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A pope of blurred boundaries

  • 09 October 2014

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