Synod Day 7 – A New Phase begins

ROME, Italy, October 13

During one of the Masses at St. Peter’s on Sunday, a homilist ventured out into contested territory. He went through several parts of yesterday’s Gospel reading (Matt. 22:1-14) – the parable about the King who invites many to come to a great wedding feast for his son and gets weak, really insulting responses. After scores get settled and others who are strangers brought in, the King finally rejects one who showed up without a wedding garment, ordering him to be cast into the outer darkness, where there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.  

I’ve spent enough time in Rome to know that the Church does not co-ordinate such things the way a White House in campaign mode often does. But to anyone who’s been following the Synod on the family, it might have almost seemed planned. The priest went on to say that, if you’ve sinned and haven’t confessed, you can’t come to Communion: “the teaching on that hasn’t changed.” But you should still come to Mass, and, rather than commit sacrilege, show reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Just sit there when others go up to receive.  

It’s useful sometimes when the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

Rome is balmy this week, warm into the 80s and not at all humid or oppressive, the way you may remember it if you came here on summer vacation. I was here last year around the same time teaching at the Lateran University, and there was a downpour every day. But whatever other challenges the Synod faces, Rome has been nothing other than it’s most charming self these days.

The Italians have a beautiful expression for clear skies: sereno. And you often hear Church officials commending someone for being “serene.” I’ve long thought this more a holdover from ages of “serene” highnesses, less a truly philosophical stance. And by the time it works its way out to the PR people, it starts to border on untruth – a bad thing for a Church that has attracted many, powerful minds in recent years because they see it as a “truth-telling institution.”

Poor Fr. Federico Lombardi, for example, the Vatican spokesman, laid out what he called the main currents that have emerged so far and – like a White House press secretary knowing everyone he’s speaking to knows the various camps are at loggerheads – observed: “we must not be taken by the temptation to put these two poles in contrast; the synod is walking its path, and I found that all the interventions were highly appreciated.”

Given what we’ve seen when the “two poles” were presented publicly, this is an unusual way to assess the situation. But Catholics believe in miracles and it’s possible, I suppose, that what seemed an acrimonious fight, even when others were looking, in private has resolved itself into respectful discussion. Readers will have to judge for themselves.

On a more concrete note, today at noon, Rome time (= 6 AM ET in America), the Vatican will release the relatio, the summary report of the first week’s work, followed by a press conference at 1 PM. (We will be there and hope to have an addition to this report shortly after the event. Please stop back here later in the day and look for it. If for some reason we can’t provide a quick summary and analysis, we’ll bring you that in tomorrow’s regular Synod Report.)

       Fr. Federico Lombardi

There’s no way to know exactly, of course, what the relatio will say or where it will direct the further work of the Synod. This week, the participants are supposed to break up into small language groups, circuli minores as they are called in Latin. One English-language group selected Cardinal Burke as its leader – to the surprise of many who know of his imminent departure from the Apostolic Signatura. Each group will be assigned a particular task, it seems, from the limited information we have, to work on this week and to report back to the full group.

But just before the weekend began, Pope Francis (who, we are told, has remained completely silent since his opening remarks to the participants) made something of a telling move: he appointed six cardinals to assist him in preparing the Monday relatio. Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl is among them. As John Thavis, one of the reliable long-time Vatican watchers, has characterized the group: “At the risk of oversimplifying, they all seem to be on the pope’s wavelength when it comes to promoting pastoral mercy.”

“Pastoral mercy” has displayed enough ambivalence in the Synod these days that it’s hard to say whether that means Cardinal Kasper’s broad acceptance of divorced and remarried Catholics in Communion, or some less radical departure from tradition. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is usually thought of as a prelate in the line of the liberal Cardinal Bernardin. But he said in an interview Friday that the American bishops are “wary,” as a whole, about allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

That doesn’t seem, on its face, entirely surprising since many of them are JPII and B16 bishops. But we’ll see in the next year or two whether that perspective prevails in Rome or America. America is a bit of an outlier in this area, because we actually have tribunals that function, for the most part, according to canon law. That’s not the case in much of the rest of the world. And even if Americans account for a large percentage of annulments worldwide, that may be less because of abuse of the process, and more an artifact of an American reality: we still follow the rule of law, secular and canon, more than most peoples.

Just so that we do not think of all this as mere inside Catholic baseball, two heavyweight non-Catholic intellectuals weighed in of the Francis Project in Italy over the weekend.

Dario Fo, an old, furious anti-Catholic and Communist-Left playwright, praised Francis for his courage in trying to change the institution – though he would still never become a Catholic, and like many conspiracy-theory besotted figures in the Italian intelligentsia fears for Francis’ life, and regards John Paul I as the victim of murder, maybe even a Mafia hit. (This is Italy where dietrologia – the “logic” of what must lie behind the appearances – even has its own name.) Whether a pope’s being admired by a nasty figure like Fo is a positive or negative is difficult to say – but  there it is.

By contrast, Mario Vargas Llosa (the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner in literature who is a bit more center-right in the grand scheme of things) has praised the pope and sees Western Christian values as a bulwark against totalitarianism and Islamic fundamentalism. Our elites are corrupt and greedy, he says, and they are why the West is weak when it confronts enemies. But not Francis – though he should leave economics to people who know something about it.

Remember to check back later today to see if there’s news about the papal relatio and new phase of work.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.