Roncalli and Martini utopias

Pope Francis, between Roncalli’s and Martini’s utopias

The Roman Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls has been entrusted to Benedictines for 1300 years. There was such a strong tradition of ecumenical dialogue there, that Benedict XVI ultimately decided to give the basilica a specific mandate to promote ecumenism. Popes have been concluding the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at this basilica for many years. Pope Francis went there last January 25. John XXIII had been to Saint Paul Outside the Walls on January 25, 1959. In that occasion, he announced the Second Vatican Council.

This is the reason why some thought that Pope Francis would have used the 55th anniversary of John XXIII’s announcement, to announce a Third Vatican Ecumenical Council.

Years later, John XXIII recalled the discussions about a new Council, and how his experience as a diplomat in Turkey, Bulgaria and especially France informed his decision. When he spoke about the “Curiali” who maintained there was not enough time to prepare for a new Council, John XXIII asserted: «They have never been outside.»

In fact, the possibility of a Council was already floating within the Vatican Walls. Pius XI started working on a Second Vatican Council in 1922, and then dropped the idea, in favor of first finding a solution to the “questione romana”, i.e. the political dispute between the Italian government and the Papacy since the fall of Rome to Italian unification in 1861. Pius XII requested a preparatory document for a council, and then decided the time was not right and used the ideas developed in the document as text for his speeches.

Writers, intellectuals, and prelates outside the Vatican Walls now perceive the possibility of a new Council.  For instance, Monsignor Celso Costantini gathered some thoughts in writing, later entitled The Council. On the convenience of convoking an Ecumenical Council. «An alleged italianisation de l’Eglise (Italianization of the Church, editor note) is something that has been talked and been written about» Costantini said.   «An ecumenical council would dissipate at once all these dark clouds, showing to the world, including those who are indifferent or hostile to the Church, the features of the Church, its unity and Catholicity, its apolitical character and sanctity.»

Words like these still resonate today. When Pope Francis was elected Pope, there was a lot of talk about an Italianization of the Roman Curia. Benedict XVI’s penultimate consistory was mostly to create Italian cardinals holding posts in the Roman Curia, and this fueled the perception of the «Church’s Italianization.» Partly in response to this criticism, Benedict XVI convoked a second consistory to create just seven new cardinals, all of them coming from outside Europe and none of them members of the Curia.

The criticism was really about the centralism of Rome, considered to be too far from the peripheries. The push for a reform of the Church that led to the choice of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope came from this desire of the peripheries to be main players in the life of the Church.

Yet the centralism of Rome came from the Second Vatican Council. When John XXIII died, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini earned the broad support of the college of cardinals because of his personal prestige and above all for his commitment to carry forward the Council toward its intended goal.  That goal was to support innovation on the basis of a united Church, centrally coordinated so that it would not become dispersed and lose ground.

Paul VI worked for this unity, while being a strong innovator. We should not forget that Paul VI was the first Pope to celebrate Christmas Mass outside Saint Peter’s Basilica, in the peripheries (the most moving celebration was that at the siderurgical industry Italsider in Taranto), and that he created cardinal a parish priest, who then continued to be parish priest, something unheard of in the modern history of the Church.

Strongly rooted in the Church Tradition and in Ignatius of Loyola’s rule, Pope Francis is also probably thinking about a big council to break the routine. But not in the way we are used to think about it. He recently made it clear that he does not like the «it has always been done like this» as a guiding principle for a way of life. This is evident in his choice of new cardinals; the emphasis on an intense pastoral outlook; and the homilies he holds every morning at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, which are full of references about how much he detests gossip and scandals.

Pope Francis wants a demundanized Church, and at the same time he is anauthoritarian Pope, personally making the final call on most decisions. He will probably do the same with respect to the reforms needed to modernize the «operation» of the «Church machine.»

In fact, reforms were already taking place. On holy communion for divorced Catholics who remarry, Benedict XVI had already started looking into the possible nullification of marriages on the basis of lack of faith, when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Francis institutionalized the fight against the sex abuse scandals announcing the establishment of an ad hoc commission selected by the Council of Cardinals, but Benedict XVI was already fighting the sex abuses before him. The Curia reform has been a «hot topic» for years, and the only proposals about it seem to be mostly «cosmetic,» not really addressing the problem. One example is the discussion about the institution of a Congregation for the Laity, or that for a sort of a Vatican ministry of finance (this latter proposal does not take into account that the Prefecture of the Economic Affairs already has tasks similar to those of a ministry of finance).

Thus, the discussion seems to be far from a Third Vatican Council. John XXIII conceived the Second Vatican Council together with (not isolated from) a synod for the dioceses of Rome and a reform of the Code of Canon Law. These were concrete and structural reforms, which went beyond exchange of views in the hall rooms and responded to a precise vision of the Church, both at a government and field levels.

Not by chance, Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo, Secretary of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life, spoke about a possible reform of Canon Law at a convention about vocations. And not by chance the Council of Cardinals said from the very beginning that its true aim was not to make some slight modifications to thePastor Bonus, the Pastoral Constitution that regulates the Curia’s functions, but to substantially rewrite it.

Yet, Pope Francis seems to want to go even beyond. He coincides with John XXIII in the commitment for peace, his will to renew the Church and even a certain intolerance for the Vatican prison. But Pope Francis seems to aspire to the utopian vision of late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini,  more than to John XXIII’s utopia.

Martini had often been linked to the idea of a Third Vatican Council. In fact, Martinispoke often about a sort of “periodic meetings” on specific themes, a broader consultation of the synod of bishops, and not an ecumenical council tout court.

Pope Francis seems to be following Martini’s path. His first focus has been the family, since the family is always under duress in today’s society. How can the family survive secularization? How can the Church still have something to say to families?

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