As he celebrates his second Christmas in Rome, Pope Francis has been Pope for nearly two years (since March 13, 2013). This month, on the 17th, he turns 78. He has been greatly praised, and greatly criticized. And 2015 brings new challenges.
“One of the most celebrated frescoes of Raphael is found in the Vatican and depicts the so-called School of Athens. Plato and Aristotle are in the center. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven, as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent — to God — which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems…” —Pope Francis, Strasbourg, France, November. 25, 2014 “
Aristotle taught that there is a greater evil in habitual sin than in a single lapse accompanied by the sting of remorse. Adultery is a case in point, especially when it leads to new, legally sanctioned arrangements — ‘remarriage’ — that are almost impossible to undo without great pain and effort. Thomas Aquinas uses the term ‘perplexitas’ to characterize cases like these. They are situations from which there is no escape that does not incur guilt of one sort or another.” —Robert Spaemann, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Munich, essay on marriage in First Things
“The family, united, fruitful and indissoluble [emphasis added], possesses the elements fundamental for fostering hope in the future. Without this solid basis, the future ends up being built on sand, with dire social consequences.” —Pope Francis, Strasbourg
“I believe the Pope will not take the position allowing Communion for the ‘remarried’ divorced.” ― Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan, Italy (photo), December 2, Corriere della Sera
When Pope Francis went to Strasbourg on November 25, he diagnosed Europe’s spiritual condition. It was a brilliant speech, perhaps the greatest so far in his pontificate. With great clarity, with great passion — he was interrupted 14 times by applause — he set forth a vision for Europe to return to a more spiritual, more humane path than the one she is on, which includes euthanasia, abortion, and gives “a general impression of weariness and aging.”
When he visited Istanbul to celebrate the Feast of St. Andrew (the brother of St. Peter) with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on November 30, he embraced Bartholomew, asking of him “a blessing for me and for the Church of Rome.” It was a gesture of humility that will not soon be forgotten. “In some ways we could say not much happened here in Istanbul,” Fr. John Chryssavgis, a priest with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, said. “And in another way we could say it was an earth-shattering change… It’s a reminder and a commitment to stay together, to stay in dialogue, to stay in communication until we can be one.”
So, during November, the Pope sketched a vision for a possible better, more vibrant future for a weary, aging Europe, and he opened a way toward greater union with the Orthodox in years to come.
Meanwhile, the intense debate which flared up in October during the bishops’ synod on marriage, divorce, and admission to Communion, continues. Among bishops, among theologians, among ordinary Catholics. Now, one of the leading cardinals in the Church, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, Italy — who received votes to be Pope at the last Conclave — has given an interview saying, “The Pope will not take the position allowing Communion for the ‘remarried’ divorced.” Scola is an authoritative voice, so we may believe that one part of the question is already settled: no doctrinal change.
But, as Scola added: “I made a proposal… stated more than once also by the Pope, to remain faithful to doctrine, but to make the process of annulment of marriage more close at hand to the heart of the people and in a more rapid manner. I put forth the idea of involving the bishop more directly in the process of determining nullity.”
If Scola is right, the Synod in October 2015 will streamline the process of annulment — that is, the recognition that a true marriage never occurred — preserving unchanged the Church’s teaching on marriage.
This debate has sparked passions because it is about something very important: marriage and human sexuality (this is one reason why the world in general is so interested in this debate). As Scola says: “Twenty years ago I wrote that the sexual revolution would put Christianity to the test perhaps even more than the Marxist revolution. We see now that this is indeed the case.”
The reason “this is the case” is that the discussion about marriage inevitably involves the call and the grace of the indissolubility of marriage, as taught by Christ — and the fallenness of human nature, which so often fails to live up to that call. “To stand by our fellow Christians in the midst of the perplexitas of ‘remarriage,’ to show them empathy and assure them of the solidarity of the community, is a work of mercy,” Robert Spaemann, the renowned German Catholic philosopher and friend of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, wrote this summer. “But to admit them to Communion without contrition and regularizing their situation would be an offense against the Blessed Sacrament.” He continued: “The Church admits that it handled the sexual abuse of minors without sufficient regard for the victims. The same pattern is repeating itself here. Has anyone even mentioned the victims? Is anyone talking about the woman whose husband has abandoned her and their four children? She might be willing to take him back, if only to ensure that the children are provided for, but he has a new family and has no intention of returning.” So, the debate is more than a debate about marriage. The debate calls into question all the doctrine, all the faith, of the Catholic Church. That is: Is reality ultimately Christocentric? It is a debate about how to remain faithful to the “Good News” of Christ — that the universe is, ultimately, Christocentric — in a “post-Christocentric” world. There is no constituency in the Church for a rejection of Christ. But, to discern what course to set to preserve the teaching while ministering pastorally to those who have fallen into marital shipwreck, now numbering, in our “post-traditional” Western society in the tens of millions — is not easy. This is why the Pope is treating this question, not as a simple or obvious one, but as one requiring deep and lengthy reflection.