As the prelates pack up to leave Rome after the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, there seems to be some confusion about whether liberal Catholics or staunch traditionalists carried the day. The synod midterm report softened the tone on gays and divorced Catholics; then the final document took a step back. But here’s the bottom line: the fact that they discussed previous taboos at all means Pope Francis scored a victory.
About midway through the first week of debates and deliberations, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, addressed a mixed crowd of prelates, diplomats and journalists at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and cited a sports analogy that’s become quite popular among Francis’s American fans. Francis’s strategy is a little like taking someone to a baseball game when they don’t really know the rules—and maybe didn’t care much about them.
Under Francis, the Church wants to bring people back into the stadium, as it were. “They see the crowds, they smell the hot dogs,” said Dolan, playing out the metaphor. “They get a cold beer. They’re watching the batting practice, the national anthem. They watch the ballgames and the teams, and they’re gradually enchanted and they gradually get into it,” Dolan said, implying that the Catholic Church with its pomp, ceremony, incense and Gregorian chants could be equally appealing. Once they’re inside, he says, “then they begin to ask some questions about the why’s and the rules and why this and why not that.”
That, he says, is how Pope Francis hopes not just to bring people to the Catholic Church, but to bring the Church to the people. Rather than ministering only to the officially worthy, minister to everyone—gay, divorced, disenchanted—and then worry about making them worthy. “Don’t lead with the chin, don’t lead with controversy,” Dolan said. “Don’t even lead with the mouth. Lead with the heart and you’re going to win a lot of people.”
That, of course, is not exactly how the Church worked before Francis came to town. During the last two pontificates, the rules came first, and often they tightened in response to cultural advances in the secular world. To many Catholics struggling with the pressures of real life in that real world, those rules meant Catholicism was an ever-more exclusive club where traditionalist prelates and Catholic fundamentalists could blackball anyone who couldn’t live by the rules. It was a Church in which homosexuals were “intrinsically disordered” and divorced and remarried Catholics were “adulterers.”
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