Weigel Misunderstands the Synod - And Much Else

by Michael Sean Winters

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George Weigel has offered his take on the Synod on the Family, held last October, and what he believes should happen in preparation for the second synod this coming October, in an article at First Things. Alas, just about everything he writes is wrong and/or a collection of half-truths, but his deceits and misinformations are deployed for a purpose: Weigel clearly thinks the best thing the Synods could do is re-state the teachings of his hero Pope John Paul II, adopt his own culture war analysis, and be done with the issues raised in the synod hall.

Weigel starts by comparing the discussion at the synod over whether or not to make public the reports of the small group discussions (the circuli minores) with the infamous “Black Thursday” at the end of the third session of the Second Vatican Council. That was the day when the leaders of the Council withdrew a planned vote on the Decree on Religious Liberty from the agenda in the closing days of the session. As Weigel correctly notes, the majority of the Council fathers were deeply disturbed, drew up a petition to Pope Paul VI, and Paul agreed that the topic would be the first item on the agenda for the fourth session. The Decree benefited greatly from the revisions in the interim, and it was passed by a large majority 2,308 to 70.

Weigel’s comparison of that moment at the Council with the recent synod fails because, while it is true a majority of the synod fathers wanted the reports made public, Weigel mistakenly conflates the majority in favor of publication with the number of synod fathers who were opposed to the “+Kasper proposal,” that a way be found to re-admit the divorced and re-married to communion. Weigel also believes this same fanciful majority was opposed to any more sympathetic language directed at gay and lesbian Catholics. For him the synod was convoked to discuss “the family and the Church’s pastoral response to the sexual revolution,” which is not exactly how Pope Francis put it.

\In fact, according to my sources, the bishops who caused a fuss at the recent synod were the distinct minority, about forty in number, and they had voiced their opposition to the entire synod process from start to finish. The Latin American bishops were strongly supportive of the general direction the synod was taking, as were the German and French bishops. Most of the Eastern European, curial and English-speaking bishops were opposed, with notable exceptions among the English-speaking bishops and a few curial bishops also supportive of the process and its results. The Scotch, Belgian and Dutch delegations were also mostly opposed and the Africans were in favor of some things and opposed to others. When Cardinal Erdo finished reading the interim report at the end of the first week, there was sustained applause, including from the man in white. Then the opponents took to the microphones to voice their concerns in strong language.

Weigel takes a swipe at the “confused and distorted reporting” on the synod. I actually think the reporting was pretty good, though I agree with him that the initial proposal not to release the texts of the interventions was a mistake, one that invited speculation. But, although the reporter in me wants as much information as possible, I can appreciate the counter-argument that less information permitted an atmosphere of greater candor within the aula. It is a bit ironic, though, to hear all these conservatives complaining about the shoddy reportage when it was their hero, Cardinal Burke, who was giving interview after interview during the synod.

The swipe at the press, however, pales by comparison to the slur Weigel levels at the German bishops. Under a section heading “The German Problem,” Weigel says that the reason the Germans are so committed to finding a different pastoral solution to the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics is because they are keen to protect the “Church tax,” which funds the churches in Germany. I do not believe that Cardinals Kasper and Marx and Woelke and the rest are money-grubbers. I do assert, confidently, that they are serious theologians with legitimate concerns about current pastoral practice. Of course, there are complications with the “Church tax,” and the German episcopate has not always dealt brilliantly with those complications. But, surely Weigel is aware that similar difficulties arise here in the United States from our system of funding ministries. He is slated to speak at the 2015 Napa Institute Conference, an organization that brazenly peddles the access it provides to higher clergy for its well-heeled attendees. Certainly, the Knights of Columbus has used its financial throw weight to steer the hierarchy into a more confrontational stance towards the Obama administration than was necessary in the fight over the HHS mandate and how it applied to for-profit employers. I do not mind so much that America’s rich expect the bishops to kiss their rings, rather than the other way round, but I wish they would not first put those rings in their back pockets.

I also find it more than a little amusing that Weigel places all the blame for the decline in membership and sacramental practice in the German Church at the feet of that country’s episcopate. He calls the Church in that country “sclerotic.” I recall an old adage that most parishioners know the name of their pastor and the name of the pope, and a far smaller group knows the name of their bishop. The decline in the German Church happened on the watch of Weigel’s hero Pope John Paul II, but you wouldn’t know it from Weigel’s telling of the tale. Pope, now Saint, John Paul II appointed most of the German bishops. He oversaw the workings of their Episcopal conference. It is true the German Church has never been particularly ultramontane, but John Paul II was plenty forceful. But, in Weigel’s world, John Paul’s leadership can never be blamed so the episcopate makes for a handy scapegoat.

