Pope Francis: The Great Negotiator
The recent Vatican synod on the family was not the first time Catholic Church leaders came together to discuss a controversial issue of importance in Church doctrine. But it was the first time Pope Francis oversaw such a meeting – and what happened during the synod revealed a great deal about his negotiation style and attitude towards conflict and disagreement within the Catholic community.
One week into the two-week synod, the Vatican released a preliminary statement that included language that many progressive Catholics (a group with which I would associate) had reasons to find hopeful. The language in this statement implied to many that the Church was shifting towards a more inclusive and accepting attitude towards groups previously thought to be outside the legitimate definition of a “family” – gay couples, divorced or remarried individuals, and partners who might be unmarried but cohabiting. The report spoke of “welcoming” gay individuals, and recognized that some same-sex relationships provide “precious support in the life of partners.” Many bishops were outraged at the language, insisting that the boundaries of official Church doctrine be respected. Even releasing such a mid-term report felt unhinged, confusing, and undermining to these bishops.
When the final report was released, the language was dialed back – “welcoming” had become “providing,” “partners” had become “persons,” “precious” support became merely “valuable.” But the veil had been lifted – the group assembled at the synod was publicly exposed as divided, and Pope Francis even chose to release the final vote tally on each passage of the final document (the passage on gay and divorced Catholics did not receive the necessary two-thirds of the votes to pass). The synod’s English-language spokesman said that the vote tallies were released “in the interest of transparency.” Pope Francis seems to have adopted transparency as a theme of the synod, telling the bishops that in the discussions that took place, “No one must say, ‘This can’t be said.’” Transparency and expression of heartfelt dissent are themes that appeared nowhere on the agenda of the last two pontificates; they represent a sea change for the Church – something at once exhilarating and destabilizing.
I experienced the news about what happened at the synod in a number of different ways. As a Roman Catholic, I am supposed to believe that when Church leaders come together to discern, the Holy Spirit is doing powerful work. At the same time, I also know as an informed citizen aware of Church history that what in fact occurs behind those closed doors is a complex process of negotiation – which, when it fails, could lead to animosity, war, schism, and violence.
This time, it was clear to me that not only was this synod a negotiation, but that one of the key negotiators was Pope Francis himself. What can we learn from the synod about the Pope’s negotiation strategy and the future directions these questions might take?
For one thing, the release of the welcoming preliminary language seems like an intentional choice directed at progressive Catholics. Admittedly, my initial feelings of hopefulness and optimism turned to crestfallen disappointment upon reading the final closing language. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that the choice to make the language public was a signal that there was a conversation happening within the leadership of the Catholic Church that genuinely and deeply engaged multiple views that differ from one another.
Going even further, that choice could have been a subtle call to progressives for activism. Perhaps Pope Francis believes that by giving progressive Catholics some indication that their views are shared by some members of the Church leadership, those progressives will be hopeful and therefore motivated to be more involved in the Church during the year leading up to next fall’s synod. Pope Francis has accepted that the final language in this year’s synod document barely deviated from official Church statements in the past, but the attention that he brought to the preliminary language could be the first baby step in a process of incremental change. Had he not released the preliminary language, progressives, upon hearing the final document, might simply have thrown up their hands, declaring that Pope Francis was all talk, no substance. The release of the preliminary text, however, gives hope for progressives – a reason for sustained engagement, prayer, and involvement.
The other interesting twist in the synod’s outcome was that although the language was ultimately changed in the English-language version of the closing document, it remained unchanged in the Italian version. In attempting to balance his views on the Church’s teachings with the broad global representation he needs to demonstrate, Pope Francis appears to have struck a brilliant compromise. The controversy itself was not resolved; rather more views and voices were aired for further deliberation and consideration; the profound differences between the two documents reflects the differences aired in the synod, and seems to have been intentionally left unresolved. The “closing” document symbolizes less a true closing and more simply a mark of where the discussions landed – for now.
One conclusion I draw from the way the synod unfolded is that Pope Francis seems to be comfortable leaving these large questions open for conversation for the moment – like any skillful negotiator, he knows that the mere act of having an open dialogue is positive progress in itself. “Personally I would have been very worried and saddened if there hadn’t been these … animated discussions,” he said after the synod had concluded, “if everyone had agreed with one another or had kept silent in a false and acquiescent peace.” The Pope’s way of handling the divided synod demonstrates not only his tolerance for the two sides of the dispute about the Church’s attitude to previously condemned groups, but also his craftiness in moving those two sides towards a resolution that fits his vision for the Church.
My advice for Pope Francis going forward is to focus on how to get enough of his bishops to “yes.” While a consensus is probably impossible, what the Pope could create is a winning coalition that could ultimately pass the progressive language that I believe, in his heart, he himself hopes for. It seems that he has already started to do this, by making relatively transparent moves to speak directly to a progressive contingent of the Catholic community. (Some have interpreted his recent demotion of Cardinal Burke to be a step in furthering his progressive agenda; however, the Pope also appointed a critic of the inclusive preliminary language to a leadership position in next year’s synod.) At the same time, Pope Francis is a facilitator in addition to a negotiator; he must preserve his ties to all parts of his community, meaning that there is a need to build common ground. Pope Francis could do this by expanding the issues at stake so that they resonate with all Catholics: for instance, he could frame the dispute around the role of mercy, the notion of universal sinfulness, or the need for providing for children. With a mix of incremental steps towards agreement and strong moves towards building support for his vision, Pope Francis could manage and resolve this delicate negotiation skillfully.