Is Pope Francis Right about the Synod?

At his General Audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke about the Synod on the Family. He thanked the media for their work but added that often the vision of the media was a bit “in the style of sports or political coverage,” and “they often spoke of two teams, pro and con, conservatives and liberals, and so on.” The Pope explained that, first of all he asked the Synod Fathers to speak frankly and courageously and to listen with humility. He noted there was no prior censorship and that everyone had the chance to say what was in his heart. The meeting, he said, began with a very frank discussion of the serious pastoral challenges affecting the Family, in the light of the fundamental truths about the sacrament of Matrimony – its indissolubility, unity, fidelity and openness to life. The Holy Father said “there was no clash between factions, but a dialogue between the Bishops, which came after a long process of preparation and now continues, for the good of the family, the Church and society. I have been asked,” said the Pope, “if the Synod Father’s fought?” The Holy Father replied, “I don’t know about ‘fought’ but they had strong words. This is freedom, this is just the kind of freedom that there is in the Church.”

So, is he right? The question is somewhat ridiculous. He was in the synod aula and the rest of us were outside, in my case, very far outside, at my desk in suburban Washington, reading reports about what was going on. But, we journalists were also not engaged in the writing of fiction. We reported on the divisions with the hierarchy in part because the hierarchy usually is at such pains to mask over the fact that they entertain divergent points of view. And, in advance of the synod, there were the dueling texts from Cardinal Walter Kasper and from five cardinals who objected to Kasper’s approach to the thorny issue of communion for the divorced and remarried. Every morning it seemed there was a new interview from Cardinal Raymond Burke, suggesting that Kasper and those who think like him were flirting with heresy. And, lastly, there were the final vote totals which demonstrated broad consensus on many points but also showed that on some of the most contentious issues, there was only majority support.

Could it be that both narratives are correct? What does Pope Francis see that the rest of us need to see? The answer, I would suggest, gets to the heart of the Francis Revolution.

This synod was different. As he noted himself, the pope called for frank discussion and he got it, and that frank discussion showed wide divergences of opinion on some issues. Clearly, looking at his closing address to the synod, the pope is more concerned about the synodal process than he is committed to this or that proposition. Here is a hermeneutical key: For the synodal process to work, the participants must discern together. The easiest way to frustrate that discernment is for any of the participants to begin with the belief that he or she knows the truth and knows it in its entirety. This is not usually stated so boldly. The person who thinks this way invariably attributes their opinion to Jesus Christ. And, of course, all of us as Christians are called to conform ourselves to Christ.

Pope Francis’ commitment to the synodal process requires that all of us in the Church see Christ as the Way and the Life if we are to encounter Him as the Truth. This is the heart of the Francis Revolution. The pope seems acutely aware that if any of us isolates “the Truth” as if the Virgin had given birth to a syllogism, we will gradually turn the Church into a museum piece, an artifact collecting dust on a mantle. There will be no newness. There will be only what some of us have come to call the “culture war” approach in which we Catholics have the truth, everybody else lacks it, and the best thing for the Church to do is to erect clear boundaries between us and them. Don’t take my word for it: Read George Weigel who wrote in an article about the synod:

The experience of the 20th and early 21st centuries suggests that there is an iron law built into the Christian encounter with modernity, according to which Christian communities that maintain a clear sense of their doctrinal and moral boundaries survive and even flourish, while Christian communities whose doctrinal and moral boundaries become porous wither and eventually die. 

Mark Silk, in an article I linked to yesterday, contrasted the pope’s words in his recent interview with Elisabetta Pique with a statement from Bishop Thomas Paprocki to make the point as well: What we are dealing here is not a particular debate about the divorced and remarried or whether gays should be “welcomed” or merely “provided for.” What we are dealing with is a fundamentally different understanding of what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. The Francis Revolution is primarily an ecclesiological revolution.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley made a similar point in his address last year to the Knights of Columbus when he said, “The truth is not a wet rag that we throw in other people’s faces.” Was Cardinal O’Malley merely erecting a straw man? I suspect he was, in fact, challenging a certain type of culture warrior approach to evangelization that has failed and failed badly, not because it has not recruited greater numbers but because it has strayed from the Way of Christ.

There is a related revolution that is at the heart of the Pope Francis papacy, one that has to do with systematic theology but with obvious ecclesiological ramifications, and it is related to Cardinal Kasper’s book – not the one on marriage, but the one on mercy. I reviewed that book earlier this year here and here. Kasper argues that mercy is the quintessential attribute of God and that, regrettably, theologians have paid insufficient attention to it. Placing mercy at the center of the Church’s theology does not negate any particular moral teaching of the Church, but it gives those moral teachings a different context. I am still wrestling with this – wrestling because I think the implications are widespread and very, very deep – but I think we saw something of its significance in something the pope said yesterday at his morning Mass. “God loves is free just as a mother’s love is for her child,” the pope said. And the child "allows himself to be loved" - "this is the grace of God.”  He continued: “But many times, just to be sure, we want to control the grace.” He said that “in history and also in our lives we are tempted to transform grace into a kind of a merchandise, perhaps saying to ourselves something like ‘I have so much grace,’ or, ‘I have a soul clean, I am graced.’ In this way this beautiful truth of God's closeness slips into a kind spiritual book-keeping: ‘I will do this because it will give me 300 days of grace ... I will do that because it will give me this, and doing so I will accumulate grace.’ But what is grace? A commodity? That’s what it appears. And throughout history this closeness of God to his people has been betrayed by this selfish attitude, selfish, by wanting to control grace, to turn it into merchandise.”

This splendid sermon of the pope’s stands in stark contrast to the comments by a Catholic philanthropist in a report about the Koch Brothers funding an economics institute at Creighton University. Gail Werner-Robertson, who says she shares many of the Koch Brothers thoughts about economic life, told the Omaha newspaper, “I’m fascinated with the history of many things, but particularly economics and why different countries have different levels of prosperity,” she told The World-Herald. “We are the most blessed country on the face of the earth. ... It’s really been a passion of mine: What do we have different that maybe other countries don’t have?” When I read those words – “We are the most blessed country on the face of the earth” – in this context, I could not help wondering if she was referring to America’s affluence. I suspect she was and I have heard similar things said by others. I read that, and I wondered if I had missed that line in the Beatitudes, the line “Blessed are the vastly rich.” But, it is not just the relationship of wealth to moral and spiritual health that is distorted in our experience of American Catholicism, it is the neo-Pelagianism that sees grace as a commodity, one evidenced by the accumulation of wealth when, if memory serves, it is the accumulation of suffering that brings us closest to Christ.


So, yes, the pope is right about what happened at the synod, and so was the media, and that is what is really exciting. Because, instead of the Church turning into a debating society, Pope Francis is calling us to the work, the hard work, of learning from each other. I know that some of my friends on the right think that the pope’s methods sow, or at least invite, confusion. I invite them to approach Francis as I approached Pope Benedict, not as a debating partner, but as someone with something to teach me. I was richly rewarded by my acquaintance with Pope Benedict’s rich theological vision and I pray and hope that those who fear confusion will be rewarded by listening to what Pope Francis is calling us all to, a vision of the Church that is driven not by a conviction that we, and we alone, possess the truth, but that we, as a Church, can encounter the depths of Christ’s truth only if we also adopt His ways and His life.




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