Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

Andre Malraux, French novelist and anti-Nazi Resistance fighter, tells a story in the first pages of his Anti-Memoirs [I’m in Rome and have to summarize from memory] about putting a question one evening, after a long day of firefights, to a comrade-in-arms, who was also a priest: “You hear confessions, father, you must learn a lot about human nature.” The priest demurred. No it’s Christ, not me there, forgiving. But after a few more glasses of wine, he said: “Actually, there are two things. First, people are much more unhappy they you would think.” Malraux replied that, as a novelist, he already understood that quite well: “And the other thing, mon père?” “There are no real adults.”

A truth worth keeping in mind if you have been reading the press accounts about the Synod in the past few days, which have contained some quite interesting interviews. In particular, I was reminded of the Malraux story while looking at Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich’s personal press conference last Friday in Rome. He has since denied what some in the media claimed he said about always following conscience, or Communion for the Divorced and Remarried and for active homosexuals. Working with people directly, he argued, he’d come to see that it’s best to “accompany” them and teach them to be guided deeply by conscience. He cited a wise priest, now deceased, who declared that he hoped his ministry would be remembered for having treated people “as adults.”

Well, yes, as long as we understand what Malraux’s priest had to say about adults, and that the Church did not just recently discover human weakness and the need to address it appropriately. During Vatican II, a meme got started in the Church that humanity had now “come of age.” If there’s evidence of this new human maturity in the world, I’d be very happy – very – to see it. We hear a lot these days about people wrestling with their consciences – and as a witty friend once put it, “It’s amazing how often they win.”

Archbishop Cupich was not advocating anything so absurd. On the other hand, he did tell a story about a priest giving Communion to a woman who was divorced and remarried, at a funeral Mass for her son, who had committed suicide. After receiving Communion, she repented and was reconciled with the Church. No Catholic with a heart would be unmoved by that woman’s story, but neither would any Catholic with a mind be unmoved about giving Communion to a woman in an adulterous second marriage.

Archbishop Cupich claimed, as many have at the Synod, to want to reconcile mercy with truth. But he didn’t seem much troubled by what many would regard as getting the proper order backwards; Communion before repentance and reconciliation. After hearing so many example of these “hard cases,” you start to ask yourself: are there none in which the Church’s firm teaching about people in irregular circumstances led to similar conversions? That used to be a much more common story. Has truth lost its power to attract and change lives?

One hears through the grapevine that Archbishop Cupich has made several proposals in his small language group, which have been opposed nearly unanimously. So while the media pays most attention to stories like his and those even farther out, on the fringes of the Synod, the reality is that majorities of the Synod Fathers seem really to be where Catholics have always been on those hot-button issues. And, it’s a reasonable hope, that will be reflected in the final decisions to come from the Synod Fathers this week.


At the beginning of the Synod, it would have been greatly reassuring to know that significant majorities of the Synod Fathers did not favor Communion for the Divorced and Remarried (CDR), let alone proposals about “welcoming” gay couples and those who are cohabiting – the three things the media and “the world” believe make the difference whether this has been a “successful” Synod for Pope Francis. That might even have prevented the media, Catholic and not, from creating a false sense of a Synod in chaos. Synods going back to the early centuries of Christianity have been beset by controversy, sometimes even violence. Many things might yet come out of this synod that will puzzle the faithful on top of the puzzlement many already feel. But the worst has probably been avoided – though no doubt even a tolerable final statement may, in the wrong hands, lead to considerable mischief.

At the Monday press briefing, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, who said with some humor that a journalist badgered him into giving a 65-35-against guesstimate a few weeks back, opined that the odds of a change towards CDRs had if anything worsened since then. Coleridge is regarded as a moderate “liberal” by most Vatican observers, so when he says things that seem to point towards more traditional decisions (things that he may not actually himself think ideal or even preferable) it tells some truths about where things really stand.

His own discussion group, Anglicus C, for instance, chose last Friday to postpone tackling the classic Kasper Proposal (readmission to Communion after a “penitential path”) so that they could look at it with fresher eyes yesterday (Monday) morning. Which they did. Result: not a single voice in support of Kasper. Indeed, a different question seems to have been raised among them: “A penitential path – to what?” And, to judge from the way the one group wanted to handle such questions, the overall support for Kasper in the Synod is “very, very modest indeed.”

