While Benedict XVI is about to celebrate, on June 29, the 70th anniversary of his priesthood, his successor must face a situation in the Church that seems critical on several fronts. On the scene are the abuse scandal, the marginalization of women, clericalism and the reform of the Roman curia, issues that Pope Francis has repeatedly stated that he wants to resolve, but so far without great results: only announcements, appointments isolated, poorly coordinated measures. In addition, bioethical issues have been raised that in several countries have required legislative action on issues such as abortion and gay rights, where the ideological and political battle is raging.
The latest controversies affect Italy, the United States and Germany, three major Catholic fronts. In Italy, an unusual diplomatic initiative of the Holy See has requested the protection of freedom of thought in a future law against discrimination, which has sparked controversy and protests. The Vatican’s concern is to support the not only Christian concept that a human gender divided into women and men is considered discriminatory and therefore punishable by law. In the United States, the episcopate has approved by a large majority the possibility of discussing whether a Catholic politician who supports the legalization of abortion, like President Biden himself, can receive the Eucharist. In Germany, the “synodal path” has given rise to very radical voices calling for the blessing of homosexual couples and the female priesthood.
In Italy, few bishops had expressed themselves on the question of freedom of thought, guaranteed by the 1984 concordat, and the Holy See wanted to make its voice heard with authority. A letter from the prefect of the old Holy Office was addressed to the United States, homeland of the “culture wars”, asking that the Eucharistic sacrament not be politicized. Previously, the same doctrinal body, chaired by Cardinal Ladaria, had responded negatively about the blessing of homosexual couples. In all three cases, the tension between the Holy See and the episcopates has thus manifested itself, in the ninth year of a Pope who continually speaks of “synodality”, but is accused of authoritarianism. The vote of the American bishops has been clamorous, and even more clamorous has been the denunciation and resignation of Cardinal Marx, rejected by the Pope.
The media have come to speculate with different positions between the curia and the pontiff, as if Bergoglio did not have the capacity to govern, or at least control, the body that should help him. The detractors of his pontificate, especially those on the right, have evoked the specter of schism, that is, of the rupture in the Church: in Germany, where progressives would separate from Rome, but now also in the United States, where those who would break it would be the conservatives. In 1988 it was Archbishop Lefebvre’s traditionalists who ordained bishops against Rome, but the popes tried to heal this schism, today reduced to a minimum. The main divisions remain the historical ones: with the excommunications in 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, with the Protestant reform initiated by Luther, and with the Old Catholics opposed to the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope decided in 1870 by the Vatican Council I.
Today it seems unthinkable that a schism should occur in the episcopal conferences and in important Catholic communities such as the Germans and the Americans, which, among other things, are very rich. In fact, no one wants to seriously challenge the primacy of Rome, a guarantee of unity and historical strength of the Catholic Church. However, another thing is the question of his exercise, as demonstrated above all by the case of Cardinal Becciu, still open and without official explanation nine months after his dismissal. And many, among Bergoglio’s critics, obviously, but now also among his supporters, question the line of Pope Francis and the effective capacity to maintain unity, reform and govern the Church, that is, its coherence with what he rightly affirms.
Giovanni Maria Vian is an expert in Church history and former director of ‘L’Osservatore Romano’