Pope Francis has recently published The Joy of Love following on the two recent meetings of the Synod. His message is that marriage is sometimes joyous, sometimes disastrous, but nearly always complex. Whatever the case, the Church’s task is clear – to support marriage partners in these complexities. There are lots of rules and regulations to be observed – but pastoral care for each of the married partners trumps all the others.
He recently sent a personal letter to Cardinal Marc Ouellet in his capacity as president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America in which he said that all Christians – laity or clergy - are equally part of God’s people and the clergy exist to serve the laity, not to own them. What’s going on?
I think the pope discerns that the Church has been shaped by history to be a powerful, structured, law-regulated organization. But its fundamental vocation is to be a community of faith, hope, love and mutual support. He is a teacher and a ruler but, before all else, a pastor and a servant of each and every believer. All other issues take second place to that.
The movement we call Christianity started off as a group of followers of Jesus of Nazareth. They believed Jesus’s line that God’s Kingdom was soon going to replace the existing oppressive social setup. You anticipate that new order and help it come by being a community that believes that line, helps each other out and sticks together. Faith and love. “Pistis” and “agape” in Greek. The early Christians spread this message. They remembered and talked about the Jesus they revered. They believed that he was a prophet, a messiah, a son of God, a saviour.
The movement caught on and got a life of its own. Jesus was God’s work but so was the movement. This band of believers saw themselves as a people God had called together through Jesus i.e. a church. Its organization was rudimentary, its regulations few and flexible, its creed simple.
Over the next generations this band became a recognisable organization. It talked an ever more uniform story, developed regulated procedures and got an organizational structure including a hierarchy.
As it spread across the known world, Greek became its standard language and with that came Greek concepts and ways of discourse leading to it becoming more cerebral and less picturesque or metaphorical – a significant change of style. It had its internal disagreements and met with different reactions from wider society, sometimes including persecution. As it grew, its structure became more defined and its narrative and regulations more uniform as happens with any developing organization.
By the 5th century it was the established religion of the Roman Empire and that brought political power for its leaders. The waning of the empire gave it even greater power. By the Middle Ages it was the key player in world politics – a long way from the self-help movement of its origins.
We know the ups and downs of Church history – the Eastern Schism, the Investiture Controversy, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
All these were contributed to by the ever heightening theology that began with the Patristic period and has continued ever since. For example, baptism was not repeated for returning apostates. How come? By way of explanation they theorised that baptism made an intrinsic change to the receiver. A “mark on the soul” was the metaphor used. The sacrament not only ritually celebrated something – it conferred something. This theory spread to the other non-repeated rituals such as confirmation and orders. Much later it was even applied to marriage. Once married, you could only be un-married by your partner’s death. Theoretical enquiry into pastoral practice results in more complex doctrine and a growing body of law.
Heightened theology, while giving greater definition to church structure, doctrinal formulations and legislation, also made it less flexible and adaptive. It also increased the power base of the hierarchy. This rigid organization was a far cry from the original Jesus Movement.
Pope Francis knows his history and is an intuitive sociologist. His top priority is people living their lives today with their joys and the hopes, griefs and the anxieties. In this he is a Vatican II bishop. Like the very early Christians he concentrates on the existential before the essential. “The reality is more important than the idea” is the way he expresses it. The sticklers for a more rigid and inflexible Church structure, doctrine and rule are part of his reality. But his actions indicate that his priorities are different from theirs. And he believes that if you change practice first, the theory will follow - as has always been the case.
A re-ordering of priorities is what is going on.
 Cf. Martos, Joseph: Deconstructing Sacramental Theology and Reconstructing Catholic Ritual.