Tumult at the Vatican

The pitched battle between adherents of a wider, more tolerant, more inclusive world and the stalwarts of tradition, legalism, and fiercely defended tribal identity is playing out all over, including in the Catholic Church of which I was a member for the first twenty years of my life.

After successful conservative Popes, who named conservative Cardinals — “princes of the Church” — the Church now has Pope Francis. He is more pastoral, more focused on the lived experience of the faithful, and more forgiving that the old guard would like. So are his newly appointed Cardinals. Inexplicably, the conservative wing of the Church — including not only retrograde Cardinals but Ross Douthat of the New York Times — has chosen marriage and the family as the doctrinal hill they are going to die on.  Specifically, the do-or-die issue is whether divorced and remarried Catholics who have not procured an annulment can receive holy communion.

An annulment is a long and expensive Church procedure that ultimately rules a marriage invalid, leaving the way clear for the Catholic to marry again and be in full communion with the Church. Often there are children involved; from what I know the annulment doesn’t make them invalid, although it’s not clear what status the issue of a marriage wiped from the books might have. My Aunt Dotty got an annulment in the 1940’s, after a year of marriage and the birth of my cousin Greg. She and her ex-husband spent the rest of their lives fighting bitterly, to Greg’s detriment. I’m not sure what part the annulment played, but it certainly wasn’t pastoral  or healing.

Why do I care about this, by the way? Comic relief. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way toward any Catholic readers. I simply mean that so much is on the line with the Trump election, and I feel so powerless to stave off what is to come, it’s a relief to watch lunacy play out in another venue, one in which I have no stake.

Pope Francis convened a long discussion of marriage and the family, after which he issued a teaching called Amoris Laetitia, which basically urged less legalism and more tolerance and room for faithful divorced Catholics to work out their status with a priest. He asked the Church hierarchy to remember that communion is not a reward for toeing the line, but the sustaining life bread of the faith. Papal teachings are a big deal and people are supposed to follow them, even in documents not declared infallible.

Four conservative Cardinals, led by U.S. Raymond Burke — who likes to wear a 40 foot long red train to which his rank as prince of the Church entitles him — sent the Pope a document called a dubia, demanding yes/no answers to five questions on marriage/ family issues in the faith. The Pope refused to be caught in that trap, so Boys in Red Birettas made their demand letter public. The Pope still refused to answer, but through surrogates like Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, basically told the Angry Four to cool their jets and be respectful of their Pope.

The escalation, if Burke and his cronies want to take the next step, is to issue a “corrective” publicly rebuking the Pope, which apparently canon law allows them to do.  If they do that, the current Pope can yank their status as cardinals — which the four and their supporters claim would bring about schism in the Church.

Pope Francis is 79 years old. I think if he were younger, he could make a real and lasting change in the Church. Right now, the old guard is waiting for him to die off so they can elect another hard-liner who’d undo everything Francis has said. Reminds me of the Republican Congress and President Obama.

I think history will treat President Obama kindly, even if Trump does take a meat ax to all of President Obama’s signature achievements. And I think a merciful and loving God looks kindly on Pope Francis. Does anyone envision God wearing a 40 foot long red silk train as a mark of His heavenly status? I didn’t think so.

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