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A pope of blurred boundaries


Pope Francis at General Audience

Pope Francis is a leader out of his time. Generally the style and vision of governance in the Catholic Church correspond to those current in the broader society. He is out of sync. That has inevitably led many to ask whether his vision and style of governance will endure in the Catholic Church. Some indications may be found during the current Synod on the family.

In Western society the times are sombre and fearful. In governance there is a strong emphasis on control, on security and on strong leadership. It reflects a desire for clear boundaries marking who is in and who is out. We see a recurrent rush to military adventures, sharp divisions made between citizens and asylum seekers, between the advantaged and disadvantaged, and between Christians and Muslims. The executive seeks total control and the avoidance of risk.

In more confident times governance has been characterised by an emphasis on freedom, on local initiative, on crossing and blurring boundaries, on layered rather than on narrow identity. This is reflected in the desire for effective consultation, for strengthening the rule of law and ensuring due process, for paying more attention to the needs of the disadvantaged and to ethnic and religious minorities.

The vision and governance of the Catholic Church have generally corresponded to the times. In fearful times they have emphasised Papal authority and stressed the boundaries between clerical and lay, men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic, faith and secular, orthodox and heretical. They have privileged central control over local initiative.

The oddity of Pope Francis is that at a time when national governments have become increasingly authoritarian and have emphasised narrowly defined national identity and interests and strong boundaries, he has advocated local initiative and constantly blurred boundaries in his action and his speech. He sees the identity of the Catholic Church to lie in its going out to the margins.

The question arises then is whether the Pope’s vision of mission and governance will shape the Catholic future, or whether his image of church leaders coming back from the badlands smelling like lost sheep will give way to sheep waiting in line in the designated paddock where their shepherds can feed them on sheeply food and protect them from danger. Sociologically, you would have to bet on the latter. But it is never a done deal.

The current church Synod on the Family will be illuminating. It will show how far Pope Francis’ open and inclusive style can be reflected in the processes of the Synod which have become instruments of control. More subtly, because the family is a microcosm and an image of society and of church, the way the family is imagined at the Synod will also reveal what vision of the church is operative.

In sombre times we would expect the Synod to focus on an idealised, true Christian family consisting of a husband and wife of faith duly married, living prayerful lives and blessed with children. The threats to this ideal would be identified and ways of sustaining it named. This would find expression in a high theology of Christian marriage and family life.

Outside the boundaries of the authentically Christian family lie same sex parents with children, couples practising contraception, divorced and remarried people with children, families with serial parents or with children artificially conceived and unmarried couples with children. They would not be the object of the care or the curiosity of the Synod but rather outsiders to be recalled to the true ideal of family. Given the large number of baptised Catholics who live outside the boundary, such a Synod would live on only in the archives.

That is one possibility. But Pope Francis’ recent celebration of marriages for a typical group of Catholics in varying relationships and his introductory homily suggest another possibility. He may encourage the Synod to reach out to the people whose family arrangements lie outside the boundaries, to reflect on their dreams and struggles, and to ask what makes the family life they desire difficult. The same openness was commended by Sydney married couple, Ron and Mavis Pirola, in their presentation to the Synod.

This approach will lead to reflection on the emphasis in society on the economically productive individual, the absence of a living wage and the punitive approach to people who are disadvantaged and the lack of support for family groupings in which there is no tradition of parenting. Families at the margins will then be placed at the centre: families without income and other support, the families of prisoners, the separation of children from parents who seek protection.

