Apologies for the picture quality (it’s from live coverage by ABC News), but this shot of Pope Francis cracking up as he sees a baby dressed as a pope is just the sort of image that his conservative critics dread. That’s because it undermines their attempts to stop Francis waving through what they regard as a dangerous watering-down of Catholic teaching.
The Pope’s visit to the US, which has just ended, has been a public relations triumph. Meaning: a triumph, full stop.
Francis was eloquent, relaxed and amazingly youthful for a man heading for 80. He tilted in a liberal direction, but not far enough to create anxiety among most churchgoing Catholics anywhere in the world.
Maybe they should be feeling anxiety. Pope Francis seems to favour changes to pastoral practice – adove all, letting divorced and remarried people receive Communion – that could split the Church. Or, more likely, slowly Anglicanise it, so that rules are bendable in some countries but not in others, making the Catholic Church less catholic.
The Synod on the Family next month is provoking talk of schism. Francis has excluded Cardinal Raymond Burke, the most bellicose of the conservatives, while personally appointing as a delegate Cardinal Godfried Danneels, the über-liberal retired Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, who favours ‘a sort of “marriage” between homosexuals’. Now there’s a name I thought I’d never hear again, especially after Danneels was caught suggesting a temporary cover-up of sexual abuse by a Belgian bishop.
Francis’s appointments to the Synod not only seem designed to cause maximum offence to conservative and traditionalist cardinals but also hint that he favours pulling the Church leftwards in all sorts of ways. (This week’s Spectator leader discusses the ill-informed naivety of his attacks on capitalism.)
But the Pope, perhaps drawing on his Jesuit training, is careful to restrict himself to hints. And hints are not good enough for leading conservative cardinals who need to persuade middle-of-the-road colleagues at the Synod that the Magisterium really is under threat.
Especially now, as many Synod fathers are beaming at the popular reaction to the American visit, one of whose highlights was an extremely well-crafted address to Congress. ‘By heavens, it was a good speech!’ wrote Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, an English moral theologian and Catholic Herald blogger who is nobody’s idea of a clapped-out liberal.
Throw in Francis roaring with laughter at the pontifically clad baby – carried over to the popemobile for a special blessing – and anxieties about doctrine and the application of canon law are an awful lot harder to sustain. As the Holy Father – did I mention he was a Jesuit? – knows only too well.