The place where Coleridge and other Synod Fathers seem to want to turn now is partly to the possibility of local bishops’ conferences having local jurisdiction. (We’ll have to see whether that Plan B surfaces in the Final Document as an end run around the significant majority that wishes to keep the doctrinal clarity on key points where it has been for 2000 years.) But partly – in Coleridge’s case it’s a more personal thing – bishops are still asking: are there ways to “accompany” people in hard situations without really changing doctrine? Are there ways to speak of sexual sins without changing doctrine (or denying they are sins)? It’s worth keeping an eye on how that will play out. “Changes in language” are never merely changes in language.

Unfortunately, Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl also weighed in on these questions in an interview in America. Wuerl is a man who is unquestionably orthodox, a teaching bishop, but often criticized for weakness when it comes to how Catholic beliefs are being flouted in his archdiocese (viz. Pelosi, Biden, Kerry, et al.) He let himself be drawn into echoing a narrative, rather artificial to those of us who have been close to the synod process, that people are opposing mere “pastoral changes” that are aimed at being merciful (without allegedly changing doctrine) because, for some unspecified reasons, they simply “dislike this pope.” And he suggested that the thirteen cardinals who signed a letter to the pope, warning of the ways that process, content, and personnel looked biased to some people, might discredit the whole Synod, were distorting the record and somehow out of line.

They were very much in line, indeed, you could say they did the Holy Father a service by alerting him to dangers that he might not be aware the Synod was running. Secular outlets like the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the London Telegraph are carrying stories about how the pope has profoundly mishandled this Synod and created the potential for widespread confusion, even schism. Those of us in Rome, who know the public and some of the private facts related to events, are pretty sure that’s an overly dramatic way of reading the current situation.

But the dramatizers have one thing right: the voices coming out in these last few days seem to be trying to create a narrative according to which the resistance to a more open Church stems from groundless animus at best, something more crudely “conservative” (or sinister) at worst.

If we see strong majorities of the Synod Fathers, a diverse group of men drawn from every continent and widely differing cultures, remaining faithful, – while also becoming more aware of hard cases that may call for still greater pastoral efforts – as could happen by the end of this week, it would be pretty hard to accuse such a band of brothers of sheer rigidity, let alone conspiracy.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “’Changes in language’ are never merely changes in language.”

    Wittgenstein reminds us that “Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking, and which it would be possible to detach from speaking, rather as the Devil took the shadow of Schlemihl from the ground…”

    He also suggested this experiment: “Say a sentence and think it; say it with understanding – Now, do not say it, just do what you accompanied it with, when you said it with understanding!”

    Wittgenstein was one of the few philosophers who had been a primary school teacher.

  • Manfred

    Thank you for your points above, Robert. I do not believe that the pope who appointed Cupich to Chicago, who has supported Kasper since his February, 2014 statement, who has called this two part Synod, will ever simply bow to the majorities you point to.
    Rather, I believe he will issue a diktat setting up “Synodal churches” of bishhops’ conferences in a “decentralized church”, as has been reported, so that Communion may be issued to homosexuals and persons in civil marriages.

  • Harry

    The place where Coleridge and other Synod Fathers seem to want to turn now is partly to the possibility of local bishops’ conferences having local jurisdiction. (We’ll have to see whether that Plan B surfaces in the Final Document as an end run around the significant majority that wishes to keep the doctrinal clarity on key points where it has been for 2000 years.)

    Let’s hope the majority wish “to keep the doctrinal clarity on key points where it has been for 2000 years.” The universal doctrinal clarity on key points is what makes the Catholic Church catholic or universal:

    As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master) …
    – St. Irenaeus, 2nd century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter X, #2

    Catholicism: One house. One soul. One and the same heart. One mouth. The import of the tradition is one and the same. As the sun is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also is the preaching of the truth, enlightening all who are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. This is because the Church is one bread, one body, animated by one Spirit.

