Team Valjean Steps Up To the Plate

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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Team Valjean at the Synod has apparently decided that they have had enough of Team Javert dominating the news coverage. “Basta!” they said this weekend, first in a presser given by Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich on Friday, then in the Holy Father’s comments at the ceremony marking the anniversary of Pope Paul VI establishing the Synod of Bishops, and, lastly, yesterday in two interviews by Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Let’s looks at these in reverse chronological order.

In his interview here at NCR, Cardinal Wuerl explained what he thinks is the principal tension at the synod. He said:

I think that's what the tension is between those who put the greatest emphasis on simply saying it -- and saying it over and over again -- and those who are saying if it's not being heard, we have to go out and begin to listen so that we know how to say this in a way it will be heard. That's the difference. In neither case are we changing the teaching.

His repetition of those adverbs – “over and over again” – indicates that the cardinal shares the impatience of the people of God with the purely didactic, syllogism-heavy approach of those on Team Javert who think the most important thing is to draw clear lines between the Church and the culture. “You don't go out to meet people where they are to scold them,” he said. “You go out to bring them the truth but sometimes to be heard you have to let the person know you know their struggle if you're going to accompany them at all.”

In his interview with Gerry O’Connell, at America, Cardinal Wuerl also pushed back hard against the suggestion that the synod has been rigged. +Wuerl has taken part in seven synods and pointed out that this is the most open synod in history, that the composition of the drafting committee was actually expanded by Pope Francis, and that given the structures in place, no one could “manipulate” or “rig” the synod even if they tried. Most stunningly, +Wuerl wondered aloud why some people have been floating these conspiracy theories, saying, “I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it. Pope Francis is calling for a church that, to my mind, is much more in contact with the Gospel, with the living out of the Gospel. Not just the articulation of the Gospel, the voicing of the Gospel, the proclaiming of the Gospel, but the personal living of it, and that seems to be what is the most attractive part of this pope, why so many people find him inviting, why so many people follow him, why so many people are coming back to the practice of the faith. And for reasons known only to them, there are some who find this somewhat threatening.” To invoke a once popular Catholic word, Bingo!

On Saturday, Pope Francis said that synodality must be the method of governance for the Church in the third millennium, reminding those assembled that synodality is not in opposition to the Petrine ministry, because synods occur with Peter and under Peter. The pope is not merely thinking about a different structure of governance but a different approach. He said, “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing. It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.” If you have been to, say, a lecture by George Weigel, or read Archbishop Charles Chaput’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, you will know that they do not come across as someone who has something to learn.

“The ‘sensus fidei’ (sense of faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate the ‘ecclesia docens’ (teaching church) and the ‘ecclesia discens’ (learning church) because even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new paths that the Lord is opening up to the church,” Pope Francis said. For the pope, clericalism is never the answer, but neither does he believe the Church is a democracy. In a wonderful turn of events, those who do not like his commendations of synodality, or his invitation to learn and listen, find themselves opposing the pope, which is never a comfortable position for any Catholic to be in, still less a conservative Catholic.

Of course, in the pope’s vision, he would probably not like my labeling the two sides at the synod Team Valjean and Team Javert. I hope that more synodality will make such divisions less likely in the future. But, one of the things I am learning from listening to the reports from the synod is that there is an organized effort to undermine this synod and this papacy. More on that tomorrow.

Finally, we turn to Archbishop Cupich’s presser. Regular readers will know I am a fan of +Cupich. So, it is with reluctance that I say how disappointed I was with his comments on the inviolability of conscience. Here is the man who, upon taking over in Chicago, devised the brilliant manner of honoring his predecessor, Cardinal George, by asking the clergy to include the cardinal in the prayers for the bishop in the canon of the Mass. Here is the man whose op-ed on the Planned Parenthood videos reminded us that our outrage is a good thing, evidence that conscience is alive and well. And, here is the man who, in his extraordinary speech to the Chicago Federation of Labor coined the phrase “consistent ethic of solidarity” to explain the Church’s varied positions that do not fit neatly into our political categories. +Cupich is innovative, he pushes the envelope, he finds the phrase that makes you see things in a different light.

Despite the hue and cry from LifeSiteNews and elsewhere, all +Cupich did at his presser was parrot the catechism. Here is the relevant section from my colleague Joshua McElwee’s report on the presser:

"I try to help people along the way," said Cupich. "And people come to a decision in good conscience."

