2020 has certainly not gotten off to a slow start.
The “Bookgate” controversy (every bureaucratic debacle has to have a “gate” at the end, obviously) has been really remarkable. It’s really not possible to say it’s over yet, or what the repercussions might be for Cardinal Sarah, Pope Benedict, and Archbishop Gänswein in the coming days.
And if it’s any indication of the coming year, we’re in for a ride.
I often have a strong gut feeling about the coming year, and I’ve been known to make a few predictions around this time each January.
But I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve got nothing. Maybe it’s Francis-fatigue, maybe it’s something else, but my crystal ball, so to speak, is as murky as modernist language. We’re going to be entering the eighth year of this pontificate in a couple of months, and so much bizarre stuff has already happened, it’s difficult to imagine how much weirder it could get from here.
So instead of making guesses, let’s look at what we know is coming, because it’s going to be coming fast.
1. The Amazonian Synod’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation
If we’ve learned anything since this pontificate got underway, it’s the power for disruptive change that can be packed into a synod. And as 2016’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation proved, sometimes the final document takes the relative chaos of a synod and distills it into something even more dangerous.
We originally expected the latest exhortation — arguably the most significant ecclesiastical event of 2020 — to drop before Christmas, but the date got pushed back for reasons that were not entirely clear. (Maybe they didn’t want it to appear obviously pre-written?)
Now the story, according to a leaked letter from synod architect Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, is that we’ll see it released by the end of February. What Hummes does not say in his letter is what the exhortation will address. But from what we already know about the synod, certain themes rise to the top of our list of expectations. Themes such as:
- Ecological considerations and their relevance to the moral life (i.e., “ecological sins”)
- “Valuable” lessons from indigenous cultures and their pagan beliefs
- Next steps on the proposed re-examination of a female diaconate
- Next steps on the proposed ordination of married male deacons to the priesthood in regions suffering priest shortages
- The outlines of a proposed Amazonian rite of the liturgy
If we’re lucky, we might also get a Pachamama coloring book out of the deal.
Obviously, we should expect the content of the exhortation to include a heavy dose of benign filler interspersed with sections that are outrageously controversial — perhaps even more weaponized footnotes — and for it to dominate much of the Catholic conversation for the months immediately following its publication as its import is unpacked. Depending on how restrained it is, there will likely be new theological efforts to evaluate its errors, new open letters challenging its content, new petitions regarding the same, etc.
2. Praedicate Evangelium — Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia
One of the alleged hallmarks of this pontificate was always supposed to be curial reform. Thus far, it seems as though this has been limited primarily to annual papal speeches insulting and dressing down the cardinals, usually around Christmas, and stacking the college of cardinals with ideologically sympathetic future conclave voters.
But the final draft of the pope’s new apostolic constitution on the structure of the curia, expected to be promulgated this year, has been described by some as a “fundamental re-imagining” of the Vatican body’s role.
Expect a change in focus for the work of the curia, at least superficially, from the exercise of administrative power to one of service, especially service to the bishops around the world.
“In general,” writes Richard Gaillardetz for the National Catholic Reporter, after reviewing an early draft of the text, “we can say that the document moves away from a longstanding conception of the Curia as the legal enforcement arm of the papacy and instead reimagines the role of the Curia around three central ecclesiological principles: collegiality, synodality and subsidiarity.”
Expect to see a good bit of talk here, again, about decentralization of ecclesiastical authority, even when that’s not necessarily a good thing.
We’ll also see term limits for Vatican officials, increased lay involvement in curial positions, and a restructuring of dicasteries. Notably, the newly created Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples is being termed as a “super dicastery” that will supersede even the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in importance. (Read more about that right here.)
3. Opening of Vatican Archives on Pope Pius XII
Last year, the Vatican announced that its archives on Pope Pius XII would finally be opened to researchers in March of 2020, marking the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the late pope’s election.
Pius XII, who reigned during the Second World War and was famously accused of being “Hitler’s Pope” by British author John Cornwell, who claimed Pius did not do enough to stop the persecution and genocide of the Jews during the holocaust, has been a subject of much historical controversy. Other scholars have disputed Cornwell’s claims, with Pius XII having been credited with helping save the lives of many Jews through secret aid.
The level of controversy likely to be stirred up by the information contained in the archives could well be substantial, particularly amid highly charged societal conversations over an apparent resurgence in anti-Semitism.
Pope Francis, in announcing his decision to open the archives, said he did so “with a serene and confident soul, certain that serious and objective historical research will be able to evaluate it in its proper light.”
“The Church is not afraid of history,” he said. “On the contrary, she loves it, and desires to love it more and better, as God loves it. ”
4. Papal Trips
There will likely be any number of papal trips in the coming year, though it appears that few, if any, are currently locked down, and the next international World Youth Day isn’t until 2022.
The pope has expressed a desire to travel to three countries that present real logistical challenges — Iraq, South Sudan, and China. It’s impossible to say if any of these trips will materialize in 2020, but they should be on the radar.
Budapest, which will host the Eucharistic Congress this year, may also be on the papal travel agenda, as may Cyprus, Lebanon, Montenegro, East Timor, and Indonesia.
Along with any papal trips will come the inevitable airplane press conferences, and all the problematic off-the-cuff statements they inevitably contain.
5. The Situation in China
The situation in Hong Kong has de-escalated but is not fully resolved. Protests continue, though diminished in scale.
Under Chinese president and Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping, there has been a marked increase in religious persecution in China. Orders have been given to bring all religious beliefs into alignment with Chinese culture and socialist ideology. Portraits of Xi have, in some cases, replaced images of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child or the crucifixes in Catholic churches, and signs for some churches have been forcibly replaced with communist slogans. Sunday school is no longer legally allowed.
And the problem for faithful Catholics — especially those who do not wish to join the state-approved Chinese patriotic “church” — continues to get worse. The problem is exacerbated by the Vatican’s deal with Beijing, which has empowered the state-controlled “church” at the expense of the underground church that has been persecuted in China for decades.
Bishop John Fang Xingyao, head of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, said in November 2018 that “Love for the homeland must be greater than love for the Church.”
Meanwhile, faithful Chinese bishops like Guo Xijin have been demoted, evicted, and left homeless after refusing to join the state-controlled “church.”
BONUS: Everything Else
There are no synods scheduled for 2020, but there’s plenty else going on. The Vatican has been increasingly embroiled in significant financial scandals, and we should expect coverage of these issues to continue throughout the year.
The sex abuse crisis is also far from over, and in addition to any possible civil reports being released by various investigative bodies, the McCarrick Report — the results of an internal Vatican investigation into the disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick — is highly anticipated this year.
Twenty twenty marks the fifth anniversary of the release of the pope’s eco-cyclical, Laudato Si’, so we should expect to see a lot more environmental discussion, likely dovetailing with the recommendations that will inevitably be released in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
And of course, there’s always the likelihood of more Viganò missives, more Scalfari interviews, and a German Church that never seems to run out of ideas on how to create unbelievable new scandals.
We Have Our Work Cut Out for Us, and We Need Your Help!
The work of covering, informing, and analyzing all of what’s to come this year for the benefit of our audience is going to keep us very busy. We hope to continue our focus on providing more audio and video content in addition to the written word, with regular releases of both the 1P5 Minute and the Podcast. We’ve been getting great feedback on those, and we’re happy you like them.
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