    Proposing a subsidiarity that undermines the universality (catholicity) of the essentials of the belief and practice of the Catholic Church is nothing less than a blatant attempt to destroy Catholicism.

  • Rich in MN

    I remember an anecdote from a German class many years ago in which the teacher (an American) recounted a visit to Germany in which he was hiking with some German friends. All of a sudden, one of the friends exclaimed, “Igel! Igel!” Of course, our dear teacher’s eyes shot up to the sky looking for the “eagle” (rather than on the ground looking for the hedgehog).

    I hope and pray that the Synod Fathers strive for clarity in their final pronouncements. For many people with good will but our fallen nature, there are many “false friends” lurking in a bishop’s vocabulary…

  • Cardinal Wuerl is either naïf or in on it with the German bishops…

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    As regards Archbishop Cupich and communion for the grieving woman canon law does recognize instances, only instances not to be mistaken with a rule as some at the Synod propose when it is better “not to extinguish the flickering flame”.

    • More confusion from one among those ones who ought to know, teach and do better.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        You must focus on an instant of God’s immense love that at times can seem irrational [incomprehensible is a better word] to the rational. Canon law simply acknowledges individual moments when compassion is better suited to the moment than the law for sake of the salvation of the person. The theological etymology goes back to the OT with words like ‘Do not crush the bruised reed.” In the case cited by Cupich the woman whose son killed himself appeared to the cleric who gave her communion at the funeral to fit the stringent requirements of the canon. Canon 844 clearly and firmly is not setting policy affecting all divorced and remarried and neither can it be applied as as an example for that purpose. The real issue is not a rare instance of merciful love suited to the occasion but rather Cardinal Cupich seeking to implement universal policy that abrogates Christ’s commandment regarding divorce.

        • Aloha & Dear Father, you are he LORD’s anointed and in addition you havd a Ph.D., so therefore, I do not wish to enter into a debate with you. My comment above was driven in part that unless one knows the cirumstances of the case, one cannot be in a position to say that the said canon applies. My cursory reading of the Canon seems to apply to non-Catholic Christians not having access to their own minister in an emergency recognised by the canon. Again I do not wish to debate you and I ask for your fatherly blessing.

          • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

            Absolutely Shyanguya. I will re-examine the canon’s context. The name sounds African. I spent two tours teaching at seminaries in Malawi and Tanzania. May God bless you and keep you always.

          • Thank you for the blessing Father, please contact me via my website. Mahalo Father.

  • kathleen

    “Cardinal Wuerl is unquestionably orthodox” according to Dr. Royal. Why then does he continue to mislead by continuing to give Holy Communion to the likes of Pelosi and Biden? Is he not giving scandal? And his comments during this Synod…
    He confuses me, and probably many Catholics. That’s not good. Our God is a God of order, not confusion.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      You are correct Kathleen. Instances of exception find validity through the merciful love of Christ as St Thomas Aquinas says in accordance to the conditions of the act as clearly stated in Canon 844. Too often clerics including prelates seek to ingratiate themselves with the public. Today is the Feast of Saint Paul of the Cross who like the Apostle Paul preached that true knowledge of God is found in Christ’s love manifest in His passion and crucifixion and fidelity to love as He defines it in the Gospels.

    • FrankieB

      Very simple, Kathleen: he’s a coward.

      An appeasenik.

      A follower.

  • Father G. Peter Irving III

    Robert: I am grateful for the many hours you spend each day to sift through the synod data, such as it is, in order to bring us your very thoughtful and balanced analysis of each day’s events.

    I have to sympathize with many of these prelates who are at a loss as to how to “accompany” people who fall into that category of “hard cases,” whatever those cases may be. I do not want to paint all synod participants with a broad brush nor do I mean to criticize anyone, but I would bet that many of these bishops have little experience as confessors. To be sure, a significant number of them “came up the ranks,” as it were, via ecclesial bureaucracies, e.g., chancery work. I don’t mean to diminish the importance and value of this kind of priestly ministry. It is important and necessary. But a cleric who has worked for any length of time as a church “bureaucrat” (in the best sense of that word) does face an “occupational hazard,” namely, a distancing of himself from the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of priestly ministry: HEARING CONFESSIONS. It is in the context of the confessional (yes, the “old-fashioned” “box,” which guarantees the penitent’s right to anonymity) where the priest, himself a sinner, is best able to “accompany” his brother or sister who is sincerely seeking divine mercy.

