Synod Wrap-Up, Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I looked at the upside to the Synod of Bishops. Today I would like to confront some of the false narratives and interpretations that are floating around.

The first false narrative entails a mea culpa. I introduced the meme that there were two “teams” at the synod, which I dubbed “Team Javert” and “Team Valjean” after the two protagonists in Les Miserables. There is some truth in this meme, to be sure, but like all metaphors, it has its limits. As Archbishop Mark Coleridge pointed out in his beautiful last post on the synod,

…what was equally clear by the end was that there was more than politics to the process; there really was “something greater than Solomon”. This was patent at the very end when Pope Francis spoke, leaving us with the sense that this wasn’t just Jorge Bergoglio but Peter speaking to the brothers and sisters. Here was “something greater”. 

Yes, there were clashes of opinions and approaches, but there was also, clearly, a sense of responsibility among those gathered, many if not all answered the Holy Father’s call that they listen to each other patiently and humbly.

The other problem with the Valjean/Javert metaphor is that both are perennial expressions of the religious temperament. There is an ambivalence in our Christian tradition, right smack in the Gospels, and the Holy Father put his finger on it in his closing address to the synod:

The Synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21-30; Ps 129; Lk 11:37-54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25-32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27).

I think for too long in our Church, at least here in the U.S., we have put too much emphasis on the “formulae, laws and divine commandments,” and we have certainly forgotten that they are “made for man and not vice versa.” Some of the interventions by U.S. bishops amounted to pleadings on behalf of the elder brother and the jealous laborers. Still, human beings need structure, we need rules; They are the answers to questions real people have had in the past. The key is that we remember other people today, in a different time, have different questions that require fresh answers. On a personal level, it is funny that thirty years ago, when I was in seminary, I bought into the idea that the culture needed the rules, even while I exempted myself from the more challenging requirements. Today, I have found that I actually do need the rules for myself, but think the culture needs a proclamation of the Gospel that does not lead with the rules. Go figure. I think it is not only that the Church must find a balance between the rules and the mercy of God, each individual Christian must find this balance, leaning one way or the other as their circumstances require.

It is hard to put a finger on the interpretative difficulties posed by the “Xavier Rynne II” series at First Things. The posts there often sounded like the kind of conversation one would expect at one of their editorial board meetings, not a reflection of the discussion going on in the synod. But, a dominant theme was that in discussing marriage and the family, to borrow the paradigm of H. Richard Niebuhr about the relationship of Christ to culture, they think it should be Christ against culture, all the time. The posts had no sense that changed realities in culture demand that we search the depths and breadth our tradition to find more adequate responses. There was no sense that Christ transforms culture too. For them, and especially for George Weigel who penned most of the posts, the tradition started and ended with Pope John Paul II, better to say, with their crimped reading of John Paul II. But, it is Christ who is the Alpha and the Omega.

Put differently, one might ask Weigel et al. next time you see them: So, if John Courtney Murray, S.J., had considered himself bound by Cardinal Ottaviani and Pope Pius IX, the way you think the Church today must be bound by John Paul II, would the Decree on Religious Freedom have come into being? Was not that decree in large part a response to changed circumstances in the ambient culture? Murray went back in the tradition to find things that had not been needed, or if needed unacknowledged, in the decades and centuries before Vatican II. Was he wrong? Certainly, marriage and the family are as culturally entrenched as the relationship between Church and State. Alas, there is little intellectual honesty or rigor in that camp any more. It is all agitprop.

The other night, I spoke on the phone with a friend who is sympathetic to the First Things’ narrative.  “The Germans are all Hegelians,” he said. I suppose he means that the German bishops do not believe there is anything fixed in the revelation in Jesus Christ. I would content by contrast that the Germans grasp that the Church’s doctrine changes in expression, even and especially if it wants to stay the same. You do not have to be a Hegelian to see this, only an historian of the Church. Besides, if the Germans are all Hegelians, the American conservatives are all Kantians, and I am reminded of the observation that Kant never got his hands dirty because he had no hands. That is to say, Kant’s abstractions keep him far from the lived reality of human life. For the syllogism-lovers at the synod, he is a hero, if not exactly a comrade. Pope Francis is no Kantian. He has repeatedly said that reality is more important than ideas and invited the Church to get out of its sacristies and its syllogisms and get its hands dirty tending to the needs of a hurting world.  

