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The Belgian bishops and the fight for Francis’ legacy

The Belgian bishops and the fight for Francis’ legacy

Belgium’s Flemish bishops published on Tuesday a text on the pastoral care of Catholics who identify as LGBT, including a prayer for the “love and fidelity” of same-sex couples widely understood as a text to be used for blessing for gay relationships. The francophone portion of Belgium’s episcopal conference is expected to issue its own version of the text soon.

The prayer is predictably controversial, with critics maligning it as a repudiation of Vatican guidance on the subject.

Will Pope Francis intervene on the matter? That’s not yet certain.

But its publication could signal the beginning of a public battle in the Church over the legacy of Pope Francis. And whether the pope will step in to define that legacy for himself remains an uncertain - but pressing - question.

Just more than one year ago, the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document which explained that the Church has no power to bless same-sex unions, even while emphasizing the dignity of all people, including Catholics, who identify as gay.

The document was aimed in response to the Church in Germany, where early documents of the “synodal way” process had called for revisions to the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, and called for the blessing of same-sex unions in churches.

The CDF (now DDF) text was not welcomed by the German synodal assembly, and German clergy staged a day of mass protest, liturgically blessing hundreds of same-sex unions in churches across the country.

But the German bishops mostly accepted what Rome instructed — for the time being — while vowing to press ahead with debating their synodal agenda.

It was actually in Belgium that the CDF’s response met the most defiant response.

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp said the text made him “ashamed of my Church.”

The bishop dismissed the Vatican’s doctrinal office as an “ideological backroom,” and accused the text’s principle signatory, Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, of being, in effect, out of his depth: “Intellectually, this does not even reach the level of high school,” Bonny said.

A year later, the Belgian bishops appear to have shown that their contempt for the now DDF isn’t just rhetoric.

The document providing for the blessing of same-sex relationships was issued just weeks ahead of the bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome, their first in more than a decade.

While in Rome they will, as all visiting bishops do, have meetings with all the major curial departments, including the DDF.

The Belgian text will undoubtedly be raised, but it’s likely to be more an embarrassing topic for Ladaria, a Jesuit and Francis appointee, than for his visitors. The bishops are well aware of what the Church’s teaching is, and what the DDF has said on the matter. They seem equally clear that Church teaching must change, and that there is nothing Ladaria’s department can do to stop them trying.


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In previous decades, and centuries, the final authority of the Vatican on matters of faith and morals was both understood and explicit — but underpinning that understanding was the expectation on all sides that, past a certain point, the pope would intervene, decisively if necessary.

That was the case in recent decades, when Seattle’s Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen found himself the subject of an apostolic visitation in the 1980s, and St. John Paul II assigned him a coadjutor bishop to effectively audit and correct the archbishop’s teachings.

In a more recent example, Australia’s Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba was removed from office by Benedict XVI in 2011, when it was clear he would not be brought into line with Church teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.

But when Ladaria sits down with the Belgian bishops in a few weeks’ time, few in the room will likely take seriously the prospect of Francis responding as JPII and Benedict might have been expected to.

While the pope has shown himself willing to depose a bishop for causes of “disobedience” and being out of communion with other bishops, there is no example of Francis taking disciplinary action over doctrinal matters.

As a result, disputes on matters of faith and morals between Rome and bishops, especially in Europe, have tended to hinge on competing interpretations - some quite speculative - of what Pope Francis actually teaches and really thinks.

It is telling, for example, that both the DDF’s 2021 text ruling out the possibility of church blessings for same-sex unions and the Belgians’ document bringing them in both make repeated reference to Francis’ 2016 exhortation Amoris laetitia.

While the Belgians insist their plans are in the pastoral mold demanded by the pope’s teachings, the DDF might observe that it was Francis who ordered the publication of their document in the first place.

Still, the impression has set in, both in Rome and across the Church, that the pope himself is unlikely to weigh in explicitly for either side.

Some Vatican watchers see that as evidence of “cakeism” by the pope, the disposition to both eat the confection and have it too —  in this case appearing to simultaneously stand with the Church’s perennial teachings while allowing a push for radical changes to them.

Others, including numerous officials working in the Roman curia, quietly suggest that despite his image as a pope steering a sweeping cultural and governing reform of the universal Church, Francis actually fears a direct confrontation with the more progressive episcopal conferences like Belgium and Germany, and worries he doesn’t have the authority to bring them into line, even when he thinks they have gone too far.

