Of all the things I’ve read about the significance of the Synod on Family Life that just concluded at the Vatican with some rather watery formulae, a piece at the National Catholic Reporter by veteran Vatican-watcher Robert Mickens makes the most sense:

In [a] two-pronged process, Francis intended his first synod gathering (last year) to help the bishops “take the pulse” of the Catholic people. He stimulated this by having the synod secretariat send an unprecedented questionnaire several months earlier to all the bishops of the world, encouraging them to canvas the lay faithful for their views and experience on the church’s teaching and praxis regarding marriage, family and sexuality.

He had quite another idea for the second synod gathering, the one that just took place. It seems clearer, now more than ever, that it was designed to help him “take the pulse” of the bishops. And it was successful. In a sense, he has “smoked out” those bishops who, up until now, have not shown their hand.

Don’t believe it?

On Saturday evening, as he brought this latest synod assembly’s work to a close, the pope told the bishops and observers what he believed the exercise had been about.

Among other things, he said: “It was about laying bare the closed hearts, which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teaching or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”

Francis undoubtedly took note of those prelates he had in mind.

The fundamental reality Francis is facing is that in trying to move the hierarchy he is largely dealing with a clerical aristocracy painstakingly shaped by his two conservative predecessors over the course of an amazing joint reign of more than 34 years. It will take time and patience to overcome their resistance to reform. So this synod is simply one of (probably) many preliminary skirmishes. And there’s no guarantee that when Francis is going his successor will not simply roll the rock back down the hill.

As Charlie Pierce suggested today, what Francis is really trying to accomplish initially is to recommit decisions about access to the sacraments to the pastoral relationship of priests to individual Catholics. For that he needs not so much overwhelming support from prelates as a decision not to interfere.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.