It’s All or Nothing

Pope Francis made a bold statement at the canonization Mass on Sunday:

Jesus is radical. He gives all and he asks all: he gives a love that is total and asks for an undivided heart. Even today he gives himself to us as the living bread; can we give him crumbs in exchange? We cannot respond to him, who made himself our servant even going to the cross for us, only by observing some of the commandments. We cannot give him, who offers us eternal life, some odd moment of time. Jesus is not content with a “percentage of love”: we cannot love him twenty or fifty or sixty percent. It is either all or nothing.

The crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square to listen to him was mostly older adults, but we might hope that before the Synod comes to an end, he uses his considerable charisma to convey that same message to young people as well. Because over and above the various debates and the mechanics of the event, that will be the measure of whether the Synod is a success or failure.

For the moment, things are looking better, at least on the practical front. We commented yesterday that it was absolutely crucial that the rules permit bishops to vote on individual paragraphs of the final documents – given that all sorts of things may be introduced into the final document by the drafting committee or the different language groups. On Monday, Paolo Ruffini, the president of the Synod, announced that the voting by paragraphs will take place, and it will take two-thirds of the votes for any paragraph to make it into the final document.

Why this was not announced earlier – it’s essentially the same procedure that existed prior to the rules being abrogated by the pope’s Episcopalis Communio – is a mystery. Some bishops were already planning a group protest, in public, if it was not allowed. The silence or vagueness about voting procedure until now was not reassuring. (Opinions are divided between those who see it as a calculated tactic, and others who suspect mere disorganization.) And there’s still reason to be vigilant about what the drafting group – which includes some suspect characters – chooses to include or exclude. But for the moment, the news is relatively good – and now the next phase begins.

This phase will largely define the vision of the Church that the Synod Fathers are going to offer. This week will be spent crafting and proposing and discussing various modi, modifications to the initial texts reflecting what the bishops believe needs to be said. And these will add up to a statement of what they believe the Church should now be – and not only for young people.

As we know, ever since the election of Pope Francis – in a way ever since Vatican II – the Church has been torn between several “models.”

The great American theologian Avery Dulles S. J. wrote a book, controversial in its day, but useful, called Models of the Church. I asked him when he was named a cardinal if he regretted anything in it and he said no. As a convert, he didn’t want to get too far out in front of where the Church was deciding to go. So he laid out several paths, in the exhaustive way he later became famous for, in hope of illuminating where they might lead.

Photo: Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

The most obvious danger at present is that the Church appears to want, like modern politicos, to accept everyone, which may run the risk of accepting everything. The predominant image that came out of Vatican II was the Church as “the people of God.” In the Synod’s deliberations, many bishops have been speaking in a vaguely similar vein of the Church as a “family” or a community. Both before and after becoming pope, Francis has preferred pueblo fiel de Dios– “God’s faithful people.”

These are all partially true models because we are all made in God’s image and, at least in a Christian understanding, have a common Father. This is what gives the model of “family,” for example, its validity.

But it’s easy to see why this gets extended to “people” and “community,” because to say we are all part of one family is insufficient as a definition of the Church. If that were taken as simply so, every human being by the fact of existing would be part of the Church.

This was the kind of turn that Karl Rahner and others took after the Council with the idea of the “anonymous Christian,” someone who is part of Christ without anyone, including the person himself, recognizing it.

On a human level, the anonymous claim easily lends itself to all sorts of absurdities. We sometimes hear that people who are not only non-Christian but even anti-Christian are “really” part of the Church at some deeper, transcendental level.

This conundrum drove Hans Urs von Balthasar to an uncharacteristically nasty joke in The Moment of Christian Witness. In that work, a Communist commissar observes to a proponent of the theory that perhaps he was really starting to think like an “anonymous atheist.”

We can understand why the Synod Fathers and the pope do not want to present the Church to young people as consisting of those who believe the Creed and the moral and dogmatic principles that flow from it, still less as an authoritative reality continuing the redemptive action of Christ. Young people have largely been catechized by a culture that contradicts all that and renders it almost unintelligible.

Hence the great emphasis, not on catechesis but on listening and dialogue. But dialogue by its nature is interminable. Even Karl Rahner recognized that the Church cannot forever be a debating society, but must express some authoritative positions.

In many instances – the Christian-Marxist dialogue, the Christian-Muslim dialogue, the Catholic-Chinese negotiations, the whole post-conciliar dialogue with the modern world – the Church plays a weak hand because it doesn’t seem to understand that we believe in listening and meeting others halfway, but others don’t necessarily play by the same rules.

That’s why it’s important that in the dialogue internal to the Church, there be no false suggestions that everything is up for debate. To talk, for example, of dialogue about persons with same-sex attraction without making clear that the teaching will not change because it cannot change, would be the quickest way to convince wavering young people that the Church, like pandering politicians, says one thing and does another.  

The bishops have a demanding challenge in front of them this week in seeking to insert language into the final document that is both properly welcoming and properly Catholic. And that makes clear the truth that, when it comes to love of God, it’s all or nothing.