Synod Day 10 – A Ton of Vaseline

After Wednesday’s press briefing, a noted student of the Vatican, whose identity should probably not be revealed, turned and said to me, “Roberto, I don’t know what you say in English, but here we say that we just had a ton of Vaseline dumped on our heads.”

Slippery, viscous, uniform, and bland – hard to get a grip on since there’s no real substance. Anyone with the slightest imagination can easily elaborate further exactly what he meant.

And come to think of it, maybe I should just say the line was Sandro Magister’s. It’s too good not to give him the credit. If there’s any push back, he’s taken much worse in his many years of service to the Church.

In truth, there’s been no better insight into where we are, now that the Synod has had its flips – and flops. At the latest briefing, Archbishops Fisichella of Italy and Kurtz of America were joined by Cardinal Martinez Sistach of Spain. They are all decent men and earnestly made the case, again and again, that no doctrine was changing. That all that’s being discussed is a new pastoral outreach intended to meet and welcome people “where they are.” Indeed, Archbishop Kurtz said, in the small discussion groups, there has even been an effort to understand what it would mean to be “welcoming” and “positive,” not as the world understands such matters, but in fidelity to Catholic teaching.

They were all quite plausible in this general presentation, but it was hard not to notice that the veteran journalists in the room were far from convinced. And rightly so. Those of a more conservative cast remained wary because of the initial direction the now-much-qualified document took. Those of more liberal bent clearly felt that something they initially applauded now seems to be partly retracted if not exactly in retreat.

A reliable source told me Pope Francis was sent the text last Saturday morning, returned it to the Synod leaders Sunday, all before it appeared Monday. So as has long been the case, we do not know his thoughts other than he didn’t interfere in the release.

In light of all the uncertainty that currently exists, it may help towards general understanding if we turn from events and look briefly, in this tenth of our reports, in a slightly more theoretical direction.

Because of the widespread attention devoted to the most obvious hot-button issues at the Extraordinary Synod, a quite significant, but less obvious, set of questions – which seem to frame the whole relatio – went all but unnoticed. These form a single, comprehensive way of approaching people and things, but basically fall into two large parts: human freedom and the emotional life.

Quite early (paragraph 5), you may read: “Anthropological and cultural change today influences all aspects of life and requires an analytic and diversified approach, able to discern the positive forms of individual freedom.” Too academic a take, to be sure. And not the sharpest formulation of a modern question. But it’s clear enough here that the Synod wanted to address a theme that came to the fore at Vatican II: how to deal with the undeniable modern emphasis on liberty.


       Archbishop Joseph Kurtz

The Council mostly addressed that issue in terms of the modern state. In the 1960s, democracies seemed to be the waters in which the Church would have to swim for some time. And besides, it was helpful to talk about human liberty especially where Communist regimes (never mentioned at Vatican II) were crudely repressing religion and other fundamental human rights.

The relatio takes an additional step, however, that needs to be properly appreciated. (Leave aside, for the moment, whether we are dealing with mere points for further discussion or substantive positions, because, by whatever process, another early passage puts another large set of questions before us):

Faced with the social framework outlined above, a greater need is encountered among individuals to take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments, seeking a relational quality in emotional life. In the same way, it is possible to encounter a widespread desire for family accompanied by the search for oneself. But how can this attention to the care for oneself be cultivated and maintained, alongside this desire for family? This is a great challenge for the Church too. The danger of individualism and the risk of living selfishly are significant.

This, too, will not win any international prize for limpid prose. And no, Justice Anthony Kennedy, he who famously wrote in the Casey decision, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” is not moonlighting as an editor at the Vatican, though we might note certain similarities with his “thought” here.

The tonality – we’re all talking a lot about the “tone” the Vatican is adopting these days – is certainly familiar to us from many things percolating through our culture, and not only from Justice Kennedy. In a broad sense, this may be the deepest problem of all. As is all too often the case in our relatio, the preponderance of the concern seems to be to “value” the modern mentality, even if that stance all but forbids the use of crucial Catholic notions couched in “negative” language. If people stumble into what used to be confidently called “sin” in Catholic thought, for example, the discussion seems to be set up so as to short-circuit into misty realms of human feelings in endless combinations, permutations, and instabilities.

When, in the notorious passage of paragraph 52, the relatio says, “Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners,” it’s clear that the die has already long been cast. Yes, it seems to concede, there is all that old Catholic moral language that, somehow, we’ll have to deal with – at a time and place to be specified later. But in the meantime, just look at the “precious support” persons are providing to one another. Surely, that’s where the most interesting reflection and pastoral action have to begin.

If there’s anything that makes the daily press briefing seems unreal, it’s the sense of all the journalists present, whatever their inclinations, that this seems to be now the crux of what it means to be pastoral and merciful. Or is it? No one seems to want to speak too clearly about it, which is why we got a ton of Vaseline yesterday.

Archbishops Kurtz may have offered one of the few points not too slippery to get a grip on when he said that he personally wanted to see the Synod promote confidence in the institution of marriage again. Too many young people feel that they are at “the mercy of statistics” – so many marriages are failing that they start a family with attitudes that he called “self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.” The Church needs to offer such people real inspiration and hope.

By contrast, a reporter who interviewed Cardinal Kasper this week informed the panel that Kasper claims there’s a growing majority for his position on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Though the panel wouldn’t venture to say whether that was true, Archbishop Kurtz claimed that the general sense of the Extraordinary Synod is that that particular question will need to be studied by the experts between now and the 2015 follow-up Synod.

Thursday, the small language groups that have been meeting and working on the text will come back together and try to put together a document that the whole Synod can approve. It’s close to a moral certainty that they will agree on something by Saturday morning when the Synod closes. But whether that will consist mostly of Vaseline or whether the old Catholic practicality in the face of fallen human nature will find its way back into the recommendations is still anyone’s guess.