Based on his numerous personnel appointments, it is clear what type of Church leadership Pope Francis prefers. American Catholics have learned this through the election of Blaise Cupich as Archbishop of Chicago and his imminent elevation to the College of Cardinals (meanwhile, orthodox prelates such as Chaput in Philadelphia and Gomez in Los Angeles have been snubbed). However, the recent election of the new leadership of the European bishops shows that there is significant resistance to this preferred model. The unambiguous, expressive leadership of Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco and Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki will also be a much-needed boost to the Church in Europe.
It’s been decades since the world’s Catholic episcopate has been so polarized. To remember even remotely similar disunity among the world’s bishops, one would have to think back to the early post-Vatican II years, when, on the one hand, the bishops of Canada and the Netherlands openly dissented from Church teaching as expressed in Humanae Vitae, and, on the other, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of France criticized the conciliar reforms and ultimately caused a schism.
Today, that polarization is back. This is a byproduct of the Francis pontificate. From his numerous confusing off-the-cuff remarks that straddle the line of orthodoxy to his perception of a false contrast between doctrine and ministry as well as his ambiguity on doctrinal matters (as best expressed by footnote 351 of Amor Laetitia, possibly the most heatedly debated annotation in Church history), Pope Francis has opened something of a Pandora’s box. Most of the world’s bishops are in one of two categories: either they emphasize tradition and fidelity to the magisterium of previous popes, or they have adopted an attitude of avoiding controversial topics and emphasizing good rapport with the lay faithful, even when it is in conflict with doctrine.
The European bishops have also been divided between the two camps. Earlier this month, however, the defenders of tradition achieved a 2:1 victory over the Kasperites when voting on the new president and vice presidents of the Council of European Episcopal Conference, an organization is composed of the heads of the episcopal conferences of 33 European countries and six other European bishops, for 2016-2021. The European bishops chose Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, Italy, as head of the Italian bishops’ conference, as their president for the next five years, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, head of the English and Welsh bishops’ conference, as well as Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poznan, head of the Polish bishops’ conference, as vice presidents.
Cardinal Bagnasco is definitely a Benedict XVI generation bishop. Strongly pro-life, he has called for the criminalization of abortifacient pills. Since becoming archbishop of Genoa in 2006, he has been a strong defender of the family and natural law. Cardinal Bagnasco has also defended the Tridentine Mass and Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg lecture, which the mainstream media railed against in 2006, but today, after a seemingly endless wave of Islamic terrorist attacks across Europe in the past couple years, can only be seen as prophetic. Earlier this year, as Italy legalized same-sex civil unions, Cardinal Bagnasco rallied hundreds of thousands of Italian Catholics to protest this violation of the natural law. While Amor Laetitia has done anything but settled the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, Cardinal Bagnasco is a strong defender of tradition on this matter. The archbishop of Genoa served as vice president of the European bishops’ conferences during the presidency of Péter Erdő, the orthodox and dynamic archbishop of Budapest-Esztergom and accomplished canon lawyer (who has written more than twenty books on the matter), so Bagnasco’s election indicates a desire for continuity.
Likewise, Archbishop Gądecki is known for his orthodoxy. During the synod on the family, the two geographical blocs that were most uniform in their defense of Church teaching were the Africans and the Eastern Europeans. The latter’s informal leaders were Cardinal Erdő, relator of the synod, and the Polish bishops, headed by Gądecki. Understandably, the Poles were keen on respecting the intellectual legacy of their countryman St. John Paul II. Shortly after it became clear that Amoris Laetitia is an ambiguous document, Archbishop Gądecki was quick to clarify any confusion on communion for the divorced and remarried. While it is true that secularism has swept into Poland (Mass attendance there has declined from 46.6% twenty years ago to 39.1% today), the country still boasts of an intact Catholic culture, as evidenced by the explosion of faith and massive turnout at this year’s World Youth Day in Krakow. A leader from a relatively healthy Catholic nation will undoubtedly be a boost to the European bishops.
Unlike Bagnasco and Gądecki, however, Cardinal Nichols is one of the least orthodox members of the College of Cardinals. Today, the Catholic Church in Britain is enjoying a revival, with priestly and religious vocations on the rise. However, this is happening in spite of, rather than thanks to, Cardinal Nichols’ leadership. If Pope Francis’ infamous “Who am I to judge?” comment is at least doctrinally correct, Nichols’ explicit support for same-sex civil unions and “LGBT Masses” is not. Neither is his support for the “decentralization” of the issue of communion for divorcees living in new sexual relationships.
The good news is that two of the three bishops elected to leadership positions in the Council of European Episcopal Conference are defenders of tradition. This is significant for two reasons. First, a large number of the 39 European bishops who voted for new leaders several days ago are cardinals. Since many of them voted for Bagnasco and Gądecki, this is an indication that, if a conclave were held in the near future, there would be significant resistance in the Sacred College to elect any candidates for “Francis II.”
Second, Europe and the West face a crisis of faith. The work of Rodney Stark and other sociologists of religion clearly shows that when the salt loses its taste, it simply becomes unattractive, and the best way to revive religion is to stick to tradition. The examples of the Nashville Dominicans or the leadership of recent bishops in Lincoln and Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard in Brussels show that much.
The last three years of episcopal appointments around the world have often disappointed, and sometimes shocked, many orthodox Catholics. If Francis is genuinely as big a supporter of the decentralization of the Church as he often claims, perhaps he should interpret the results of the election of the new leaders of Europe’s bishops conferences as an indication that he could listen to his bishops as to what kind of episcopal appointments they prefer.
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