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.

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.