Discussion of the Synod has focused on allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. That is mostly a problem for the devout, often resolved by pastoral commonsense. But it points to the larger reality: that at Mass, the place where Catholics mostly meet, a strict application of church rules would exclude most baptised Catholics from full participation. That underlines the importance of the question Pope Francis has posed: how can people, on the borders of the Catholic Church or beyond, find from Catholics encouragement and support in their messy lives? In asking that question so insistently he is a man for all times.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Pope Francis image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Synod on the family, politics, social issues, sexuality, Catholic Church, Va



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Existing comments

I really liked this bit: "In more confident times governance has been characterised by an emphasis on freedom, on local initiative, on crossing and blurring boundaries, on layered rather than on narrow identity." When you write that "The oddity of Pope Francis is that at a time when national governments have become increasingly authoritarian and have emphasised narrowly defined national identity and interests and strong boundaries, he has advocated local initiative and constantly blurred boundaries in his action and his speech." I see that you particularly say 'national governments', because the Pope is not at all out of touch with most people - the governments are. They are governments for the 1%, not the 99% - the Pope is right to move towards the 99%.

Russell | 08 October 2014  

Hope and pray that the Catholic Church may take a look at the use of contraceptives among married couples and adopt a realistic approach to it. It looks, preventing pregnancy whether by natural or artificial methods does not make any difference. Moreover, the more the couples can engage in sexual union, it brings them closer. It would not be right to ask the couples to hold off an emotion of love and sexual union because of such restrictions placed on them. They would be in a very difficult predicament at such times and would tend to break the rule due to emotional pressures. Church needs to understand these intimate relationship from a couples point of view and show compassion as Jesus was compassionate.

Mat | 08 October 2014  

I wonder if the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate and their sisters are enjoying this new atmosphere of freedom as applied to their own order which, up to their brutal suppression, was one of the most vibrant and flourishing religious groups in the Church. So much for abdication of central control and an open and inclusive style!

Name | 08 October 2014  

Agree with Russell. It is leaders and governments who rely on control that are out of touch. The approach to leadership being demonstrated by Francis is in one sense subversive within the culture of contemporary political leadership. I hope he does not resile from it. Joe

Joe Cauchi | 08 October 2014  

Not only the "devout" today, but St Paul himself thought that receiving communion when not in a state of grace might be problematic: "Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." 1Cor 11:27. We're kidding ourselves if we think that flouting the church requirements for receiving communion will enable full participation at Mass on the level that really matters. If I am in the state of mortal sin, I am unable to receive the grace of the sacrament - and it is me by my own choice, not the Church, who has brought on this catastrophic situation.

HH | 08 October 2014  

I can hear a gentle rumbling sound in the crevasse of workplaces, in the hollows of milk cartons; it is the prayer for health and longevity for this most Jesus of Popes. Thanks Andrew for your usual clarity and edification.

VicO’Callaghan | 08 October 2014  

The position depicted of Pope Francis sounds like an echo of the position of Jesus of Nazareth, when there was " a strong emphasis on control, on security and on strong leadership" and "The executive sought total control and the avoidance of risk." Jesus on the other hand "advocated local initiative and constantly blurred boundaries in his action and his speech." He was often seen as "going out to the margins." This seems to have been the way of the early Church too, until it was adopted by Rome, after which it fell into line with the political mores of its time

Robert Liddy | 08 October 2014  

Please keep perspective, Synods are far far removed from higher magisterium of papacy or Ecumenical Council-overating even of latter, resulted in heresy of Conciliarism! Spare us Synodalism. a Synod has a limited though important role.

Father John George | 08 October 2014  

Yes, HH, I agree with your statement that any Catholic who believes he/she is in a state of mortal sin should not receive communion. Pope Francis's actions and comments on several matters relating to traditional Catholic moral teaching about marriage and family generate some excitement because he appears to be telling us that the Church must reconsider that some matters taught to be mortally sinful are indeed not so. He does not appear to be suggesting that we can receive communion even if we believe we are in a state of mortal sin.

Ian Fraser | 08 October 2014  

To be a leader in the Catholic church is a difficult and challenging task. No where is this made more clear than in Peter 1 c 5 vs 1-5. Peter the first Pope links being a leader with suffering in the footsteps of Christ but manages to throw in a piece of very practical advice. "Don't be bossy to those people who are in your care, but set an example for them." And here's the rub. How does a hierarchy made of men who are celibate and who have eschewed family life control their tendency to bossiness when they are meant to guide (as good shepherds) people who God has placed in their care in an area of life, i.e. family life, in which they have no existential experience as a spouse and a parent?

