Debate on married priests gives insight into pope’s style, Jesuit says

VATICAN CITY — The debate at the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon over married priests is an example of how Pope Francis’ style of church governance relies on prayerful discernment and not simply majority support for change, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro wrote in the journal La Civilta Cattolica.

Pope Francis is pictured in a file photo talking with Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, aboard his flight from Rome to Krakow, Poland. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis does not have a project for reforming the Vatican or the Catholic Church, but he has launched a process to encourage individual conversion in a way that could and should cause such a reform, Father Spadaro wrote in the Sept. 5 edition of the journal, which was published online Sept. 3.

“Working for conversion is not an ineffective pious spiritual reference but an act of radical governance,” the Jesuit wrote in the journal, which is reviewed in the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication.

In the article, Father Spadaro said sme people have questioned whether Pope Francis’ reform agenda is still going full steam after seven years in office. But those who believe he has a blueprint or road map for structural changes in the church misunderstand what he is doing and even who he is, the Jesuit argued.

“Francis is a Jesuit, and his idea of the reform of the church corresponds to the Ignatian vision,” he wrote. That vision focuses on encouraging individuals to conform themselves more and more closely to Christ, detaching themselves from ideologies or pet projects and prayerfully watching what is going on around them and within them to discern signs of the working of the Holy Spirit.

Without that spiritual discernment, Father Spadaro said, “reform would be an ideology with a vaguely zealot character. And, like all ideologies, it would have to fear a lack of supporters.”

But, he said, “the reform Francis has in mind functions if it empties itself of that mundane logic. It is the opposite of the ideology of change. The thrust of the pontificate is not the ability to do things or institutionalize change always and everywhere, but to discern times and moments for an emptying out so that the mission lets Christ shine through better.”

“The pope does not have prepackaged ideas to apply to reality, nor an ideological plan of ready-made reform, but he moves forward on the basis of a spiritual and prayerful experience that includes, step by step, dialogue, consultation and concrete responses to the vulnerable human situation,” he wrote.

Father Spadaro said the Synod of Bishops, for Pope Francis, is a prime example of a spiritual exercise of discernment and, like all spiritual exercises, includes moments of “consolation and desolation, where the good spirit and the bad spirit speak and where it even is common to see temptation under the appearance of goodness.”

In his article, Father Spadaro included quotations from what he described as “personal notes Pope Francis wanted to share with La Civilta Cattolica,” which included specific references to the October 2019 synod debate about ordaining married men to minister to Catholics in far-flung Amazon villages that go months without Mass.

At the synod, the pope wrote, “There was a discussion … a rich discussion … a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something different from arriving at a good and justified consensus or a relative majority.”

As Pope Francis has said repeatedly, he wrote that “we must understand the synod is more than a parliament; and in this specific case” of married priests, the synod “could not avoid this dynamic. On this argument there was a rich, productive and even necessary parliament, but nothing more. For me, that was decisive in the final discernment when I thought about how to do the exhortation.”

His postsynodal apostolic exhortation, “Querida Amazonia,” was published in February; Pope Francis acknowledged the urgency of ensuring access to the sacraments for Catholics in the Amazon, but did not mention the idea of ordaining married men who are exemplary Christians and leaders of their communities. Instead, he urged prayers for vocations and called on priests to accept assignments in the remote villages.

Father Spadaro said that from the exhortaton one cannot say the pope does or does not support considering ordaining married men in some cases; it simply means that he did not see the discernment necessary to make a decision.

In his note to the journal, Pope Francis wrote that one of the virtues of the synod is precisely that it encourages bishops to set aside a majority-wins attitude and “learn to listen, in community, to what the Spirit is saying to the church.”

“What sense would a synodal assembly have if it was not to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the church,” the pope wrote.