Contra George Weigel on the Synod

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last year, when conservative synod fathers opposing any change in Church practice were not busy denouncing the manipulation of the synod via the media, they were busy manipulating the synod via the media. It was almost comic. By a rough estimate, three-quarters of the leaks coming from the synod discussions all came from the right. This year, they have upped the ante.

At First Things, George Weigel is posting a series of reports from the synod under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne II,” invoking Fr. Francis X. Murphy’s articles under that pen name in the New Yorker during Vatican II.  Rynne 2.0, however, is nothing but a launching pad for attacks on the pope.

In one of his first posts, yesterday, Weigel attempted to challenge the synod’s procedures and the composition of the drafting committee appointed by the pope. It is clear he has sources within the synod and ranges himself among them. He writes, “Will a majority of Synod fathers agree with some of their number who have already concluded that this commission cannot be repaired by expansion (i.e., adding new members), but must be rejected by the full Synod and a new slate chosen—thus following the model by which Cardinal Achille Lienart and others changed the course of the first session of the Second Vatican Council in its opening days?”

George Weigel is no Francis Murphy. George Weigel is no Achille Leinart. At this rate, by synod's end, Weigel is going to think he is the third person of the Blessed Trinity.

Not for the first time, Weigel’s reach for a metaphor shows nothing except his lack of historical understanding. When the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, many of the world’s bishops did not know each other from Adam. There was no synod of bishops. Not only countries had a vibrant tradition of episcopal collegiality as we did in the U.S. CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ conference was only seven years old and had only one meeting. In the nineteen year reign of Pope Pius XII, there had only been two consistories, so many cardinals did not even know each other well. To compare Cardinal Leinart’s sensible suggestion that the Council fathers take some time to get to know each other before nominating candidates for conciliar offices was very different from Pope Francis’ decision to appoint key synod fathers, from all the different language groups and continents, some like Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl with extensive experience running a synod, to serve on the drafting committee Weigel thinks is tilted towards conclusions he does not like.

And, as he makes clear, his feelings are deeper than liking or not liking. He writes of the drafting committee:

Its membership includes serious churchmen, but as one Synod father put it, very few of the commission’s members have been vocal, public supporters of the Church’s classic teaching and practice on Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly-remarried. Moreover, the commission includes none of those who have most vocally defended that teaching as irreformable because of its basis in divine Revelation. It is also striking that none of the elected American, Canadian, or Australian, or Polish Synod fathers are members of the commission, just as it is striking that none of the four Synod delegate-presidents are members. 

Let’s dissect these charges line by line. I have on my bookshelf a copy of a book, published this year, by Cardinal Wuerl in which he holds forth the Church’s “classic teaching” on the issue of marriage - and other issues – very clearly. Weigel claims that none of the members of the drafting committee have focused on the fact that the Church’s teachings are “irreformable,” but, of course, the Church “reformed” its teachings on marriage at the Council of Trent, with the promulgation of the universal code of canon law in 1917, and at the Second Vatican Council. He notes that none of the “elected American” fathers are on the drafting commission, but that is a ruse: Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Dolan both declined to be elected by the USCCB last November because they knew that they would be attending in their role as members of the Pontifical Council on the Synod. As for the four Synod delegate presidents, I am guessing that the pope thought they would be busy running the discussions, which is a different job from taking notes with a view towards compiling a final report. You can bet that Weigel never objected to the synod fathers Pope St. John Paul II named to the drafting committees to the synod’s over which he presided.

There are other outrageous charges in Weigel’s article. He is deeply disturbed that the new procedures limit the prepared speeches to three minutes, rather than the previous five minutes. Weigel opines, “Imagine Athanasius at Nicaea I agreeing to confine his remarks on Arianism to a three-minute ‘intervention.’ (Or, if you want to stretch your imagination even further, conjure up the vision of that first council inviting those sympathetic to Arius to help construct the Nicene Creed.)” Wow – would an additional two minutes have been enough for Athanasius? And the analogy to Arius reveals how Weigel views the discussion. Arius was a heretic. Does Weigel think the members of the drafting committee are heretics? Does he think Pope Francis is in the habit of appointing heretics?

Weigel is upset with the way the deliberations within the synod hall will be communicated to the press and to the rest of the world. He states, “Filtered reports on the Synod will be given at daily press conferences, the speakers being chosen by the Synod general secretariat—presumably, for their reliability in conveying the messages that Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, and Archbishop Bruno Forte want conveyed.” That “presumably” contains more than a presumption. It contains a smear and not just against +Baldiserri and +Forte. The Holy Father took part in the meetings of the Council for the Synod. He approved these procedures. Is Weigel suggesting the pope is deliberately stacking the deck? Of course, as a member of the guild, I wish there was more information flowing to the press. But, I am deeply sympathetic to the pope’s obvious intention of creating a climate in which the synod fathers can speak freely, with a view towards discerning the truth of the matters before them, a discussion and a discernment that is made more difficult by klieg lights.

I also suspect – and this article gives credence to my suspicion – that the pope’s enemies will not be shy about leaking to any and all of their favored members of the guild, and that the pope’s allies need to find ways to deal with that. I have noted before that the Church desperately needs some familial conversations, in private, but we need to acknowledge that such conversations are well nigh to impossible in the current media climate, and make the necessary adjustments. And, if you are reading this, and you are a synod father who supports the pope, and you think the real story needs to get out, give me a call!

What comes through in these commentaries by Weigel is that he does not really think there should have been a synod in the first place, that there is really nothing to discuss, that after his hero, St. Pope John Paul II, went to his eternal reward, the Holy Spirit went into retirement too. I would not even bother to respond except that some synod fathers have Weigel’s ear and he likely has theirs. But, let us be clear: Despite his occasional attempts to portray himself as aligned with Pope Francis, Weigel, like Edward Pentin, is hell bent on undermining the synod, creating a narrative of conspiracy that will allow them to contest any results they do not like. It is an ugly and pernicious business they have undertaken. 

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