Pope Francis and the Gang of Eight
A recent episode of Salt + Light Television’s Vatican Connections offers a refreshingly balanced and informative report on Pope Francis’ recent creation of an advisory panel consisting of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on church governance and particularly curial reform.
One easily overlooked point given mention here is that “the idea to put together an advisory panel was one of the topics that was discussed during the general congregation meetings just before the conclave.” This panel, in other words, did not come out of nowhere and is not a radically unilateral creation of Pope Francis. Indeed the creation and makeup of the panel highlight his general disinclination to act unilaterally. As John Allen has observed,
This group could actually promote the more collegial vision of Church that people have been talking about. Seven of the eight guys aren’t Vatican guys. They come from the local Church in various parts of the world. It is a way of saying that the Vatican has to be accountable to those local churches. Second, this is not a Pope who relies on people to make decisions for him. This is a Pope who does his own consultation. This is a Pope who picks up the phone himself and calls people and asks for advice. Clearly he’s created this group to be his primary sounding board…. These are not milquetoast, these are all strong personalities. It means you’ve got a Pope who wants real advice, not yes-men. What’s more, these guys don’t all think alike. Most people would see Cardinal Pell from Sydney as to the right and most people would see Cardinal Rodriguez from Honduras as fairly far to the left. This suggests that the Pope doesn’t want to just hear one opinion before he acts.
The ways this panel represents the diversity of the Church demonstrate that true collegiality must be more than a buzzword for the ecclesiology of the left, and Pope Francis appears to be aware of the need to listen to a full range of perspectives. Contrary to how some would portray him, Pope Francis is not the poster child for the Catholic Left, nor is he a hardline defender of the Catholic Right’s truncated definition of orthodoxy. He cannot fit these ideological boxes because he represents so well the fullness of Catholic orthodoxy, not to mention orthopraxy, which guarantees there will be something about him to appeal to, and also to challenge, each of us.
Michael Sean Winters recently made a similar point, expanding on his challenge to hear Pope Francis’ April 16 homily in praise of Vatican II primarily in terms of how it might challenge oneself:
I urged readers to read the Holy Father’s sermon and not think how it may or may not be interpreted as a slap to the traditional Latin Mass crowd or some other group within the church, but instead ask yourself if you have been faithful to the council. If you speak of the hierarchic structure of the church in dismissive tones, as some of my friends on the left do, are you being faithful to the council? If you minimize the call to justice and peace, as some of my friends on the right do, are you being faithful to the council? For everyone on all sides: Do you recognize that the Spirit will move where it wants, or can you only, grudgingly, allow the Spirit to move you in ways you have already decided to go? Who is following whom? There is an invitation to idolatry in discipleship whenever we make our own ideas and agenda the measure of others. It is a thing to resist. It is a sin.
I am guilty of this sin myself sometimes. I had a conversation with a good friend the day the conclave began. We were assessing different candidates and how this one or that would be accessible to us and our friends, how this one or that would focus on issues we care about, that sort of thing. Then my friend, who is possessed of graces I lack, said, “Of course, I will be happy if they select someone I do not know at all. Then we will have the excitement of getting to know someone new!” I am still excited to be getting to know Papa Francesco. So far, I like everything I have seen and heard. And when he does something I do not like, I hope I will have the grace to admit that perhaps he is right and it is I who need to reassess my opinion and not evaluate the new pope as to whether or not he is playing on “our team.”
We are all faced with a choice in how we relate to our Holy Father. We can make him a pawn (or bishop, or king) in our ideological games, or we can allow him to call us into a broader and ultimately more unifying vision of what it means to be Catholic. For the good of the Church, let us choose unity.
This of course does not mean we can never disagree, but it does mean that even our disagreements must be ruled by a spirit of Christian charity and by the reality of Eucharistic fellowship, rather than being poisoned by the toxic political atmosphere that surrounds us. It is most especially in our disagreements that we have the greatest opportunity to inspire the world to say, “See how they love one another!” It’s not easy – such is the nature of the gospel – but following the lead of Pope Francis by listening to multiple voices within our big tent of a Church is a good place to start.