Synod Day 4 – Do We Have Anything Urgent to Say?

At a conference at the North American College (NAC) in Rome yesterday sponsored by Crux, the Boston Globe’s new Catholic website (video here), Australian Cardinal George Pell remarked that he was going to be a bit “ecclesiastically incorrect.” He noted the high level of trouble the family is in, not just in the developed countries, but around the world – and the quite difficult situations a conscientious bishop very quickly encounters. “I might also be tempted to hope that Christ had been a bit softer on divorce,” he concluded, “But He wasn’t. And I stick with Him.”

Perhaps the most trenchant formulation of the whole subject the Synod is wrestling with that has emerged so far this week.

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan participated in the same seminar. Perhaps his most interesting contribution was to lay out the structure of each day’s work, a structure he helped design. The Synod opens each morning with prayer, of course, then spends a few minutes in reading and meditating on Scripture. The bishops and other Church officials then listen to one of the Catholic couples invited to make a presentation. Only then, are there the more formal interventions and spontaneous remarks.

A lot of the talk in these early days, according to several sources has focused on a different language and a more “gradualist” approach to reaching out to people. Cardinal Dolan made clear that the bishops are aware that this necessary adaptation to people for whom the old language doesn’t resonate cannot be an excuse for “sidestepping” the truth. (Though truth be told, that’s exactly what he himself did when a reporter asked him at the Crux event about his decision to be Grand Marshal at the next St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in which he agreed that gays could march for the first time.)  

Dolan harkened back to the opening of Vatican II, when St. John XXIII sought a similar way of putting the Faith in terms that would make it more cogent, more effective, more evangelical in the modern world. Given the ambivalences following the Council, the example is not a particularly happy one.

But the question of style was one of the questions that had already come to the fore in the work-plan, the Instrumentum laboris, which we’ve referred to several times in this series. Dolan even repeated that document’s specific complaint that the language of natural law seems to have no hold on contemporary culture – and therefore natural law truths must be presented via some other language.

Perhaps so. But it’s when the more specific Biblical language is at stake that the whole project seems to start wandering into feebleness in its very attempt to find a more modern idiom. It’s unnecessary to repeat here the old complaint that the language of “sin” has disappeared – most vernacular Masses until very recently began with an acknowledgement of “the times we have failed to live up to the fullness of the Gospel.” It’s only the new translation of the Mass that has forced us to acknowledge again that we “have greatly sinned.”

To notice this is not to be fixated on the idea of sin, but to make the most obvious of observations about the discussion we’re hearing, and the Jesus that Cardinal Pell says he will stick with. God didn’t need to come into the world and die a horrible death on a Cross if all we poor suffering human creatures are doing is “making poor choices.” No one so far, it seems, has come out with words to that effect, but it’s hard not to sense that the whole thrust of things so far has been drifting that way so as not to frighten anyone away. And in the process, is a sense of urgency about Christ’s saving action being muted as well?

           Cardinal Pell: Hell stick with Jesus in the matter of divorce

Is the Church that desperate for new members? I confess to thinking it startling that Cardinal Dolan and others have found it necessary to say that there’s “no sense of panic” – even a certain lightheartedness – at the Synod. I didn’t expect there to be – but now that someone has denied it, I’m wondering if just maybe there is, simmering right beneath the surface. And maybe above. That might not be so bad – not full blown panic, which is never good – but a sense of urgency about the seriousness of the situation.

In addition, to separate doctrine and the language in which that doctrine is expressed is not as neat a process as many seem to think. John O’Malley S.J., a liberal historian of Vatican II, has written about the revolution that accompanied John XXIII’s call for a new language:

At stake were almost two different visions of Catholicism: from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.

Of course, both elements on either side of these alleged pairs of opposites belong in a fully Catholic vision – “both/and,” as has often been said, is one of the marks of Catholicity, not “either/or.” Christ commands and threatens as much as he invites and persuades in the New Testament. The words of the founder of Christianity himself are both demanding and consoling, not merely one or the other, as has long been recognized. The question has to arise at some point about whether we can be faithful and “consistent” about Him if we suppress one half of who He was.   

At the Crux seminar, Cardinal Pell concluded that “If we are silent, we can’t complain that we’re not being heard.” Those are, of course, wise words in the way that the Church relates to the world and Pell counseled those present, especially the bishops, that it should not be their goal to act so as to stay out of the news – and out of trouble. It’s part of the Church’s job to keep God in public view, even when it’s uncomfortable.

We might add, they have the same responsibility to keep Him, all of Him, not just the “nice” parts, in front of Catholics, too. No one says this is an easy task these days, and the fumbling so far may be good in so far as it helps sort out what’s useful and not. But we may hope that as the Synod grinds into some practical matters, it will rely less on some magic language to do the work and more on evangelization the way it’s always worked.

The pope’s suggested it several times. It’s Cardinal Newman’s Cor ad cor loquitur, “Heart speaks to heart.” And the heart, to really speak, has to have something urgent to say.