2015: Five Guiding Principles for the Synod

A synod, as I’ve almost grown tired of repeating to friends, is not a legislature, but a consultation. In spite of all the anguish and upset we’ve seen prior to the opening sessions (which begin today), a synod may tell us nothing – or everything. Ultimately, the pope himself will have to decide what to do with the results. He may even, as Paul VI did when he reaffirmed Church teaching on contraception, simply reject advice offered. It’s one of the perks of the papal office: you may drive a Fiat 500, but you still have ultimate say over faith and morals.

One of the tasks I’ve set myself in the coming days is to try to sort out for you, day by day, gentle readers, what to worry about, and what not to, as the Synod on the Family unfolds. Our main concerns, of course, should be about what may pose a threat to the saving truths of the Catholic Faith in a mostly post-Christian world, not what may only be transitory clashes that only produce uninformed emotions. I’ll write about all that in this space every day for the three weeks of the Synod. You can click to each day’s report from the special box above, but our regular writers will also be appearing as usual on this homepage.

I hope TCT writers and readers alike will be informed, measured, and wise in all their reactions. I’ll also be writing in a few other places regularly as well to try and spread that word – this Third Letter on the Synod at First Things, for example, is the first of several more. And I’ll be appearing each Thursday evening on EWTN’s “The World Over” with the Papal Posse (Raymond Arroyo, Fr. Gerald Murray). We won’t always know everything that’s happening right away, and we will need to spend time, calmly analyzing and debating, based on the most reliable information we can find.

I was at the 2014 Synod and I saw how a very few inflammatory phrases could distract everyone from much needed efforts to shore up the family. We need to keep our eyes on the ball this time or the radicals will win by sheer default.

To help move us along, I’ve developed Robert’s Five Guiding Principles for the Synod. You may want to suggest others, but these are the crucial, the indispensable notions we’ll need in order to get the best out of what’s to come over the next three weeks, and beyond.

Principle No.1: Be Cautious About Drawing Large Conclusions. Everyone you meet will “know” what the Synod means. Wait. Practice healthy skepticism. Resist the temptation to claim things that will remain uncertain for a while. Truth takes time. Sometimes there may not be much truth in play. I’ve been in Europe the past several days, but followed the controversies about the pope’s meetings with Kim Davis and a gay couple at the nunciature in Washington. As shocking as it is that Papa Bergoglio maintains a casual relationship with a gay friend – something unthinkable for any past pope – and that Francis almost went into full stealth mode about Kim Davis and the Little Sisters of the Poor, I would not immediately draw any strong conclusions from any of it. Or from similar things you’ll see in coming days. The press just distorts too much, as do Vatican leaks.

Well, maybe I’d conclude a little about the gays. This pope is a man of gestures, not ideas. That doesn’t always mean he knows or can control what his gestures convey. USCCB President Archbishop Kurtz and Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, the Church’s point man on religious liberty, pushed Francis to express solidarity with people suffering under our New Sexual Absolutism. During his trip to America, he didn’t urgently press support for marriage against homosexual ideology and gender theory, or for the defense of unborn life or religious liberty, except in very general terms. You had to make an effort to look for that amid many other words. It was not one of his grand gestures. By contrast, there was a direct personal link, if private, with the gay friend.  But with this pope perhaps it’s more complicated than a seeming indifference to his sins. So read carefully, think deeply, go slow about conclusions.

Francis and the Synod fathers in 2014
Francis and the Synod fathers in 2014

Principle No. 2: But Don’t Be Too Cautious. The world is buzzing about  the Polish priest Krzysztof Charasma, who has “come out” on the very eve of the Synod, confessing that he has had a same-sex lover for years. We may see other such bombshells. If they start to look co-ordinated, it may be that the Gay Mafia that Francis has said he cannot find in the Vatican will finally have shown its face (cloven hoof?). Among many bizarre things, Fr. Charasma portrays himself as a victim of a cruel Church that preaches hate, and “must change.”

You would think from his rationalizations – a hodgepodge of once-fashionable contortions by Biblical scholars to show that the Bible was really speaking about something else when it mentions homosexuality – that he was forced from an early age to follow a distasteful career path into the prestigious Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which kept him locked up for years.

The CDF, once run by Joseph Ratzinger, is responsible for doctrinal vigilance, meaning not Gestapo-like enforcement of an ideology but a careful assessment of what harmonizes, and not, with the Gospel. Fr. Charasma accepted a job as an overseer of correct Catholic teaching. He took priestly vows of celibacy of his own free will (there are plenty of Christian denominations that would not have asked for it). He promised to be obedient to a bishop, and much more – the kind of commitments adults make in all kinds of human institutions. So what should we think of this whole firestorm?

Principle 3: Look out for claims of a false sense of freedom in the Church. There’s a false sense of liberty in all the developed societies that says governments exist to enable us to do whatever we want, crimes excepted, and that restraint, physical and moral, is a fetter on human flourishing. That’s why Fr. Charasma presents himself as a victim of the Church and the secular world “gets” it. Because that is the view of the human person that is the default setting in our whole society: not man under God, living within natural givens, restrained by rational thought, but man as an autonomous will – even if he’s a Catholic – that is, will as primary, anterior, superior to everything.

Principle 4: Stay focused on how that false freedom is corrupting concepts like love, mercy, charity. This really should have been one of the central “sociological” and “anthropological” focuses of the Instrumentum laboris, the working paper intended to guide the Synod in discussing “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.”  (And you thought it was all about gays and divorcées.) Because people who believe we have a God-given nature and that we only do well when we respect that nature, especially as it affects the family, inevitably clash with those who believe human nature can be whatever we want to make it.

A distorted democratic impulse has emerged, even in the Church, that regards the human will, especially in sexual matters, as somehow the voice of God; and Christian revelation as the voice of the devil (“preaching hate”) or more neutrally mere artificial doctrine, subject to change. That’s the overall division behind many of the particular debates that you’ll see starting to unfold in the next three weeks.

Principle 5: So, Increase Your Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. We can’t be sure anymore that even Church leaders have the energy and will to save our tottering civilization from itself. Demographic collapse is far more likely to hit us than climate change. It may take centuries and the rise of a wholly new civilization until Christian principles may operate in the world again. A Christian needs to know how to live well in the meantime. Don’t be passive. That’s already half-dead. And don’t panic. The Lord is not a God of panic and fear.

Be committed, first to the steadying and clarifying spiritual things that you can do under any regime, in any age. There will be many disturbing moments, no doubt, in coming days, but perhaps a few uplifting ones as well. In either case, never forget:

Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars.
She hath slain her victims, mingled her wine, and set forth her table.
She hath sent her maids to invite to the tower, and to the walls of the city:
Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me. And to the unwise she said:
Come, eat my bread, and drink the wine which I have mingled for you.
Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence. (Pr 9:1-7)

See you tomorrow with news about the first day.

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.