Discuss, Debate, Discern, Decide

Why is it that Pope Francis is so popular – and so unpopular? He’s popular because he has given huge hope to Catholics who sense that here’s a pope who has his finger on the pulse of everyday Catholic life, a pope who encourages debate and genuine consultation, a pope who will actually change what needs to be changed.
He’s unpopular too, of course, with those who don’t want debate or (genuine) consultation or change. They want everything to stay as it was and, to ensure that it does, they peddle the nonsense that the reason the Catholic Church in the developed world is in decline is because we’ve had too many changes.
A battle is now being waged for the heart and soul of Catholicism. On one side is Francis, recognising the failure of his predecessors to implement reforms inspired by the Second Vatican Council, and gradually edging cardinals, bishops and priests towards reforms that most Catholics see as necessary, indeed vital.
On the other side there’s a conservative rebellion fuelled by public comments from disaffected cardinals and bishops, the use of conservative Catholic websites promoting Francis dissenters, promotional materials backed by conservative clerics and leaks to the news media, aimed at undermining, for example, the effort to reform the Vatican.
Cardinal Raymond Burke is one of the leaders of what is a sustained conservative backlash against Pope Francis, and even though cardinals are expected to be ultra-loyal to the pope, scandalously Burke has constantly sniped at Francis’ heels. Though widely regarded as a figure of fun for his penchant for travelling the world, saying Latin Masses while dressed in sixteenth century vestments, Burke is the great dissenter of our time, intent on undermining Pope Francis and ultimately damaging the Church.
Almost 80 years of age, the perception was that Francis (like Pope John XXII) would be a caretaker pope. But with the flurry of activity since his election, it’s clear that Francis is an old man in a hurry, intent on using whatever years God gives him, to turn the barque of St Peter on a very different course.
The key to understanding Francis, it is now clear, is in his Jesuit training. In simple terms Jesuits, it seems, place huge emphasis on a two-stage process in dealing with problems. The first is: sponsoring discussion, debate, consultation, discernment. The second is: making a decision.
Most of the rest of the Church can deal with the first stage. But more recently we tend to baulk at the second, through a failure to trust, to risk, to change.
Take the recent announcements on reforming procedures and practices for the annulment of marriages. This was one area of church life resistant to change. In fact over the course of the Church’s 2,000-year history, changes were made on just two occasions, in 1741 and again in 1908.
Having worked for some years in this area, I know at first hand the frustration of marriage tribunal personnel with some of the procedures that they were constantly told couldn’t be changed, even though everyone knew that the process was too cumbersome, too drawn out, too expensive. And knew too the price that was being paid by couples and their families as a result.
Take one example. A necessary part of the process of examining if a marriage could be annulled was that if the court judged that an annulment should be granted that the decision was automatically appealed to another court. This clogged the system, unnecessarily.
Another example. In some cases it was clear from the outset that a particular marriage would be annulled but no one could make what was the obvious decision ­– to grant the annulment. Instead a lengthy process (needed in a difficult and complex case) had to be followed, though everyone knew what the decision was going to be at the end of it.
Francis decided that the system was in need of reform. He set up a committee and asked them to report in a year. And a week or so ago he made his decisions, which will come into operation in December. Two of the changes relate to the two examples I quoted above.
In the first case the need for an automatic appeal has now been waived. In the second case a bishop can, with a period of 45 days, effectively decide to fast-track an annulment when the decision is obvious.
Why did Francis suddenly decide to introduce changes that could reform the annulment process when for over a hundred years, with society undergoing tumultuous change, no change had been made?
The two-fold answer is that, one, Francis realised, through his close contact with people, that the present process couldn’t possibly deal with the number of applications for nullity – 50,000 around the world last year. Francis has said that half of all marriages in the Buenos Aires archdiocese were invalid.
And, two, he realised from his own family’s experience the price that was paid for a lengthy, complex and expensive process. His own niece had to wait four years for her partner’s annulment to come through.
Francis had heard the cry of his people and it gave him the freedom to cut through what some regarded as unchanging and unchangeable tradition.
So he followed the Jesuit practice: discuss, debate, consult, discern and then make a decision.
It’s an indication of how Francis sees the upcoming bishops’ synod on the family which will look at, among other issues, the question of those in irregular unions receiving Communion. Francis will listen, encourage debate, lead a discerning process and then make his decision.
It mightn’t be as straightforward as the annulment decision but Francis has shown that he’s prepared to bite the bullet.
Isn’t it a great blessing to live in such interesting times?

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  1. Con Devree says:

    One of the reasons for the indifferentism of the bulk of the baptised to the faith is the triumph of the instrumental over the good. As an example of instrumentalism take the statement “the present process couldn’t possibly deal with the number of applications for nullity.” The criterion for change in a process related to a most important life issue in reality rests on expediency related to numbers.
    An example of a question related to the good is the simple one of “is the new process of nullity impartial?” The answer is probably “no.”
    In the new process if the bishop decides that the marriage is null, the matter is put to rest and the parties are free to marry again in the Catholic Church. If the bishop does not find the marriage to be null, that judgment has no effect. The petition for a declaration of nullity is automatically submitted to the ordinary process. It’s as if the “process before the Bishop” had not happened or is judged to be simply an automatic cause for re-hearing the case in the ordinary process.
    There are two conclusions to be drawn. Firstly, and counter to what has been claimed in the article, there is still for all intents and purposes, an automatic appeal.
    Secondly, in the new “process before the Bishop” only one outcome – nullity – is permitted for the initial stage to have any determinative result. The implication is clear. The initial stage “before the bishop” is clearly regarded by its authors as possessing insufficient integrity to arrive at a determinative finding upholding the validity of a marriage. If integrity is deficient for one outcome, it must be insufficient for the other. One has to conclude that there is no impartial set of rules aimed at arriving at an informed and fair determination by the diocesan bishop.
    Why should the Church institute a process that can only be trusted when it produces one outcome – a declaration of nullity? In fact, such a process does not respond to the demands of truth or justice and in consequence to the demands of Divine Mercy. Not to speak of the harm done to the Church’s credibility regarding the indissolubility of marriage.

  2. Peter Langan says:

    I am not convinced that the new summary procedure is as defective as Con @#2 suggests.
    The respondent (by which I mean the spouse who as not initiated the nullify suit) may (1) contest or
    (2) not contest the application.
    If (1), and the bishop nonetheless decides that it is a plain case for a decree, the respondent presumably can appeal the decision.
    If (2), (i) there is no injustice to the respondent, (ii) in cases where the application was dishonest on the part of
    the applicant, with or without the collusion of the respondent, the burden of a “wrong” decision lies on their
    consciences, not on that of the bishop. Judges can only do their best on the basis of the material placed before them.
    Everything considered, the Pope seems to me to have produced a just and practical method of alleviating a pressing juridical problem – and I say so as an unrepentant admirer of his two predecessors!
    – and In

  3. Con Devree says:

    Peter #3
    “If (1), and the bishop nonetheless decides that it is a plain case for a decree, the respondent presumably can appeal the decision.”
    Note the word “presumably.”
    If this presumption can be validated, it would greatly improve things. I would welcome it. Otherwise there is cause for concern.

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