EVERYONE seems to have forgotten about the Pope’s brain tumour now. The end of the Synod of Bishops in Rome has driven the story out of the headlines. But it was, in its way, the most telling illustration of what is now going on in the Roman Catholic Church.
It began with an unsourced report in an Italian newspaper claiming that a benign tumour had been discovered some months ago. Swift Vatican denials were met with the riposte: “They would say that, wouldn’t they.” But then the brain-cancer specialist who was supposed to have visited the Pope dismissed the report as “absolutely false”.
What followed next was illuminating. One of the Pope’s council of nine cardinal advisers, the Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, denounced the story as a deliberate attempt by the Pope’s opponents to undermine his reforms by implying that his mental acuity was compromised. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the chief theological architect of the Pope’s plan to lift the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics’ taking communion, denounced it as an attempt to destabilise the Synod as it was considering his proposal.
This was high-octane Machiavellian plot and counter-plot worthy of a Dan Brown novel. What it revealed was that — contrary to the spin of propagandists who had been trying to make out that the Synod was engaged in a good-natured exchange of views — there were dark forces, or at the very least suspicions of them, at work.
All this is in the context of Pope Francis’s having orchestrated a significant shift in the culture of the Roman Catholic Church. Previous synods had been insipid gatherings that merely rubber-stamped documents drawn up by the Curia long before the bishops got off the plane in Rome. Francis has changed all that. Fault-lines among bishops and cardinals, which were papered over under the past two papacies, have been laid bare. Disagreement is no longer branded as dissent, but seen as healthy debate, which is to be encouraged.
Many conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church dislike and fear all this. The final Synod document was a study in ambiguity, in an attempt to keep everyone on board. That is what allowed conservatives to claim the outcome as a victory for them.
The bigger picture reveals, however, that things are moving away from them. First the Pope, unprecedentedly, asked the opinion of the laity. Then there has been clear progress between the 2014 and 2015 synods. Anodyne statements on gay and divorced people failed to get a two-thirds majority last time; no paragraph failed to achieve that this time. The language on divorce is more substantial in 2015, and the door has been opened for the remarried to be readmitted to communion case by case.
Next will come a document penned by Pope Francis personally to take the Church forward from the Synod’s advice. Conservatives got some idea of what that might say from his closing remarks to the Synod, in which he blasted prelates with “closed hearts”. We should perhaps brace ourselves for more pre-emptive “brain-tumour” dirty tricks.
Paul Vallely’s book, Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.