    I contend that what is most needed in the Church today is for priests to get serious about hearing confessions. I dare say too many priests–even priests in parochial ministry–do not make this ministry as central as it should be. In most parishes the confession schedule is stingy and if a parishioner seeks to go to confession outside the set times, he or she might be scolded and told to come at the regular confession times.

    Priests need to be available for and be willing to spend many hours hearing confessions. And I would make bold to say also that priests need to be taught anew how to be good confessors who patiently listen to the penitent and impart doctrinally sound advice. This is the most effective way by which the Church, through Her priests, “accompanies” tender souls who are hurting, confused, uncatechized and in need of healing and the hope of forgiveness. The Church doesn’t need a synod to figure this out. All that is needed is to put into practice what the Church has already taught (re-read, for instance, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1464, and The Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life).

    During his 2008 apostolic visit to the United States Benedict XVI made this incisive point:

    “To a great extent, the renewal of the Church in America and throughout the world depends on the renewal of the practice of Penance and the growth in holiness which that sacrament both inspires and accomplishes.”

    It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that the priest, both as confessor and sorrowful penitent–that is, as one who frequently avails himself of the Sacrament of Penance and also makes himself available to hear many confessions–is the linchpin in the renewal of the Church, society and the family, the indispensable cell of the civilization of love and life.

    With the Jubilee Year of Mercy about to begin bishops need to equip their priests to be better confessors and encourage them to be very generous in making this beautiful Sacrament readily available to greater numbers of penitents.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      Well said Father. This is where the issue really stands.

    • Tanyi Tanyi

      Thank you Fr. Peter, a very good point. Bishops should return to the priesthood, and they will minimize these embarrassing comments they are making to the public. That of the Archbishop of Chicago was a shame. How can a man who has been accompanying people declare that everyone should follow his conscience? A simple day in a Confessional on any university campus in the US would have helped this Archbishop to see the confused state of many of these young people. Imagine if you were to tell them to follow their consciences as they are! It’s such a shame.


    Thank you for this article. I think it helps clear up a lot. There are many bishops there and I believe most all of them will stand with Church teaching. I also have come to believe that the Pope, as he is infallible and led by the Holy Spirit, will do the right thing.

  • accelerator

    “Those of us in Rome, who know the public and some of the private facts related to events, are pretty sure that’s an overly dramatic way of reading the current situation.”

    The Pope appoints dissenters and all but supports their positions, pretty much everyone not quite liberal is vocally concerned, and we are supposed to think that concern is suddenly overly dramatic? It is good to have over half the Synod Fathers poised to vote sanely, yes, but it hardly reassures if we are left thinking the Pope is a progressive agitating for fundamental change and simply shifting to decentralization to speed it. Sure the Holy Spirit controls providence, but looking at history, that unsettles as much as it reassures: the crooked lines God draws with can be very cutting. The whole scenario remains profoundly disturbing and leaves us realizing we are still right where we were just after Vatican II, only with a less wacky and less obviously cracked exterior facade and two postconciliar pontiffs enshrined as saints to give symbolic lift to the modern disorientation. Count me hardly relieved.

    • FrankieB

      Agreed…..when you have to struggle to get 2/3rds majorities to endorse Catholic teachings that any 2nd year CCD student knows, something is seriously wrong.

  • Wasn’t it the “unquestionably orthodox” Card. Wuerl who said, “The reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position. It’s a pastoral application of the doctrine….”

  • Evangeline1031

    Card. Wuerl is “unquestionably orthodox”?? I need to find my dictionary, because I must not know the correct meaning of the word “orthodox”. Has the left co-opted that word too?

  • FrankieB

    A good article, but Royal is wrong if he thinks only the secular press thinks that things were “overly dramatic.” All of the loyal conservative websites I read were aghast at the apostacy being presented by dissidents like the German bishops.

    Tell me how they differ from liberal Protestants ? Type of German car they drive ?