The Beatitudes and the Synod Fallout

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, at Mass, the Church presented for our reflection on the Feast of All Saints, one of the most well known passages in the Gospel, the Beatitudes, which are for us Christians, the very model of saintliness. Although these are among the most well known words of Jesus in the Bible, they never grow stale or rote, they always help the Christian focus on what is vitally important. Perhaps it was on account of my really enjoying the sermons Pope Francis gave last week, or perhaps it was that Pope Francis was right there in my parish just a few weeks back, but I found the Beatitudes especially evocative this year. I suspect the real reason they were so moving, even urgent, this year is because of all the debates in and surrounding the recently concluded synod, and how this list of eight marks of holiness bear on those debates. Here they are:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall possess the earth. 

Blessed are they who mourn, 
for they shall be comforted. 
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, 
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, 
for they shall obtain mercy. 
Blessed are the clean of heart, 
for they shall see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children
 of God.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice' sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men reproach you,
and persecute you,
and speaking falsely, say all manner of evil
 against you, for My sake.

All of these speak, primarily, not to our deeds but to our dispositions, to our conscience. To be poor in spirit is to be without pride, the deadliest of the seven sins because it lurks even in the hearts of those whose deeds are blameless.  There are actions that can contradict meekness - as all honest bloggers must be forced to admit! – but meekness is principally a disposition of the heart. Jesus said those with clean hearts are blessed: He said nothing about those with clean hands. &c. For all those who chortled or worse when some synod fathers reminded the Church that our teaching on conscience is as important and as foundational as our teaching on, say, the indissolubility of marriage, their answer is here, in the Beatitudes, which call all Christians to a way of being in the world that, I would meekly submit, is about something deeper than moral norms or ecclesial teachings, something that is prior, something truly foundational. When you hear some talk of a “well-formed conscience” you know what they mean is a conscience that agrees with me. A well-formed Christian conscience is one formed by the Beatitudes.

Hearing the Gospel proclaimed yesterday, reading those words again this morning, it strikes me that the reason so many people find Pope Francis attractive is not just his obviously warm personality but the fact that he seems to embody these eight marks that Jesus tells us are the marks of sanctity. Francis is attractive because the Gospel is attractive, and he is reminding a world that had grown forgetful of God, which is the precise definition of secularism, that God’s ways are better than those of our world, that in the deepest recesses of our hearts, of our conscience, we want to be meek and merciful and peacemakers and comforted and, yes, persecuted for His sake because we have grown to love Him more than life, better to say, love life more because of Him.

This Gospel, a Gospel of grace and mercy, attracted many in Jesus’ day, but not all. The self-righteous and the scholars of the law were scandalized by Jesus’ teaching. Alas, the self-righteous and the doctors of the law are still scandalized. They say, today, they are scandalized by Pope Francis but they are really scandalized by the Gospel Francis preaches which is, which so obviously is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shorn of any upper middle class ethical pretensions and an almost neurotic concern not to be contaminated by contact with real life, and shorn of its perceived utility for social order, still revolutionary, still challenging each and every one of us.

One such scholar of the law is canonist Ed Peters. He has taken aim at Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl because +Wuerl said, “The frame of reference is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be ‘What does the Gospel really say here.’” Peters objects: “The ‘frame of reference’ for the mission of the Catholic Church has never, ever been the Code of Canon Law, and no canon lawyer I know of has ever, ever claimed otherwise.” Really? In 2010, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted learned that Mercy Hospital in his diocese had performed what he considered an abortion. The facts of the case were murky to be sure. But, in the statement Olmsted issued, he cited canon law, he cited the ethical directives of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and he quoted from an encyclical by Pope John Paul II. He did not once quote from the Gospel. He did not once even so much as mention the Lord Jesus. Mr. Peters supported +Olmsted’s decision and, in doing so, referred to +Olmsted as “a well qualified canonist.” Now, I do not mind it when canonists use the code as their point of reference. The problem is when pastors do: The recently concluded synod was not a synod of canonists but a synod of bishops. +Wuerl’s comments were clearly referring to pastors who turn first to the canons and only secondly to the Gospel. Mr. Peters, who called +Wuerl an “antinomian” in his piece, should apologize.