Whether either or neither of those impressions of the pope’s true mind is accurate, the reality is that the fiercest debates currently underway — on the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, on the sacraments, on the meaning and nature of synodality — have all turned into battles over Francis’ legacy as pope, even while he remains in office.

Among Vatican officials speaking to The Pillar, there is a consensus: A breaking point has arrived in the long-simmering tension between those frustrated the Vatican has not made doctrinal “advances” on issues like same-sex relationships, and those working to prevent what they see as an abrogation of Catholic doctrine.

Media speculation about the pope’s health, or hints of a resignation, is normal fare at this stage of a pontificate — Francis is soon to turn 86. But behind the usual chatter in the press, the battle for the legacy of the Francis pontificate has become real, even among those who would all consider themselves committed supporters of the pope’s agenda.

On the one hand are institutionalists, who see Francis’ greatest reform as a change of music, rather than lyrics, for the Church, bringing a new pastoral tone to unchanging truths and teachings. To those figures, the actions of the German and Belgian bishops are a clear and present danger to the structural existence of a universal Church, threatening a breach with Rome and other bishops’ conferences around the world on issues of basic doctrine.

On the other side are those who see the Francis pontificate as a window of opportunity for dramatic reform of the substance, not just tone, of Church teaching. That window, they fear, is closing fast, and is inspiring a new urgency to cement proposals and discussions into action and results.

Perhaps tellingly, the push and pull between those two sides has until now played out in the context of preparation for next year’s final synodal session, slated for October — but in conversations around Rome at least, the frame of reference is shifting to more-or-less open discussion of the next conclave and beyond.

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While commentators usually try to handicap a papal election as conservative vs. liberal candidates, it is the split between institutionalists and arch-progressives that merits closer watching, with both camps pitching themselves as best suited to continuing Francis’ reforms.

Some prominent cardinals, like Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Italian bishops’ conference president Cardinal Matteo Zuppi have long been talked up in some quarters as potential heirs to Francis. But they are now increasingly spoken of — at least by some progressives — as too close to the “institutionalist” mindset and not sufficiently open to the kind of radical reform demanded by, for example, the Belgian and German bishops.

New names are now beginning to float around Rome as potential “Francis II”’s, notably Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, archpriest of St. Peter’s and vicar general of the Vatican City-state, and the Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech — head of the synod’s permanent secretariat. Each is said to be quietly signaling his commitment to “definitive reform” of the Church.

The institutionalists and the radical reformers do, however, appear to share an important piece of common ground — a vision of the Church which emphasizes authority rooted in the person and office of the pope.

But paradoxically it is exactly the pope’s own refusal to explicitly back one side or another in the various stand-offs emerging between his curia and the bishops of Belgium and Germany that has many observers fearing the prospect of a full-blown crisis of communion.

The dynamic of Rome saying one thing and bishops doing the opposite - for example in Belgium -  is simply not sustainable over any real length of time. Even if Rome (and the pope) decline to take action against the Belgians, or in time the Germans, publicly ignoring the situation is unlikely to make it disappear.

Indeed, if Francis' hope is that by not taking sides he might avoid conflict, the strategy may end up provoking the very confrontation he's hoping to avoid.

Eventually, episcopal letters of concern from other parts of the world will turn into frank acknowledgements that one or other bishops’ conference has broken with the Church universal teaching and discipline, even if Francis declines to respond to those, too. But that, some are now speculating, may be part of the plan.

One theory being suggested in parts of the Vatican is that some progressive bishops’ conferences are courting a confrontation.

The theory runs that if Pope Francis is not going to explicitly back, for example, women’s ordination or recognition of same-sex unions, it will be up to his successor to finally settle the issue. In that case, the argument goes, provoking an open breach on the issues now could force his eventual successor to choose between the progressive reforming agenda, and the prospect of actual schism — with the reformers banking on his choosing Church unity over teaching authority. That future pope would then heal the breach while settling the direction of reform in their favor, once and for all.

Like all pre-conclave strategies, it may or may not be nearly as coherent and organized as some like to think. And like other plans before, it may or may not succeed.

But for now, it does seem that at least some of Francis’ ecclesiological sons are, in effect, demanding their share of his estate now. Where they might go with that remains to be seen.


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