Impressions and Misimpressions

Watching a synod from afar – or even from up close – can sometimes produce a false impression. The only times that it may seem something is “happening” is when some oddity pops up, such as a Canadian archbishop suggesting the ordination of deaconesses as a way to remedy a lack of vocations to the priesthood in Quebec. Or when a true madman peaks out from the pack, like the Panamanian archbishop who suggested dumping Jesus in favor of Moses on divorce. We have yet to hear from him whether, if that’s where we are at, he will also follow the law of Moses contra the current indulgence towards homosexual relations. But you see the point.

Given the makeup of the Synod Fathers who can vote, most of whom were elected by their episcopal conferences back home, none of this nonsense seems even remotely likely to get very far and shouldn’t much trouble anyone. Take America. Cardinals DiNardo and Dolan, along with Archbishops Kurtz, Chaput, and Gomez – all basically sound men – make up our delegation. (Some have had doubts about Dolan given his mishandling of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York, but he wrote bluntly to his people in the archdiocese recently, “I realize you’ve heard otherwise, but the Synod is not about same-sex unions, or Holy Communion to those Catholics in a bond outside the Church — although those topics might come-up — but about what God has revealed to us about marriage and the family, in the Bible, in human nature, in reasoned reflection, and in the timeless teaching of the Church.”) SF Archbishop Cordileone, than whom there is no braver member of our hierarchy, was selected as an alternate. Only Archbishop Cupich, chosen as a second alternate, and later named to the Synod by Pope Francis, has reformist intentions.

Not every national delegation is as strong as ours, to be sure, but there are also some, like the Poles for instance, who can only be called hardliners, and smarting a bit from the relative neglect of John Paul II’s substantial contributions to modern Catholic thinking on marriage and the family.

There is all sorts of loose nonsense lurking in the Working Document, which still has to be either fixed or thrown out as the bishops work through it. And we have yet to see all the cards the Kasperites and others are, no doubt, prepared to play as we get closer to the time for practical decisions.

A surprising number of the Synod Fathers, however, by my count something like a majority, are pretty sound and rather prepared for what’s coming. The Internet is buzzing at the moment with the “news” that perhaps as many as thirteen cardinals sent a letter to the pope a week ago declaring their concerns about procedures, content, and people chosen to write the final report. The number is disputed and, it seems, a not entirely reliable version of the letter was leaked – perhaps as a way to discredit the whole enterprise by sowing confusion in the media.

But it’s been something of an open secret in Rome for some days that a significant number of high-ranking cardinals delivered a message to the Holy Father last Monday, the very first working day of the Synod. His unusual address to the whole body the following morning, I myself believe, was at least partly in response to that letter, which clearly indicated that there are even larger numbers of Synod Fathers with deep suspicions about everything that’s transpiring. Pope Francis changed nothing, tried to reassure everyone in his speech, but still faces a large bloc of cardinals and bishops respectfully skeptical of the very bases of the Synod.

It’s worth recalling that Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who says he is sympathetic to considering the Kasper proposal (though he claims he doesn’t think he could vote for it in the end), guessed last week that two-thirds of the synod votes would go against Kasper if there were a strict up or down. No one knows for sure, of course, but if you look over the lists and try to figure out what’s probable, you wouldn’t bet the farm on Communion for the divorced and remarried (CDR). At least not by simple vote of the Synod participants.

Which it seems is why we’re seeing another idea being floated: that maybe national or regional bishops’ conferences could make decisions about local pastoral matters that it would be difficult to resolve by uniform legislation from Rome. There’s nothing wrong with a proper subsidiarity within the Church, of course, but in essence this effort is a way of trying to put nicely what German Cardinal Marx put roughly earlier this year: some bishops’ conferences think that they have their own authority in controversial matters, and may act on their own “without waiting for Rome.”

Pharisees Question Jesus Tissot2
Pharisees Question Jesus by J.J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

This carom-shot way of approaching the CDR question (and probably gay relationships as well) might seduce a few more bishops to the reformist side. Archbishop Coleridge guessed that the breakdown for a proposal like that would be closer to 50-50. But voices have already been raised to the contrary: that Catholic diversity is for the sake of Catholic unity, and that in the modern age – when communications are instantaneous around the globe – it would be a true oddity to try to divide the world into national or regional jurisdictions. Whether this tactic of claiming greater autonomy for episcopal conferences works or not will probably depend on the sounder bishops convincing those who don’t accept CDR as such not to be misled into doctrinal heterodoxy under the guise of cultural diversity.

There’s also a whole wild undergrowth of propositions that the bishops are debating, now that they have moved into considering the Second Part of the Working Document, which deals with the “Discernment of the Family Vocation.” This section is a bit better than the empty sociological analysis of Part I, but it’s curious how little the “vocation” described here says about procreation and the raising of children. By contrast, there’s a lot of painful effort to affirm different types of “relationships,” including relationships outside of traditional marriage, that may display some elements of stable, lifelong commitments.

This obviously begins to tilt in the direction of also recognizing homosexual relationships, and it will be interesting to see if the reports on this section by the small groups, which will be published in a few days, take note – and take on – the crucial points directly. No little mischief can come of deliberately vague language intended to give some value to heterosexual relationships other than Christian or natural marriage, that might be subsequently turned to even worse uses.