Cardinal Wuerl also went on EWTN’s “The World Over” last week. If there is a more self-righteous Catholic media personality than that show’s host Raymond Arroyo, I do not know it. He tried a dozen different ways to get the cardinal to set a limit on what the pope might do with the synod’s final document, and to interpret that document in a way that admits no change in doctrine or discipline. Arroyo is a Catholic fundamentalist, repeating the Lord’s words against divorce and only those words. Those who, like Arroyo, oppose the pope are not in the business of upholding the Church’s teaching, only in upholding a teaching, this teaching, and a specific application of this teaching. Cardinal Wuerl deserves a ninth beatitude for his efforts trying to explain the synod to Arroyo: Blessed are the patient!

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is neither self-righteous nor a canonist. He is also one of the nicest people you ever want to meet, and I suspect that his is a pastoral heart, that if he had been a pastor of a large, suburban parish, he would find ways to make sure people are accompanied and loved. But, alas, Dolan has risen through the ranks of the hierarchy at a time when bishops were molded to a model of pastoral leadership that emphasized teaching, and teaching strictly, more than accompaniment. And so, I read this post by +Dolan in the wake of the synod and it makes me sad; I just do not see how this is helpful.

Cardinal Dolan repeats a concern he raised at the synod about the “new minority,” those Catholic families that live out the fullness of the teachings about marriage, even in difficult situations. “They are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement, a warm sense of inclusion,” +Dolan writes. “We cannot let them down!” Indeed we can’t. But, I do not see how additional efforts to reach out to those whose situations are more irregular would let anyone down. Indeed, I think the way to make sure we do not let down those who follow the Church’s teachings in this regard so fully is to make sure that they also embrace the deeper aspect of the Gospel. I would say to them what the Father says to the older son in the parable: “You are always with me and everything I have is yours” and invite them to celebrate the return of those who are seeking anew.

Cardinal Dolan also references an intervention by Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins about the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Collins explained Jesus’ accompaniment of those disciples, concluding, “His presentation of the objective vision of Scripture broke through their subjective self-absorption and, along with his loving presence, brought them to conversion. The disciples of Emmaus accepted the Word of God that challenged them, and … they changed direction and, with burning hearts, raced through the night to Jerusalem to bear joyful witness to the community gathered there.” Cardinal Dolan states that in reaching out to people, we must bring “the full Emmaus” not some watered down version.

Setting aside the issue of whether Ken Langone, who was prominently introduced to Pope Francis on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, has embraced the “full Emmaus” when it comes to Catholic Social Teaching,  I am not sure that Cardinal Collins’ exegesis is true to the text. The text tells us that the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, and then headed back to Jerusalem. The Eucharistic breaking of the bread was not a reward for their conversion but the occasion of their conversion. If anything, the Emmaus story actually buttresses the idea that it is not so much our teaching on divorce that is at issue but our teaching on the Eucharist.

There will be more commentaries on the synod and the issues raised there, to be sure. I am hoping that our theological community will write articles for a general readership explicating some of these issues. During the synod, I linked to two such articles at, which continues to post smart pieces on the internal forum, the role of conscience, and other important issues. Certainly Church leaders should help their people prepare for some change in discipline, not try and hem in the pope: They will look foolish if they spend the next several months denouncing a proposal that the Holy Father might endorse. Most of all, we need to have confidence that the Holy Spirit is moving in the Church and that Jesus remains present wherever two or three are gathered in His name. It is that confidence that will allow us to read the Beatitudes and find encouragement, not only chastisement, for who among us lives out those eight precepts of the new law as fully as we should? We form our consciences, we think and pray on difficult issues, we try to be open to what God is calling us here and now while remaining true and faithful to the tradition that has been given to us. It is not easy, to be sure, but it is what discipleship is all about.


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