The Synod: What Does It Mean? Part II

The Synod left many people with a bad taste in their mouths. I am not one of those. As noted yesterday, I think the synod brought some of the messiness of human life into the councils of the hierarchy in a way that was actively discouraged for the past thirty years or so, and Pope Francis seems intent on demanding that the Church remember that everything we do and teach is at the service of preaching the Gospel. The pope wants all of us, including the bishops, to listen not just to each other but to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The question – and it is a question for both the left and the right – is a simple one: Do we have ears to hear?

Let me start with the left because, well, this is NCR. So much of the commentary I have read, both in the secular and religious press, buys into the narrative that progressives “are on the right side of history” - a presumptuous claim with Stalinist roots. Some commentators have been quite clear that they have a distinct agenda, little time for the drawing of distinctions, and no qualms whatsoever about dismissing the traditions of the Church as if they were useless, as if ours is the first generation in the history of Christianity to really get at the essence of the faith. This cast of mind, this bringing of a pre-ordained agenda to the workings and interpretation of the synod frustrates the most basic ecclesial demands of charity and unity. I think when Pope Francis invites us all to listen to each other and to the Holy Spirit, he really means it. Do we on the left really want to listen, or do we think we already know the answers?

The project of dissent was always destined to be a failed project for a variety of reasons. I repeat the observation made long ago by Hans Urs von Balthasar: “ [The] program of Christian progressivism is curiously close to that of its opponent, Christian integralism….Both, ultimately, have reduced the problem of power between God and the world, between grace and nature, to a monistic form which is easy to handle and can be managed by men.” Catholic progressives bring a vitally important quality to the discussions at the synod: We are not afraid to discuss the reality of our lives, and to witness to the integrity of our lives as we accept with love those who do not “measure up” to the strict demands of the law, appealing as Christians must to love as the higher law of the Church. Our arguments must become as fine and as filled with integrity as our witness. They cannot be reduced to politics, which was the fatal flaw with the project of dissent. And, in the age of Francis, when discussions are welcomed and the pope urges everyone to frankness, the project of dissent does not even make sense.

Liberals need to hear what conservatives have to say, even if they do not, in the end, assess equal values to the concerns that are raised. Conservatives are right to note that cultures and traditions do not preserve themselves. The concern of the African bishops to preserve their traditional cultures is not to be dismissed as benighted. There is also something in the concern of some of our American conservative friends that fuzzy doctrine leads to an incoherent and flabby faith. The left, eager to be on the right side of history, should at least take the time to consult history. I have noted before that those who castigate Pope Paul VI (now, Blessed!) for Humanae vitae would do well to consult its predecessor, Casti conubii issued by Pope Pius XI. (Pius XI may or may not be Blessed but he was a damned fine pope!) Pius, too, was considered out-dated, on the “wrong side of history” when he spoke against eugenics. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, in a decision authored by one of the great jurists of all time, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., endorsed the forced sterilization of a mentally handicapped woman. That was the “right side of history.” I would submit that twenty years later, most people would conclude that Pius was right and that it was Holmes – and most educated, elite opinion in the U.S. - that was tragically, outrageously wrong. History does not always offer us specific guidance about the choices we face, as a nation or as a Church. History is the one thing that does not repeat itself. But, history counsels humility not hubris.

The left also has to get its ecclesial priorities right, better to say correct. A friend forwarded me a tweet from, of all people, Mia Farrow. It read: “Disappointed Catholics – imagine no Cardinals, Popes or bankers. All welcome, gay marriage, women and married priests – the Episcopal church.” Now, I do not mean to suggest that Ms. Farrow speaks for informed Episcopalianism. But, the obvious rejoinder is “No apostolic succession, no Real Presence, no ministry of unity in the Petrine office – some deal. And hurry, before they close up shop and turn off the lights.” And, the fact is that you know and I know Catholics who think as Ms. Farrow does. Their agenda has trumped everything and that is the problem. Ideology gets in the way of the unity of faith to which Pope Francis is calling us. It is this prior commitment to a desired outcome, ideologically defined, that keeps the Holy Spirit from our counsels and charity from our discussions. In short, ideology can frustrate genuine progress.

I am not a man of the right, but I will say one thing for them: At this synod, they get high marks for transparency. Cardinal Burke suggested the whole synod, and the discussions it provoked, was misguided. He chided the pope for not speaking out against what was being said – as if it was Cardinal Burke’s role to decide if the pope is negligent or not. It was kind of ironic to hear +Burke complain about the media manipulation when he was the cardinal most often giving interviews to anyone and everyone during the synod’s proceedings. Cardinals Napier and Pell joined in: Pell’s interview had the same "la tradizione sono io” quality as some of +Burke’s pronouncements. (That line did not work out so well for Pius IX and I doubt it will work out any better for +Pell or +Burke.) To them, and their supporters in the Catholic commentariat, we know all that we need to know, Catholic doctrine never changes and can never change, any effort to develop doctrine is the long arm (and fifth column) of secularism intruding into the life of the Church.

Having never met +Pell or +Burke or +Napier, I have never had the chance to ask them: So, if doctrine never changes, what is the Church’s teaching on slavery today and was it always thus? In the 1950s, Fr. Murray was silenced for suggesting that the Church could endorse the separation of Church and State and in the 1960s the Second Vatican Council agreed with Murray, not with those who silenced him. If that was not a change in Church teaching, what was it? Have you, dear cardinals, read some of the things said by synods and councils in previous centuries about the Jews and how does that square with Nostra Aetate?   

Conservatives must be asked if their doctrinal certainty on this issue or that conforms to the certainty of the Gospel of Mercy. They have taken great pains to refute Cardinal Kasper’s treatment of key, difficult issues, but no one, so far as I know, has answered his most central claim: Catholic theology has for too long overlooked the significance of mercy as the principal, revealed attribute of God. Here is a von Balthasar quote for them to ponder: “For either the character of the Christian revelation is seen and grasped in its entirety as the glorification of absolute love by itself, or it is not perceived at all.” Conservatives face the opposite problem from liberals: Their witness must have the integrity that their arguments display. Their arguments have a strange, disembodied quality, there is an evident lack of human sympathy with the divorced and remarried or with the LGBT community. There is – it must be said – an almost sadistic delight in telling those whose lives have been messy or broken that they should nail it to the Cross. Cardinal Burke and his crowd have, unwittingly, made the best case for maintaining the rule on clerical celibacy: Can you imagine these men as parents?

Ut unum sint. That all may be one. How does the Church overcome the polarization that is so obvious and live out this clear command of the Master’s? First, the bishops must take the lead in consulting widely with the Catholic faithful, not just those who already agree with them but especially with those who have stopped going to Mass but in whom, still, the flickering wick of faith burns. They must insist that their internal discussions not become a forum for grandstanding. They must, as the pope indicated, listen to each other. So must the rest of us. We have much to learn from each other and none of us, on the right or the left, has a monopoly on the truth. That monopoly belongs to Jesus Christ whose Spirit is still alive in the Church today. In a word, the pope is calling us all to stretch, get out of our comfort zones, our pat answers and our pre-ordained agendas. “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” Thus, the prophet Isaiah (43:19). This obviously good pope, charged with the task of guaranteeing unity and fidelity of faith, is inviting us all to take those words to heart. It is with fresh eyes, and deep confidence in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, that we must address the difficult questions in the year ahead. And, we must listen to each other, listen, listen, listen.  


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