It doesn’t help that the Synod rules, such as they are, force the bishops to stick rather closely to laboring over the rhetorical thickets of the Working Document, because as we’ve said on this site now multiple times, it gives the impression that the Church is really “debating” all sorts of vague proposals. Which gives the mistaken further impression that the Church, if not now, then in some future synod might approve them. In the meantime, as one hears from pastors in parishes, ordinary Catholics often believe now that Rome seems unable to make up its mind, and that they can, therefore, just do whatever they want.

On Monday, two lay couples – one Brazilian, the other East Indian – spoke at the press briefing and gave a wholly different turn to the discussion, in ways that might actually produce practical results. They don’t talk much about doctrine in the small language circles, they said, but everyone – Synod Fathers and lay people alike – is concerned about finding concrete ways to address current problems of marriage and family.

A common strategy is a much deeper preparation for engaged couples by a significant period of a virtual catechesis on marriage before a wedding, followed by continued spiritual and practical “formation” in their life together. These efforts deserve our attention, because they are both faithful and effective in different parts of the world. In other words, they actually do what the bishops have been talking about, unite sound doctrine and pastoral practice.

At the same time – at least to the ear of an outsider – they seem like a very heavy undertaking for the average young couple who simply wish to get married.

But perhaps that’s what it takes now to get to some sort of sanity on marriage and family, even among Catholics, since we cannot take it for granted that the most fundamental relationship, of man and woman in matrimony, is something that will naturally occur and lead to the birth of offspring, their proper rearing, and lifetime commitments.

  • What.Ever.

    You talk about language in the working document that needs to be fixed or thrown out. There are two problems. One is that language thrown out after the 2014 synod made it’s way back into the official document. Two is that there is no vote and no final document. Pope Francis will make the final remarks. And that will be that.

  • fondatorey

    “By contrast, there’s a lot of painful effort to affirm different types of “relationships,” including relationships outside of traditional marriage, that may display some elements of stable, lifelong commitments.”

    You know what this is? Its middle class morality! “These people are pre-approved to purchase a BMW at their local dealership, how can the church remain credible if it says their lives are wounded by sin…”

  • Morton

    Cardinal Pell and other strong and orthodox cardinals and bishops have to spend time and effort playing defence in the Church for the moment. Evangelization and the saving of souls will have to take a back seat. Attention must now be paid to those who think the last two popes got it wrong for the last 42 years. In other words, old fossils like Daneels, Kasper and what appears to be a large number of Jesuits. It is no secret who has given them their current prominence: it is the current pope.
    The pope wants to re-hash some of the old debates from the sixties and seventies. Perhaps not the best use of the Church’s time but that’s what we’re getting. Pell and Co. should engage with vigour to defend the legacy of the last two popes.

  • Bob Wilkens

    Everyone still follows this as a political or rule book discussion…the problem in the west is zero SPIRITUAL guidance….folk lost in selfless love for God have no problem following all the rest of doctrine….only those lost in self seek a magic cookie as a consolation prize even while leading a self centered and greedy life….the practice of most Catholics today is entirely superficial and ignorant of all spiritual practice but a few rote prayers…..gone are various actas meant to inspire love, devotion, and honesty, even before and after confession and communion, and zero call from anybody to grow in the practice of perfection….to grow in holiness….to be a saint…..and certainly no direction in HOW to do this.

    Quick question…can any poster or reader here name ONE spiritual director in their parish or state who they would trust with their immortal soul during a 30 day directed silent retreat?…..who even does real retreats like that anymore?…..and groups meetings and business model breakout sessions or pop psychology journaling do NOT count as seeking Christ with all one’s heart…..this current crisis is due to spiritual bankruptcy and the Church managed as a business….

    Likewise the “catechisms” of rules and doctrines…..worthy, but FAR from an end in itself….the end is SUPPOSED to be total union with God in this life and the next…..far too late for catechism at marriage and beyond….and am quite sure this suggested path of marriage catechism would be more inane group meetings and breakout sessions….we teach a path with no heart….

    • Janice Belbey

      Find the Oblates of the Virgin Mary closest to you and go to them. They offer beautiful, faithful formation of the heart, mind, body and soul that we yearn for……spiritual direction, 3 day, 8 day and 30 day retreats. I just finished Ignatius’s 19th Annotation (a 30 day retreat in content but spread over 8/9 months while in daily life)……life changing.

  • bernie

    I find it hard to believe that there is not a great deal of scheming going on, and it is also hard to think that the Pope himself is not directly involved. Smoke and fire go together.

    I am willing to bet that some of the participants, when their backs are against the wall, will propose a final solution (no irony really intended) – ‘general absolution’, leaving everything up to the individual conscience. Yes, permanence will be proclaimed again. Yes, children will be revered. Yes, the ideal of fidelity will be shouted from the roof tips. They may even talk about a ‘common life’ (the true vehicle for growing love, not just its objective). In their justification, one of the “Fathers” will piously remember that at the start of Holy Mass, in days past, we had a Rite of Penance concluding with, “May Almighty God forgive you your sins, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Yes, we all knew then that it covered the forgiveness of venial sin, just as did acts of charity, etc. But now, why not just restore the Rite and expand its function, they will say. Afterall, just hearing all those confessions of complicated situations would be beyond the Bishop and all his corps of priests. The “Goodwill” of the Christian should be the new norm in the “Year of Mercy”. I truly suspect that this has been the German/Papal strategy from the beginning.