But, for all the media spin and gyrations of the Synod, there's not much wiggle room on either. Condemnation of divorce comes from Jesus himself. Even torturing the text for an exception or two won't get you to the all-out divorce regime that engulfs the West today. And, both the Old and New Testaments are replete with condemnations of homosexual acts. It's not just a verse or two you have to brush aside.
Nothing, though, gets people in church leadership positions compromising faster than when they think they are losing and about to become irrelevant to the wealthy and ruling classes. And, the Church has been taking it on the chin for quite some time as these pagans reclaim the ground they lost towards the end of the Roman Empire.
Still, shouldn't the Pope be the rock against which these waves of modernity break? Well, sure, but what if the Pope makes a mistake? I think there's plenty of precedent where, short of denying or renouncing doctrine, the Pope got things touching on doctrine wrong in policy or practice because of political or cultural pressures, but later recovered. A few of my favorites:
* In the 14th Century, seven popes in succession resided in Avignon, France rather than Rome. And, this, after popes spent the previous 1,000 years of the Church contending that the Bishop of Rome was the head of the Church because Peter went to Rome and died there. No records of Peter taking a vacation in the south of France. After 68 years, the Pope returned to Rome after ongoing exhortation to do so by St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena.
* Five hundred years later, Pius IX would declare it anathema (meaning you are excommunicated) to believe that the pope could do without the Papal States his predecessors had abandoned. The states, in which the pope was temporal sovereign, ran across the central part of the Italian peninsula. The Italians nationalists of the 19th Century dispossessed him of them and most of Rome in the unification of the peninsula. Despite the anathema, the papacy has not only done well since, we've had some of our greatest, most influential pontiffs.
* More recently, we endured decades of a culpably bad translation of the Mass into English which ignored the documents of Vatican II to follow ideologically tinged liturgical and theological fashions of the '50s and '60s. Both the Pope and the bishops spent years defending its sheer wonderfulness—even allowing local churches to make it worse and punishing those who just wanted to use the older form—before allowing a limited return of the Latin Mass and capitulating to the much more accurate English translation we use now.
*You'd think child sexual abuse would be at least as bad as homosexual acts (child abuse is worse), yet denial was heaped upon denial early on in this century until the obvious couldn't be ignored. Some of the responses of bishops seemed like apologetic treatises on behalf of the priests (usually, and not coincidentally, homosexuals) they never should have ordained in the first place. Of the bishops who made public pronouncements, most seemed more worried about losing diocesan property in lawsuits than addressing the cancer within the church. And, an otherwise great pope in his creeping response gave the impression that he didn't understand it was an immediate and important issue. But, while we will be dealing with the fallout for decades, the immediate storm has subsided because we got a new pope that understood the issue clearly and took definitive steps against the wolves in cleric's clothing.
Now, we have Pope Francis who may allow those in adulterous, illegitimate marriages to take communion, and decide that some forms of homosexual unions aren't so bad after all. It will be a sad day because it will, without formally giving up the doctrine, tell the world that the Church wasn't being serious when it said these things are sins and, well, never mind, do what you want, here's your communion wafer. Oh, and don't worry, we don't really believe that stuff about eating and drinking damnation unto yourself by taking communion unworthily.
Of course, I'm doubtful that Pope Francis will do this. One must remember that reading the secular media for information about what's going on with the Pope and in the Vatican is like reading a Microsoft Word document written in Wingdings with the word "sex" occasionally spelled out in a regular font. Certainly entertaining, but not informative.
Still, even if the Pope were to capitulate in practice if not specifically in doctrine, we will have some comfort.
First, while Popes aren't elected, they usually clock in and out faster than American presidents. With the occasional outlier such as Pius VI or Leo XIII or Pope St. John Paul the Great, it's rare that they are around long enough to make much of a personal imprint on the Church. Their power, beyond the divine foundation of the office, lies in the durability of the institution.
Pope Francis has logged just under two years in what, if the averages play out, will be about a seven- year reign. Someone will come along after him and, if necessary, right the Barque of Peter and set it on course again. That doesn't mean that Pope Francis isn't legitimate or rightfully pope or infallible when necessary. It means that if he screws up and a future pope has to make it right, we'll be blessed that he had very little time to do so, and the number of bishops he will have appointed who are of like mind will have been few.
I think the presence of instant communication, especially through social media, makes the Pope seem more relevant than he is to our daily lives. Twitter and Facebook give us the idea that we have much more of a say both in matters of government and religion than any of us really do. If, when the president or Pope said something we disagreed with we didn't run to post our opinion, we'd have almost exactly the same influence as when we do. Twitter hasn't stopped President Obama from doing anything he already planned to do, and neither will it stop the Pope.
But, as far as the Church goes, that's OK. The Pope is the head of the Universal Church for pretty much the same reason the rest of us aren't. And, as a result, he has graces we don't. Should he start to veer off course, however, we should keep in mind that there was a time in the history of the Church when hearing anything from the Pope during one's lifetime was unusual. He guided the Church from Rome through his bishops and everyone else managed to live Christian lives without getting daily tweets from him. We don't have to, and shouldn't, treat him as an oracle that guides our every move. If Pope Francis makes a bad call, we can be sure that the doctrine is safe, the policy will eventually be righted, and we can continue to teach our kids the Faith.
Still, I have confidence in him. Even Pope St. John Paul the Great made his share of bad calls but had a great papacy. I think Francis' seven years will be much better than our tweets and posts suppose.