"Then our job with the church is to help them move forward and respect that," he said. "The conscience is inviolable. And we have to respect that when they make decisions and I've always done that."

Here is Paragraph 1778 of the Catechism:

Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:

Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise.... [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.50

The paragraphs before and after 1778 are similar.

Of course, I jest. The Jansenists in our midst tend to forget the Church’s teachings on conscience and its inviolability and, instead, think all consciences must be the same, and that really conscience might as well be the ability to perform rote memorization of pre-Francis encyclicals. Actually, U.S. neo-con renderings of pre-Francis encyclicals, because it becomes clearer every day that too many (in the States at least) thought Pope John Paul II was who George Weigel and Fr. Richard Neuhaus said he was. As I noted the other day, it was John Paul II who, in his encyclical Novo millennio inuente, encouraged the Church’s pastors to embrace “the ancient pastoral wisdom which, without prejudice of their authority, encouraged pastors to listen more widely to the entire People of God.”

Speaking of Neuhaus and Weigel, within hours of +Cupich’s presser First Things offered “an alternative to the position taken by Archbishop Cupich,” in the form of some quotes from Bl. John Henry Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, a tract to which I have made reference frequently in these pages. I do not see how anything +Cupich said contradicts anything Newman wrote. +Cupich did not say conscience is no different from whim. Indeed, he grasps what Newman grasps but which our friends on Team Javert seem not to realize: Conscience is the voice of God in a person’s heart, it is already present and active. Team Javert thinks conscience is, or should be, their voice in the other person’s heart and they approach the issue of pastoral praxis as if it amounted to little more than renewing your subscription to First Things and attending lectures at the Napa Institute.

I would note that I differ a bit from the emphasis both Newman’s letter and the catechism place on the functioning of conscience. Both tend to focus too much on acts. You can re-read the first sentence of paragraph 1778 noted above. Newman wrote, in a section quoted in the First Things article:

[Conscience is] the highest of all teachers, yet the least luminous. . . .[because] the sense of right and wrong, which is the first element in religion, is. . . . so easily puzzled, obscured, perverted. . . . so biased by pride and passion, so unsteady in its course.

I do not concur that a sense of right and wrong is the first element in religion. I think conscience goes deeper than evaluating our acts. Conscience is first and foremost about our stance in relation to the other and to The Other (and our stance in relation to the other in light of our stance to the Other). It is about the openness of heart and mind to the gift of the other. It is about wonder in the face of the other. It is about being true to one’s heart by opening one’s heart to the other.  Conscience is about love, first and foremost, and only then and consequently about right and wrong. Here is how my great friend and mentor, the late, great Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, citing Levinas, put it in a short video. Watching that video again I am reminded that in our last conversations before his death last year, whenever we spoke about this papacy, Lorenzo would say, “Isn’t it amazing!” He loved Francis. How I wish he were still here to help me to see things I do not always glimpse on the first pass.

Of course, the reason the Javert crowd was upset with +Cupich’s comments is that, when asked, he allowed that those comments applied to gays and lesbians too. “I think that gay people are human beings too, and they have a conscience,” he said. Imagine that! He stated that gays and lesbians were human beings. The nerve of him!

And, on the thorny issue of communion for the divorced and remarried, +Cupich told the story of a woman who was divorced and remarried. Her son committed suicide. She was, understandably, angry at God. When it came time for communion at her son’s funeral, she approached the priest, her arms folded in front of her, to obtain a blessing. The priest said to her, “No, today you have to receive.” The question for all those in a tizzy about the Church developing its pastoral practice is this: Was the priest wrong that day to insist the grieving mother receive communion?

+Wuerl’s words about mercy ring true. +Cupich’s words about conscience ring true. The words of that priest to that mother at the funeral ring true. And, by true I mean this. They may contradict this canon or that, they may stretch our received understanding of the Church’s practice, but they ring true the way the words of the Samaritan rang true when he told the innkeeper to care for the man who had fallen in among robbers and he would pay him whatever he spent on the way back. That is conscience alive to God’s grace. That is what mercy and love look like. That is the Gospel. Now, as then, there are people who walk away sad or angry or leaking to Edward Pentin. Now, as then, there are people who can’t bring themselves to believe that God’s mercy trumps their sense of what is owed them. Now, as then, the proclamation of the Gospel brings opposition from many of the religious leaders of the day. Now, as then, the Gospel will triumph and the wisdom of the world will be confounded by the love of God.





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