Weigel contrasts the “sclerotic” Church in Germany with the Church in Africa, whose leaders, he asserts, “also suggested, implicitly if not explicitly, that bishops representing dying local churches ought not be exporting Western decadence to the Global South, where Catholicism was growing exponentially by preaching the truths of the Gospel with compassion but also without compromise.” The phrase “Western decadence” stands out. Does Weigel mean by this that ending the centuries-long persecution of gay and lesbian people is a sign of decadence? Certainly, some African bishops have been courageous in opposing some of the harsh anti-gay laws being proposed in their countries, and others not so much. Where does Weigel stand on such proposals? It is true that marriage retains in all traditional cultures its hold on the imagination and, therefore, on the practice of the people, which is a good thing, but does he think the Church in Africa will be any better able to withstand the whirlwinds of modern consumer capitalism, which are the truest and most obvious cause of the decline in marriage culture in the West?

In order to set the world right, Weigel believes that next year’s synod needs some faculty members from the John Paul II Institutes on Marriage and the Family. I know some of those people, and they are indeed wonderful, faithful Catholics. I also know that, for example, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” can, in careless hands, quickly descend into something comical if it were not so offensive. And, to prove my point, here is how Weigel characterizes the work of those faculty members:

For they (and others also uninvited to synod 2014) have advanced an integral Catholic anthropology that meets the assault of the sexual revolution, not by acquiescing to it, but by challenging it to a debate over who takes human sexuality more seriously: those who see in faithful and fruitful married love an icon of the interior life of the Trinity, or those who reduce sex to another contact sport?

Are those the only options, icon of the Trinity or contact sport? This is the kind of polemical caricature that the more serious scholars at the Institute do not embrace, and, more importantly, that Pope Francis so obviously and so properly wants to move beyond. This is the kind of reductionism that makes for cute bumper stickers in the culture wars, darts throw at “the opponents,” as it were, but it is not the kind of attitude or intellectual framework that should characterize pastors called to follow the example of the Master who warned, “Judge ye not that ye be not judged.”

Weigel also believes the preparations for the next synod would benefit if they follow another of his recommendations. He writes, “The Church’s discussion over the next year, and its interaction with the culture on the issues of marriage and the family, should be more data-driven than anecdotal.” Data-driven? This reminds me of the suggestion in his book “Evangelical Catholicism” that the curia should adopt English as its working language. How is that proposal working out for you Mr. Weigel? In both instances, there is a tone-deafness that is astounding. It is true that there is important sociological data on family life, although Weigel and other Catholic neo-conservatives tend to read that data in a highly partisan manner.  (Cf. my review of his colleague Mary Eberstadt’s book here and here) But, more importantly, I think the key point the Holy Father keeps trying to make, on this and other concerns, is that the “data” the Church needs to deploy in its discussions on the family is the data of the Gospel, first and foremost the Lord Jesus’ constant call to mercy in the face of opposition from the Pharisees of His day, and the ways the Holy Spirit is calling us today to manifest that mercy in our Church. That is the heart of the much maligned +Kasper proposal.  I note in passing that Weigel, and others who are so intent on debunking +Kasper fail to acknowledge the role this discussion has on our relationship with the Orthodox and the prospects for unification. The fact that the Orthodox had a different pastoral practice towards failed marriages before the Great Schism is an important fact in the discussion.

A side of me feels sorry for Weigel. His sources are not what they once were and his ability to comprehend what Pope Francis is trying to achieve is so crimped by the ideological blinders he can’t seem to shed, his analysis is wildly off-the-mark. Nothing in his essay suggests hope or even possibility. Nothing rings true. For so long, he overlooked the problems in John Paul’s pontificate, and he is intent to continue looking at that pontificate with rose-colored glasses, but Pope Francis does not have the luxury. He must cope with the messes John Paul left as well as the successes.

Weigel’s prose these days has all the freshness of a late nineteenth century newspaper account: It may be well written, but it is not clear why anyone would take it as something significant or incisive. Which is a shame. Weigel is a smart man who has studied the Church closely for a long time. Even if I have not agreed with his positions, in the past I have found it useful to consider his arguments. Now, he just seems out of tune, maybe not even using the same hymnal. The best thing bishops can do in prepping for the 2015 synod is to read what he writes, and then do the opposite.

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