Reactions to the Synod

by Michael Sean Winters

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The reactions to the synod’s midway relatio continue to pour in. You would think someone denied the divinity of Christ. But, the emotions are strong because people are aware that something big is going on in Rome, they have seen it now for a little more than a year and one half, a new way of evangelizing, one based on accompaniment and encounter as the method, and they want to know if the bishops will stand with the pope or not.

At issue is something that should not be confusing. No one – repeat no one – including especially Cardinal Walter Kasper, has suggested the Church change its teachings on any particular issue. The change that is called for is different, but equally foundational. How do we preach the Gospel. My own archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, has said on numerous occasions that a pastor’s job is to teach the faith of the Church and to accompany the flock. This is precisely right and no one could disagree with this simple formulation. Furthermore, in +Wuerl’s case, the two go together because when he teaches the faith, he does not hurl the truth of the faith in other people’s faces, he presents those teachings with sensitivity and clarity. The problem is that some of the brethren teach the faith in such a way that it precludes further accompaniment, teaching the faith with wagging finger, turning the faith into a wet rag that is thrown in other people’s faces, to borrow a phrase first used by Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

+Wuerl and +O’Malley, of course, have not been shy about their enthusiasm for Pope Francis. Not so Cardinal Raymond Burke. His latest interview at Catholic World Report is frankly shocking. I am tempted to point out to Cardinal Burke that as a member of the Roman Curia, the sole basis of his authority is derivative: His job is to assist the pope in the pope’s ministry, not the other way round. +Burke apparently thinks he is a blogger or a campaign strategist, telling the pope he is inattentive to his responsibilities, trying to shame him into backing down. The other bishops need to avoid being intimidated. They need to decide if they will stand with and trust the Holy Father – and the Holy Spirit – and speak out against Cardinal Burke’s divisive rhetoric.

In a post at National Review yesterday, George Weigel claimed that the synodal text published by Cardinal Erdo on Monday was no big deal. He essentially blames the whole misunderstanding on the media, always a useful target. If this is true, then I have a simple question for America’s foremost analyst of all things Catholic: If nothing much changed, why is Cardinal Burke in such a snit?

I am not sure why neo-cons like Weigel assert so strongly that “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.”  Is this true? I imagine that the variables that constitute the religious health of any given religion are many and difficult to weigh. Certainly, this line of thought conflicts with the “smaller, purer Church” theme these same Catholic neo-cons put forward at other times. Which is it? And, while I will concede, happily and without reserve, the idea that people respond to the Gospel when it is preached in its fullness, I would point out that Pope Francis is doing precisely that, preaching the Gospel in its fullness, and our Gospel calls us to overcome boundaries not to build them. Instead of calling fellow Catholics “cafeteria Catholics” as Weigel has done these long, many years (all the while ignoring the part of the cafeteria that served up healthy portions of Catholic Social Teaching), Weigel must answer a question: How many people did you bring to the fullness of the faith by wagging your finger at them?

Weigel clearly hopes the Church “will not cave” but why does he use such a confrontational description for what Pope Francis clearly sees as a culture of accompaniment and encounter? And, in the context of the synod, the question is “cave to whom?” I checked the roster and there is no representative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State among the observers. The culture warrior extraordinaire seems not to recognize that his understanding of evangelization is not exactly Pope Francis’ understanding, lacking in relationality and a sense of sacramentality, dripping instead in political calculation and a desire to prove points and draw lines in the sand. What will it take?  After “Who am I to judge?” After Chicago? After Cardinal Erdo’s text? How many nails need to be put into the “Weigel as definitive Vatican interpreter” coffin before we can bury it?

A similar reduction of what is going on in Rome came from the left. In an article in the Chicago Tribune, we read this:

Ellen Euclide, a gay Catholic who works as programs director for Chicago-based Call to Action, a national church reform group, said the document answers some of those prayers. But she noted that the report calls for compassion without compromise, indicating no church doctrine is likely to change.

"There's a lot more to pray for," Euclide said. "It's a really great sign. A lot of people are happy with this as a small step. So far we still haven't seen actual changes in church teachings or the policies. This is still just a change in tone and language, which is really what we've seen from the pope since he came into the office. It's a breath of fresh air, but it's still just talk."

Here is the political agenda from the left, dismissing the Pope Francis revolution as some kind of public relations gimmick. Am I the only one who finds it strange that a Catholic would speak dismissively of “just a change in tone and language,” when said Catholic belongs to a faith which holds as canonical the great opening lines of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” Is the love that Pope Francis communicates in his words and actions “just talk”? As I noted about one week into this papacy, we will see a severe and nasty split within the Catholic left, between those of us who are thrilled with the Holy Father’s focus on the poor and the culture of accompaniment, and those who have a political agenda that trumps all, an agenda that shares with its conservative opponents a strange fascination with the doings of the human pelvis and a myopic dismissal of the priority of the call to serve the poor. Look for words like “betrayal” to pop up on the left as well as the right. In both cases, it will be evidence of ideology trumping faith.

Poor Father Z has become a debate judge, picking apart at the text the way a fundamentalist picks at the Bible. He and the folks at LifeSiteNews and elsewhere are in high dudgeon. I fear that about 20% of the U.S. bishops agree with this hyper-ventilating nonsense. Why is it so important to hold on to the two words “intrinsically disordered”? Isn’t there something juvenile in this need to put ourselves above others, those intrinsically disordered people. In the Gospels, Jesus upbraids those who take pride in their own holiness. And, our Jesuit pope is again taking on the Jansenists. I was just reading last night that when the Jesuits began advocating frequent confession and communion, the Jansenists opposed this, because they believed human beings were never really worthy to receive communion, even though the early Church, which the Jansenists claimed to follow, practiced frequent communion. What is it about the spiritual temperament that it occasions in some people this resistance to helping people come closer to God? As Cardinal Kasper noted in his book Mercy the Lord Jesus’ preaching was met with applause and approbation until he began to insist on the wideness of God’s mercy. That is when the opposition began. That is where the opposition still begins.



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