Cardinal Pell, one of the leaders of the opposition to any changes in discipline or development of doctrine, claims now that the synod document emphatically does not open a pathway to Communion for the divorced and remarried. Cardinal Burke contends that the document is ambiguous on this point. Here, I think +Burke has the better of the argument. The final synod document is ambiguous, even while it points in a direction. This should not surprise. Most such texts are ambiguous. The Council’s Decree on Religious Liberty is ambiguous in parts. The U.S. Constitution is ambiguous in parts. These ambiguities flow from two facts. First, in forging consensus, sometimes you can’t reach consensus with precision, and so you leave the situation ambiguous in the hopes that clarity and consensus will become more accessible as the fruit of further reflection, at some time in the future. Second, the words “at some time” point to the fact that while a text is promulgated at a specific moment in history, history does not stop. The meanings of words change over time. Our conceptualization of ideas change. Our understanding of the realities those ideas are meant to address changes over time, in part because the realities change. If observing this makes me a Hegelian, so be it.

I will let Cardinals Pell and Burke fight it out over what the text does and does not permit on the issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried. More important to me is what the text clearly steers the Church away from. We should stay away from offensive language about “an adulterous second union.” We should cease the imitations of Anita Bryant when discussing gays and lesbians. (I am told there were several impersonations of Ms. Bryant’s anti-gay tirades in the aula.) There should be no more defining the Church by whom we exclude but, instead, defining the Church by our zeal to reach out to the excluded. There should be no more hatefulness.

This less mean-spirited approach to being a Church should inform the leaders and members of the Church alike. Alas, if you tuned in to EWTN this past week, you will find that not much has changed there. On Raymond Arroyo’s show, Fr. Gerald Murray and Robert Royal repeated the phrase “adulterous second marriage” so many times, it was hard not to notice a certain sadistic delight they took in the phrase. Mr. Arroyo even suggested that a weekend tryst of infidelity was not as bad as a stable, loving second marriage because in the first case, the adultery was in the past and could be forgiven in the confessional. I was wondering if Mrs. Arroyo found this line of reasoning reassuring.

Mr. Edward Pentin trotted out new conspiracy theories: The key paragraphs would not have passed except for the delegates Pope Francis appointed, he charged, but the votes are not cast publicly, so I am not sure how he knows this and, besides, don’t all popes appoint delegates to synods? And, with great hubris, Pentin claimed credit for a more open synod process on account of his previous conspiracy theories. Note to bishops: If you continue to make yourself available to the National Catholic Register and EWTN for interviews and as a source, do not complain to me about their tendentious coverage. You legitimate them by going on their shows and not confronting them on their distortions.

I hope before they left town, the Holy Father had a chance to speak with the representatives of the Orthodox churches who attended the synod. What must they have thought of the repeated denouncing of a practice of their Church for more than a millennium as a betrayal of the Gospel? The biblical fundamentalists on the scriptural text about marriage and its indissolubility seem not to have noticed the more frequent and clear urgings of the Lord that all may be one. How can we reconcile with our other lung, the Eastern churches, without admitting that this practice is not a betrayal of the Gospel, even if we decide not to follow the practice in the Latin Church? We may never agree with our Orthodox brethren about the date for Easter, but the important thing is that they celebrate Easter, not which calendar they use, right? How can we work for unity when we are essentially denouncing them as heretics?

It will be interesting to hear what the American delegates have to say about their experience when they return to their dioceses. Already, Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl has explained that the vast majority of bishops throughout the world support the pope in his effort to reorient the Church towards mercy and away from judgment. I do not doubt it. I simply wonder how many U.S. bishops really get it, how many really do find it difficult to preach on the Gospel parables of the prodigal or the jealous laborers, how many think the important thing is to protect and preserve what we have, and leave the rest to their misbegotten ways. How many still aspire to the chair of Moses?  

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