Uncle Pat | 08 October 2014  

Andrew Hamilton has got it: 'the family' is what it is, in this day and age, and to brand the majority 'illegitimate' is to condemn its most vulnerable members to discrimination and exclusion, an attemped denial of the opportunity for grace. Christ did not condemn the woman taken in adultery or the noisy children kept from him by his disciples or the rich young man who gave a higher priority to managing his wealth and responsibilities than to his own call to follow him wholeheartedly: he sorrowed, gave good advice, and was still loving, available and non judgmental. Can the synod do what Jesus would do? This former Presbyterian hopes for a showering of wisdom and a cascade of stale pools of ego. Oops, purple prose again.

moira rayner | 08 October 2014  

Your first and last sentences 'said it all'. In between I had to read it twice to make sense of it. Commemts like "rush to military adventures" and "sharp divisions between" e.g. citizens and asylum seekers: Christians and Muslims identify current issues. Contraception, forms of marriage, and when and under what conditions Eucharist can be taken, are longstanding dogmatic issues. The current reality is the assault on Christianity by Islam. It is becoming increasingly difficult and often life-threatening to be a Christian in a predominantly Muslim culture. Practising Christians are becoming a rare breed in Muslim countries, even in Jerusalem. The invasion of the ISIL/Taliban co-fraternity is not a sudden event but a Strategic move by an Islamic federation aiming for world domination. Opposition by military confrontation is necessary and not a "sudden rush to a military adventure". The implications will be far reaching should these twin evils not be destroyed. Commentaries such as offered in this article about the vagaries of dogma and Church culture could well become redundant. The numbers of "Muslim asylum seekers" are overwhelming in Europe and liberal democracies cannot cope. We are not learning from the Europe experience where Shariah will soon dominate.

Dr Karl. H Cameron-Jackson | 08 October 2014  

I still feel anger about being excluded from being a communicant 34 years ago when I started a new relationship and eventually remarried. My former husband left me with two young children and if I were to obey the rules of the church, I would have been destined to be a single mother struggling to raise my children with no emotional and financial support. My children would have been deprived of family life. Such rules risk leaving many on the margins and do little to promote social cohesion. Being a full communicant in a church is important to me and I now worship in the Anglican Church which is inclusive and accepting.

ms | 08 October 2014  

There's little doubt that modern society continues to grow massive, a huge flock milling all over the place with so many macro problems which today's micro family too often epitomises. The smelly shepherd will look for comfort in the exceptional micro here and there after exposure to the macro. Of no small comfort might be that "out there" is a lot of what used to be called "invincible ignorance". This plausibly connects with the gospel's implicit message that the vast mass of people will make it other than by getting back in past the gatekeeper.

Noel McMaster | 08 October 2014  

To Moira Rayner; Yes, Christ did not condemn the woman taken in adultery. But it is important to know that Christ also said "neither do I condemn you go home and sin no more"

Ron Cini | 08 October 2014  

HH, we must be prepared to admit that St. Paul's use of the word 'unworthily' (not of course in English) may not mean what we think, or have even been taught, it means. We Catholics love to talk about 'states' but perhaps what we are looking at here is attitude, i.e. not taking to heart the meaning of what we are doing in this sacramental action: to allow the mind of Christ to be in us and to act through us by his presence. Just taking Communion in the hope of receiving a gift of 'grace' for ourselves may not be what it's all about. That could be, itself, a form of receiving communion 'unworthily.'

John O'D | 08 October 2014  

A lot has been said about whether we should allow to Communion those living in sin. Surely whether a person is in sin is a matter of his or her conscience, and who are we to make judgments on that. That is a matter between the individual and God. In any case, the Gospel tells us that Jesus ate and drank with sinners so should we not do the same?

