Pope Francis pleads for faith to be rooted in real world, but are his bishops listening?
Kevin Rafferty says Pope Francis' message for a more compassionate Church has real-world implications, but a bitterly divisive bishops' meeting on the topic of family shows he may not be getting through
In October, Pope Francis pleaded with his 270 brother bishops not to live in a narrow ghetto but to help care for a wounded world as he closed a bishops' meeting marked by argument, bitter infighting and conspiracies, showing a church that is badly split.
What do Catholic politics matter to the rest of the world? Surely, this fragile planet has enough constant crises, wars and rumours of wars, failing economic growth, rising inequality, global warming, refugees fleeing terror and death, without worrying about the antics and split hairs of men in coloured frocks squabbling over how the teachings of a crucified criminal 2,000 years ago apply to the world today?
They matter because the Catholic Church claims more than 1.3 billion baptised followers, maybe slightly more than Islam. In education, health care and social services, Catholics are influential even where only a tiny minority of the people are believers. Hong Kong and India are leading examples.
Equally crucially, the pope as leader of the Catholic Church offers a moral voice not only on religious questions but on vital matters including the care of the planet and dignity of all human beings.
The topic for the synod, which concluded last Sunday, was the family, meaning leading issues of marriage, divorce, contraception, same-sex unions and treatment of gays and lesbians.
The tragedy for the Catholic Church, and I believe for all humanity, is that the conservative bishops have betrayed Francis. The pope tried to reach out and present a more compassionate and understanding face to lapsed Catholics and the world, without abandoning established teachings; conservatives claim that this approach undermines and threatens to destroy the church.
You can hear the anguish in the pope's words as he begged brother bishops not to set the church's teachings "in dead stone to be hurled at others".
The final synod document offered a few crumbs to divorced Catholics. A divorced Catholic who marries again without getting an annulment cannot receive communion. The document says divorced Catholics should be "more integrated into Christian communities", suggesting that individual priests may be allowed discretion to bring them back into the fold.
This church is in crisis. I think back to my own parents, who brought up seven children in a damp rented house with an outside lavatory. My father never earned enough money to pay a penny in income tax. My mother was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis for 40 years and had the pain of a prolapsed womb for the last two births.
They showed heroic sanctity. My mother believed, she told me, that contraception was wrong because it denied God, and God himself decided whether and which individual sperm would fertilise the egg to create a human being. You might cynically say that God has been wasting too much time pondering sperm, and neglecting the fragile planet.
Their children were wayward, kicking aside their parents' beliefs, living together before marriage, getting pregnant before marriage, marrying outside the church, one to an Ulster Protestant Orangeman, another to a Jew, getting divorced.
In spite of all this, my parents never denied their love or their home to any of their children at any time. Grandchildren brought up outside the Catholic Church were cherished equally with Catholic grandchildren.
My challenge to the bishops: if God is a god of love, what kind of love is it that does not match the love my parents showed?
Eminent British Catholic psychiatrist Jack Dominian pointed out that marriage is a contract between the two people; the priest or registrar merely records the deal. He added that marriage is an ongoing contract constantly renewed by the partners, to which a smart Jesuit commented, "So you can only know whether you have been truly married when you are dead."
Sex is important, but it is love that counts and enriches and shapes an individual's life. Catholic bishops have been too preoccupied prying into other people's bedrooms that they have forgotten both the grave sexual misdeeds of their own ordained ministers in abusing children and the wider importance of the church's mission to a wounded world.
Pope Francis has proved an authentic voice offering Christian healing not only to wayward Catholics but also tending to the world. He has been eloquent in calling for help for refugees fleeing persecution and in urging governments to do something to repair the environment and climate before it is too late. No other leader has the global vision that Francis has shown.
Luckily at the final synod mass, Francis had the text for the day, in which Christ ignores the protests of his disciples urging him to move on; instead, he stops to restore the sight of a blind beggar calling from the roadside.
Francis warned of "a spirituality of illusion" - that "we can walk through the deserts of humanity without seeing what is really there; instead we see what we want to see… A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts."
But are his bishops listening?
Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the leading Catholic newspaper in English