The Roman Church is a curious place to be nowadays.
Let's address some of the perceived issues in the Roman Catholic Church. According to some within the Church (usually American neocons or libertarians take your pick), there was a coup that is working on changing doctrine. This is, of course, laughable because a doctrine is revealed and it has to be done within either a Council or by the Roman Pontiff making a statement on faith or morals in an ex-cathedra manner so he might shepherd the Church, Pope Francis has done neither.
This faction sees any move the Holy Father makes in a pastoral direction as a betrayal of the deposit of faith. One Bishop going so far as challenging the most recent Papal Encyclical Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) as containing “objectively erroneous expressions”. For this wing, a light touch is out of the question, and a pastoral manner that does not implicitly state doctrine out of the gate is suspect.
The fact that Pope Francis continuously attempts to correct Christian economic behavior is also suspect because for many (American) libertarian Catholics any critique of the free market is proof of a socialist conspiracy. These people tend to overlook suspicions discussed by previous Popes because Francis doesn’t address their cultural concerns.
The left is equally out of control by looking at media narratives that bare little resemblance to reality. The left much like the right misunderstands that a pastoral touch is about how the Church reaches out to the faithful, but it does not reflect a change in understanding of doctrine.
Pope Francis with his approachability and personal warmth also enjoys a give and take with the media in a manner that lends itself to the soundbite but doesn’t always reveal his belief system. Take his statement on homosexuality, saying that he is not in a position to judge something is not the same as condoning it.
What we can say about Pope Francis is that his coming from Latin America puts him in a unique position to judge the effects of Western Capitalism from a third world perspective. His devotion to the Blessed Mother is without question and his love for the flock that he shepherds is a duty that he takes seriously. His wants priests who meet the faithful in real life situations. The Pontiff has not excused past behavior, but rather he wants to assist in moving those faithful in the proper direction while still showing them mercy.
To read the media reports and Catholic blogosphere, this was great battle between the liberal and conservative factions of the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is most interesting about Pope Francis might be that he appears to balance the Authority conferred in Vatican I with the collegiality proclaimed in Vatican II. He knows he can have the last word, but he seems to prefer not use it. Take for instance the Synod on the family.
What made this Synod Extraordinary is that it dealt with very particular situations, which are the challenges that Pastors face when talking about families within the Context of Evangelization. The idea of family has been, and is now, in flux, and the Church needs to figure out how to communicate with these changes in a manner that takes the state of the faithful seriously while also remaining true to Church tradition. Forming a bridge between the timeless teachings of the past and the circumstances of the present is not a job for the faint of heart as we are now seeing.
The real fight is between those that believe in the collegiality of bishops or in a more centralized leadership. There is a faction of the Cardinals and Bishops who prefer a strong central Vatican authority. This group wanted a Synod that reiterated the Churches teaching while feeling threatened that any soft pastoral tactics would lead to either a massive misinterpretation of Church teaching or possibly even that the Synod would overturn Church teaching. The truth is that this would require a Counsel or Ex-Cathedra teaching explaining this change within the continuity of the Church.
Recent Synods have appeared to have predetermined outcomes, and this may have been necessary in an attempt to allow the Church to sort itself out following Vatican II. These earlier Synods often had to do with things such as the Eucharist so there was a significant less room for how the Church should apply the teaching.
Pope Francis, however, prefers to allow his brother Bishops wrestle through things like a proper response to contemporary family issues in a fashion that is more open. Why there are plenty of Bishops and theologians that would prefer an outcome they could move toward, Pope Francis appears to believe that for the Church to move forward, she needs to reach consensus on its own.
The Pope’s vision for the Church frees it from a cookie cutter image in which we pretend like we all think alike. The truth is that tension has always been part of the Church, and it is probably not safe to believe those that pretend that it has. While the Dogma’s and the Doctrines of the Church such as Jesus true presence in the Eucharist and the primacy of the Petrine office are shared and nonnegotiable how we choose to enact them in the world is varied, and Pope Francis is aware of that. This probably shouldn’t be all that surprising given the fact that his ministry has been in a religious order that itself is an expression of a particular aspect of the faith.
The Popes organic continuity is much more in line with the history of the Church and his ability to guarantee to unity of the Church while simultaneously allowing the Church to choose her direction herself seems to be the perfect fusion of what we have learned from Vatican I and Vatican II. Yes, he is the head of the Church, and no he will not do the thinking about what that means for us.