Tony Santospirito | 08 October 2014  

Three points: 1) whatever the outcome of the synod we have at least seen the end, I hope, of the nasty embargo on talking about difficult issues in the church, and hopefully the end of bishop selection/damnation/sacking dependent exclusively on "being safe...or not"; 2) it is so good to see the church encouraged to go to the risky margins: what mistakes we have made historically in losing opportunities to evangelise the world about the love and mercy of God, though clerical arrogance, internal church power politics, racism, hypocrisy, supporting the corrupt colonial powers, and imposing ecclesial "Europeanism" including clerical celibacy ; 3) the hierarchy needs to fully understand the complexity and ambiguity of much of (modern) life; the quoting of our Lord`s words to Jewish MEN about not abandoning their wives to social exclusion and poverty does not say much about 21st century marital and family realities and certainlyy not about what should be allowed for that abandoned wife or just those that just didn`t cut it...we need to work that out for ourselves from the rest of the Gospel (ms; I believe that your anger about exclusion is quite appropriate!).

Eugene | 08 October 2014  

Congratulations Andrew Hamilton for this analysis! In my generation of Catholic women, three, four, five, and more children were the norm. Going to Mass together was part of family life. Among the congregation now, I know most ageing parents are distressed because NONE of their children are eligible for the sacraments, and so do not attend Mass. The list of the proscribed is so wide that this result is almost inevitable. The result is that the middle-aged of the baptised population is excluded from the life of the Church. Moreover, their children, the grandchildren of my generation, grow up entirely ignorant of the more sensible teachings of the Church, and of Jesus Christ Himself. What can be done? If Pope Francis can’t fix the problem, nothing can be done.

Anne McDonell | 09 October 2014  

Jesus gave us only two commandments, to love God with all our minds and all our hearts, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Sadly, the Catholic Church has strayed so far from practising these two commandments in its style of governance. When Australian secular society was more highly authoritarian and people less educated, the Church largely got away with being authoritarian too. A Catholic Priest once said to me that one of the worst things we laity ever did was to put Priests and Religious up on pedestals, when they were just the same people after their ordination or profession. No wonder we are now reeling from world-wide Catholic Church scandals such as horrendous clerical sexual abuse and systemic cover ups. The Church is at the cross-roads, with Pope Francis setting a Christ-like lead and taking us to the margins, to new pastures that are fresh and green and full of love and humanity. Please pray that we will all follow him and that our beloved Church will be one in which love and goodness prevail over the harsh, authoritarian, legalistic, judgmental approach that has turned, and will always continue to turn, so many good people away.

Grant Allen | 09 October 2014  

I was encouraged by the question, "How can people . . . find from Catholics support and encouragement in their messy lives?" But surely the more important question is "How can we all place all of our messy lives into the hands of the Christ and follow, praying to be blessed and changed and to discern which parts of our mess we need to let go of? How can the often rigid , rule-bound, mediaeval Catholic church remind us of the central importance of the acceptance and calling of the Christ to all of us, inside or out, in our mess? I pray with all my heart for this Synod, that its members may hold to the centre of Christ's love and call.

Anna Summerfield | 09 October 2014  

Ian, I agree that some people are currently looking forward to a change in church teaching on morality. They've overlooked that Christ, the head of the Church, is the same yesterday, today and forever and His teachings will never change. JO'D, you seem to be saying Communion can be an occasion of damnation (1Cor 11:29) if I take it just in the hope of receiving the grace of the sacrament! It's a huge claim, but, even if true, what chance then that someone receiving while not having repented any mortal sins they have committed, could be receiving worthily?

