Pope Francis plays long game to reform Roman Catholic Church

October 22, 2014
(A gust of wind blows Pope Francis' mantle as he leaves at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

(A gust of wind blows Pope Francis’ mantle as he leaves at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

After winning praise around the world for his fresh and open style, the honeymoon period seems to be over for Pope Francis.

A tumultuous two-week Vatican synod exposed polarization in the Catholic Church over his push to reform its traditional approach to sexual morality by becoming more welcoming to gays and easing restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics.

A Jesuit unafraid of frank debate, Francis has set off a clash of opinions not seen since the reformist Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Rather than impose his views as a pope can, he has chosen the difficult path to reform by opting to have his bishops freely discuss Catholic teaching on sex.

The pope won a standing ovation from almost 200 bishops at the synod’s close on Saturday and general support for his reform drive. But a vocal minority, backed by what one cardinal called a “massive wave of attacks” on the pope from traditionalist media, emerged to block some of the reform proposals.

The synod will meet again in October 2015 to make its final recommendations to the pope. In the meantime, he is counting on discussions among Catholics to increase support for reforms. His critics say they will use the time to rally against them.

“The pope has put his authority on the line,” said French Vatican expert Jean-Marie Guenois, author of the new book Jusqu’ou ira Francois? (How Far Will Francis Go?). “If he fails to find a solution, it will be his failure.”

Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at Saint Thomas University in Minnesota, saw “different Catholic cultures” emerging and said keeping them together “is going to be the biggest gamble for Francis in the next 12 months.

“It could become more difficult for him to speak to all Catholics,” he said, adding some conservatives nostalgic for his more doctrinaire predecessors John Paul and Benedict “will think he should leave right away”.

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