in line with the intimidation methods utilized by totalitarian states. It would be wise to give Francis the benefit of the doubt in so far as it would be imprudent to affirm that he intends to be totalitarian with his governance of the Roman Church. However, one cannot ignore parallels, if only to perhaps make a man aware of them who, normally, we presume, would denounce the same tendencies.
If there is a universal perspective that emerges with every new pontificate, it is that the pope of Rome needs to come to some understanding of the Roman Church's context: its internal divisions, an honest assessment of Vatican II's legacy, and the cultural forces weighing upon it (leaving aside recent dogmatic definitions that are disputable in their foundations). Benedict was probably the best suited for the task and most clearly saw the issues for what they were - he was summarily ignored by his opponents and distorted by his champions. Francis has only deepened the fissures threatening the foundations of Roman Catholicism by refusing to make an honest assessment of these factors and refusing to come to an understanding of the ideas involved. This is only to the greater detriment of the Catholic Tradition. The ideas involved (or, rather, the ideas that have evolved in more recent decades - added by the rise of the new media and lack of vetting among those propagating ideas) often lack rationality and, more importantly, historical perspective.