‘Pope idol’ is the headline above the Sunday Times‘ informative profile of the ‘Francis effect’ — the term the media are using to sum up the invigorating, renewing effect of his papacy. The headline captures his extraordinary popularity, and the power of his witness, both among alienated Catholics now returning in great numbers to Mass, as well as among people normally hostile to the Church. In yesterday’s Guardian, for example, Jonathan Freedland makes a compelling case for why Francis is the “obvious new hero of the left”, citing his prophetic stance on socioeconomic issues and observing accurately that for Francis, “it’s not the institution that counts, it’s the mission.”

But the Sunday Times headline inadvertently captures the problem with this sudden reversal of the Church’s image in the eyes of those normally dismissive of it. Idols are not real but projections of the desires of those who worship them; they are made in the image of the beholder. But the evidence for this, in both articles, depends on a radical distortion of the recent consultation sent to bishops by the organisers of next year’s Synod on the family. Paul Vallely, author of the Sunday Times piece, writes, for example, that

He has even launched a questionnaire — unprecedented in the history of the Vatican — to find out what ordinary Catholics think about how the Church handles issues such as contraception, pre-marital sex, divorce and same-sex partnerships.

and later that “he has told bishops around the world to solicit the views of ordinary Catholics on sexual issues”. Freedland claims that

His latest move is to send the world’s Catholics a questionnaire, seeking their attitude to those vexed questions of modern life. It’s bound to reveal a flock whose practices are, shall we say, at variance with Catholic teaching. In politics, you’d say Francis was preparing the ground for reform.

Yet even a quick glance at the documents sent to the world’s bishops shows this is not an survey of Catholics’ views on sexual teaching, but a consultation, including questions to be answered by the bishops’ conference of each country about the social, legal and cultural context in which that teaching is lived out. The nature of the questions takes for granted the truth of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality; and the evangelising purpose of the exercise is very clearly stated in the first paragraph:

The social and spiritual crisis, so evident in today’s world, is becoming a pastoral challenge in the Church’s evangelizing mission concerning the family, the vital building-block of society and the ecclesial community. Never before has proclaiming the Gospel on the Family in this context been more urgent and necessary.

The purpose, in short, is not to prepare the Church for changes in Catholic teaching; it is to enable Catholics better to live it out. In this, Francis is responding to concerns about the difficulty of evangelising through the family when so many children are growing up in homes where divorce and remarriage are common. He is also responding to concerns that  many, if not most, Catholics enter marriage with a mindset shaped less by church teaching than by a culture which sees commitment as contingent on individual desire or feelings of love.

The questionnaire is about getting as much information as possible in order to prepare for a synod with a clear pastoral aim of removing the obstacles to the Church better communicating, and helping people to live, its teaching on marriage and family.

Valley suggests that it is unprecedented for the Vatican to ask questions. Yet thelineamenta prior to every Synod always asks a series of questions of the bishops’ conferences. The only difference here – and it is an important one — is that the Synod’s new General Secretary, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, calls for the Preparatory Document (which contains the questions) to be shared “as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes so that input from local sources can be received regarding the themes and responses”. But the purpose is not to gather more opinions, but to ensure that the information received by the Synod about the context of each country is as broad and accurate as possible.

This category error has led some, even in the Church, to criticise the Vatican for failing to carry out a ‘proper’ survey, as if the Vatican cannot possibly reflect popular opinion without finding out what it is — as if this were a plebiscite. Some reports cite Linda Woodhead’s survey as evidence of a wide breach between the belief of ordinary Catholics and the magisterium, suggesting that the Vatican will need to accommodate its teaching to popular opinion if it wishes to fill its pews — an idea reinforced by Freedland, who even suggests that this is a softening-up exercise, designed to give political cover to future doctrinal changes.

That is wish fulfilment. There has long been a gap between Catholic belief and practice, and there always will be. It is the drama of sin and salvation, and Pope Francis has no interest in bringing it to a close. His concern, rather, is to enable the Church better to support and accompany those who are living that drama — especially those who have become alienated from the Church, or who practise but stay away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

This is a Pope who passionately believes in the power of Grace, especially through Confession — and Confession is only possible when there is a gap between belief and practice. His dream is that more and more people are able to go to Confession, receive the Eucharist and live out the Church’s teachings; it is not to tell people that they have nothing to confess. Pope Francis is a radical, Gospel-centred missionary. Far from seeking to surrender to contemporary western liberal culture, he wants very badly to evangelise it.

Freedland is right to say under Francis ”it’s not the institution that counts, it’s the mission.” But it’s hard to know why he thinks atheists would applaud this; for the mission  is as the mission always was — conversion.

Austen Ivereigh is coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK. 

Dr Austen Ivereigh, coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices, is an author, journalist and commentator, who is a well-known voice on TV and radio on church affairs. From 2000-2004 he was deputy editor...