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.

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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.