HH | 09 October 2014  

Ah, Ron Cini, but he also told Peter that you should 'turn the other cheek' and forgive those that sin against you seventy times seven. The true issue is the integrity of the repentance. I imagine a woman buried up to her neck and being stoned would be pretty repentant. it seems some representatives of his church wish sexual sinners in particular to get to such an extreme. Some members of my household were so offended by their parish priest's behaviour over their planned marriage that they, like one of the commentators on this stream, turned to worship in the Anglican church. So petty, so authoritarian, so very unlike what Jesus did. The Church has an almost prurient obsession with matters sexual, while not being aware of the beam in her own eye.

moira rayner | 09 October 2014  

The bishops at this synod would do well to allow God decide what is mortally or venially sinful. Their factions could compromise and agree that divorced and remarried Catholics are only venially sinful and then their receiving of communion is no longer banned. Both legalistic and pastoral views should be satisfied with this!

Gerard Tonks | 09 October 2014  

HH, what I was trying to highlight was our Catholic tendency to objectify the mysteries of our faith by defining and regulating things, like human scientists, that are indeed unfathomable and whose reality can only be discerned by totally entering the mystery of our being in Christ. "For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves" (1 Corinthians 11:29) We have been too concerned with what Communion IS, rather than what it means. For me, it is a dynamic, transformative act which we take part in, continually recreating us as that body which Paul explained as the Body of Christ. He calls for a change in our consciousness that asks us to be contemplatives, open to the dynamic of love through union with Christ. Sure, the selfish self-centredness of ongoing sinful attitudes would preclude such openness and renewed personal commitment to following Christ is needed (for all of us) before opening ourselves again to the renewal of His dynamic presence within. One would hope that no one would ever view those approaching the table of the Lord as more 'worthy' than they themselves. As Paul also says: 'Examine yourselves and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.' (1Cor.11:28)

Name John O'D | 09 October 2014  

Just as in our secular courts of law there are scales of responsibility and guilty - "mitigating factors" - that need to be factored into any discussion on divorce. Just as the bible isn't meant to be a science textbook - Catholic teaching isn't meant to be a legal document in the way civil law works in non common law countries.

AURELIUS | 09 October 2014  

Before Cardinal Martini, the former Archbishop of Milan and a Church progressives' favourite to succeed Pope John Paul II, died in 2002, he said that the Catholic Church as “200 years out of date”. He gave a scathing portrayal of a church failing to move with the times. He said, “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous. ...The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change, starting from the pope and the bishops. The paedophilia scandals oblige us to take a journey of transformation". “The Church is tired… our prayer rooms are empty". He told interviewers the Church should open up to new kinds of families or risk losing its flock. He said, “A woman is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion to look after her and her children. A second love succeeds. If this family is discriminated against, not just the mother will be cut off but also her children.” In this way “the Church loses the future generation”. “The church is 200 years out of date. Why don’t we rouse ourselves? Are we afraid?” Adapted from Reuters

Grant Allen | 10 October 2014  

He still seems to see the role of women as only in the family, rather than as spiritual leaders. So that's most of the world devalued, I would say.

Penelope | 10 October 2014  

Boundaries have become barriers of which Jesus erected none. Servant Leadership?!

John Chuchman | 10 October 2014  

Pope emeritus' secretary, Archbishop Gaenswein, wants Synod focused on Gospel, not mere"signs of the times": http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/vatican-synod-should-be-based-on-gospel-1.1959511

Father John George | 10 October 2014  

Congratulations Andy, again, for a sensitive and very well reasoned commentary. This on the Synod and our beloved and much esteemed Pope Francis. We prayed this morning at St. Mary's Greensborough that he will continue to be blessed by the Holy Spirit in his refreshing and reforming leadership of the Church and by his actions and words, guiding and inspiring leadership for everyone throughout the world. A truly singular leader.

