St. Peter's Basilica is festively decorated with floral arrangements. Pope Francis will hold the Christmas Eve service for the eleventh time this year. His sermon will, as always, be about peace, about love. Prayers, candles, liturgical singing, Christmas mass is one of the highlights of the Catholic church year. At the end, the Holy Father will lead a group of children to the manger to place the wooden baby Jesus in it.
Love, kindness, everyone is welcome - that is the message that Francis and his church want to send. It seems to fit with the announcements of the past few days, for example that homosexual couples can now also be blessed. However, if you look a little closer, it becomes clear: the easing of restrictions is more appearance than reality - a principle of the Catholic Church, even under the pontificate of Francis.
The 87-year-old Francis is faced with a dilemma: Given the dramatically dwindling number of believers, especially in Europe, he must renew the church. In the hierarchy of Rome, however, conservative forces that he also needs, the self-proclaimed "guardians", are blocking precisely those reform steps.
In order not to deepen the division in the church, Francis seems to stick to the rule: externally as much reform as possible, internally, in the matter itself, as little as necessary. This is reflected in last week's decision, the announcement that homosexual couples could now also receive the blessing: In many communities in Germany, the Netherlands and the USA, priests have long been blessing same-sex couples. This brought the Curia cardinals in Rome into action. Their calls for a ban grew louder and louder. Pope Francis had to react. He made a concession out of necessity without responding to the desire for actual recognition.
Homosexual couples can now be officially blessed. But not in a liturgical ritual like the blessing of husband and wife. With the declaration "Fiducia supplicans", the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Fernandez, calmed down the angry cardinals of the Curia at the behest of the Pope. The text states: "No further answers regarding modalities, standards or practical aspects are to be expected." In plain language this means: This far and no further - this is not the beginning of further liberalization. The new regulation must be enough. And that means: homosexual couples are still excluded from the liturgy. Only spontaneous prayers with blessings that are in an “unofficial” context are permitted.
Like an instruction manual, the explanation also provides a few concrete examples: Blessings are permitted on the sidelines of pilgrimages, when visiting a holy site or at a meeting with a priest. The Catholic Church is selling the new regulation as “development”. In practice, however, priests could already turn a blind eye. But the church teaching is not shaken. The new solution concerns pastoral tasks – not doctrine.
For many believers who expected Francis to liberalize the church, this will again be a disappointment. When the Argentinian Jorge Maria Bergoglio was elected pope on March 13, 2013, many saw him as the long-awaited innovator. He met believers on an equal footing and had previously dedicated his life to the poor. The Jesuit had been archbishop of his hometown of Buenos Aires since 1998, but he continued to take the subway, visit slums and social workers. It also stood out in the Vatican for its simplicity. He put aside everything courtly. So he gave up the pompous residence in the apostolic palace and moved to the more modest accommodation in the Casa Santa Marta.
He embodies the image of the progressive. Francis advocates for migrants and against global warming. His commitment earned him a worldwide reputation as a reformer. However, in his own home, the Catholic Church, he finds it difficult to adapt to a changed world. Another example: equality for women in the church. At the Synod of Bishops in October, 54 women out of 365 eligible voters were allowed to vote for the first time. But even this concession from Francis has little effect. The synod only has an advisory function; it does not make decisions like a council.
Nothing is moving on what is probably the biggest issue the Catholic Church is currently facing, the admission of women to the priesthood. The church still uses the symbolism of Peter and Mary as a template. Means: Peter and all subsequent men interpret the teaching and exercise authority. Mary and all women realize themselves in humble devotion of faith and love. The Petrine and Marian principles sanction the division of roles in the church. Francis says that the Marian principle, i.e. the role of women, is much more important because women influence the community and not the institutions. And thus rejects the demand for equality.
There is also no prospect of a relaxation of celibacy, the requirement of singleness, as the German bishops have been calling for for a long time. Liberals argue that voluntary celibacy would increase the value of celibacy. They also demand that the Pope should allow Catholic priests to marry and remain in office. However, Francis remains adamant about the doctrine. There is no majority in the upper echelons of the church for an end to celibacy.
The dismissals that Francis ordered this year show how sharp the disputes are within church leaders - a rarity: the person concerned is usually advised to resign beforehand. But in both cases Francis was directly attacked and he took consequences. The arch-reactionary US Bishop Joseph Strickland had publicly accused the Pope, among other things, of "undermining the good of the faith." In November Francis fired him. The pontiff had already sidelined his predecessor Benedict's closest confidant, Georg Gänswein, in July. The conservative heavily criticized Francis in his book.
Francis seems to be driven by the desire not to allow the gap within the church to grow too large. And in return, he accepts that with each passing day without sweeping reforms, the gap between the church and the world deepens.