A Moderate Façade and a Radical Interior?

This has been a nervous-making week for the body of the Church. The release of that interim relatio last Monday set off tremors, as it portended changes on the indissoluble character of marriage and a new acceptance, perhaps, of the homosexual life – an acceptance going beyond the care of the Church for any of us sinners in our various, broken states.

But the reactions were swift, precise, severe – and in an unsettling way, public and open. Cardinal Pell of Australia remarked, partly in report, partly in defiance, that “we’re not giving in to the secular agenda. . . .We’re not collapsing in a heap.” Cardinal Wilfred Fox Napier of South Africa responded immediately that the notes put out in the relatio were not authoritative; they reflected the views only of a certain circle of bishops.

And yet, as he recognized, they had done their work, produced their effect. They relayed to the world that teachings long settled in the Church could now be unsettled. Professor Robert George of Princeton, in a summoning article in midweek, offered his own, clear reading that the teachings of the Church on marriage and sexuality were, today, what they had long been, and what they would continue to be, even after the final report of the Synod a year from now.

And yet, as Cardinal Napier instantly saw, the willingness to float these new drafts in public was itself a transforming move. The final relatio was released with a notable walking back from those earlier positions on marriage and sexuality.

But Pope Francis, in a gesture toward “transparency,” announced his own preference that the Synod make public the reports of the "language circles" and the proposed paragraphs that had been rejected by the bishops. (The more audacious and radical drafts could not gain the necessary vote of two-thirds of the bishops). The lingering question is just why the Holy Father should have thought it salutary or useful to include those earlier, rejected drafts.

But is the new state of affairs not evident already in these reports offered as news? If the count of votes is already a matter of public knowledge, how far are we from seeing this serious business of the Church reported as a box score? And the life of the Church assimilated now to a political brawl, with the outcome depending on the play of the vote, and the deposit of faith pushed subtly to the side as part of the scenery.

             Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke

This sense of things was hardly diminished; indeed, it was confirmed, with an unprecedented explicitness, in an interview given by Raymond Cardinal Burke. “The pope has never said openly what his position is on the matter,” said Burke. And that reticence itself, in this setting, could be suggestive and unsettling. The Cardinal went on:

[P]eople conjecture that because of the fact that he asked Cardinal Kasper – who  was well known to have these views for many, many years – to speak to the cardinals. . .and to travel around advancing his position on the matter, and then even recently to publicly claim that he’s speaking for the pope and there’s no correction of this. . . .I can’t speak for the pope and I can’t say what his position is on this, but the lack of clarity about the matter has certainly done a lot of harm.

It has been rumored for a while that Cardinal Burke would be removed from his position in the Vatican as the main jurist on Canon Law, chief of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. The Cardinal has confirmed now that he will be transferred, or removed to a notably lesser post, as patron to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Well of course, as readers have been quick to point out, these shifts may be occasioned by subtle differences in personal style, and they may mark no dramatic change in the teaching of the Church. But when we see such striking clashes of views on matters of no secondary importance, it would mark a trivialization of the men directing these affairs if we assumed that the shifts were made for reasons that were merely personal or superficial, or bore no relation to matters of consequence.

With his closing remarks to the Synod, Pope Francis offered a voice of steady assurance. The conversations and arguments had played out with candor, and yet, he said, “without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).” 

And even better, he sounded his characteristic, pastoral voice:  “This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. …[This is the Church that] would welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep.”

These are words familiar, and ever sustaining. But the problem is that they would be the words ever to be spoken by a statesman bringing about “a new order of things,” even while the familiar forms are still in place.

From an earlier crisis, some words of Lincoln are called back: “[W]hen we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen. . . and when we see these timbers joined together. . .the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places,”  we are left with the uneasy sense that something is being prepared for us.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. He is also Founder and Director of the Washington-based James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.
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Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.