Michael Kennedy | 10 October 2014  

What I'm hearing is a moral position that sounds like this: there really is no absolute 'sin'. No way we can or should judge mine or other people's behavior. It's all up to personal experience. Personal conscience. Sexual behaviors are personal choices not a matter of right or wrong. Moral relativism is our guide. My 'right' could be your 'wrong'. It's all about personal perspective. Andrew Hamilton leads this moral relativism and seems to suggest that 'narrow' authoritarian teaching is a sign of fearfulness rather than of life. He seems to suggest that relaxing moral guidelines about sexuality and relationships is the 'holy grail' of reform that will draw people back to mass. Sadly the truth is that sexual behavior is thoroughly muddled at the moment and if the church were to join the world's mess by discarding its moral teaching, things would be much worse for people of faith than before. The world and the church would be one. I don't remember Jesus saying that that would be a good idea. Christian life was described by Jesus as the narrow road, Andrew Hamilton seems to want a wide spacious road where we simply blend into the culture around us. Pastoral compassion cannot simply ignore or jettison fundamental Christian moral teaching.

Michael T | 11 October 2014  

Michael T is infallibly correct!

Father John George | 12 October 2014  

Thanks, J O’D: we humans are radically unworthy to receive the gift of Communion, which the Church requires we acknowledge even as we take it: “Domine, non sum dignus…”. Nevertheless we can place ourselves beyond even that level by refusing to acknowledge and repent of our serious sins in the sacrament of confession (another gift). We then become the man in the parable who turns up at the king’s wedding banquet without a wedding garment (Mt 22.11), with the most dire consequences. Hopefully the synod will keep this parable in mind. Someone who certainly does is divorced and remarried Louise Mensch. Her searing article in this week’s Spectator (http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9330022/faith-sin-and-divorce/) cuts through the waffle and confusion of the Kasperites and other liberal Catholics.

HH | 12 October 2014  

Surely this is why Pope Francis is a sign of hope for the Church. The Church might reject the offer but it has been given a chance.

rose drake | 14 January 2015  

Andrew a wonderful piece which has sparked an immense amount of discussion. While Michael T prefers the narrow road, the gospel injunction to go out into the highways and byways sounds more to me like the broader road that Francis is encouraging us to take.

John Edwards | 14 January 2015  

I sometimes wonder how much love and charity underpins problems and their solutions particularly those associated with the divorced and marginal catholics. People seem to forget that the Mass is church devised, mortal sin is church defined, communion was Christ initiated. Any person, divorced or otherwise, wh wishes to come close to Jesus through the reception of Holy Communion is a wonderful and remarkable thing to do. Who are we to sit in judgment , telling them they are forbidden to do so through their inability to meet the "strict rules of application of church rules" required and supposedly seen through the Mass. I such an exposition of supposed fact was to be adopted, the churches would be empty - they mostly are now and it is not because of divorced catholics not attending who really want to attend, but it is because the church has protected the very people whol celebrate the mass, so many times in mortal sin. It's time we looked at the divorced people in charity and love and not through the blinkered biased eyes of the institutional church which seems to have lost its way. I could add, as much as I admire Francis with his fresh vision, his exhortation to women to breast feed babies during baptism shows a total ignorance of maternity - but then why should he know?

shirley McHugh | 14 January 2015  

This fine article did create a lot of discussion and thanks Penelope for your short & succinct contribution! I do agree with Andy that Pope Francis is posing important questions to Catholics and the wider church. His pastoral approach draws people to him - a nice style of leadership. And I think a bit of boundary-blurring can be healthy.

Pam | 14 January 2015  

Thank you for that thoughtful and strong article. As you imply Pope Francis surprises us in the most inclusive and loving ways.

Faye Lawence | 14 January 2015  

Another powerful and insightful article by Fr. Hamilton. Our times are increasingly characterized by fear, and safety is sought in walls and gates with gatekeepers. No religion or state is immune to this process. Whether it's Church law or sharia or border protection laws - it's about fear and keeping people out. The counter is surely the eucharistic life, open, welcoming and ready to die for the truth. This Pope is truly a prophet, pointing to what we've always known to be the Word of God.

Joan Seymour | 14 January 2015  

Dear Andrew:
The outline you give of what has been the custom and what COULD be the future is great. I hope Pope Francis is able to move things forward at least a little. But whatever, "common sense" should prevail - but common sense is not always that common.
Peter Cantwell ofm. .

Peter Cantwell ofm.. | 15 January 2015  

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