Most people reading this will be members of modern pluralistic societies, which means places where we are surrounded daily by others who have deeply different beliefs, some quite mad, some more or less sane. And there is also now a growing contingent of people who believe in nothing. And it shows.
When we turn to the Church, however, we expect something different both in terms of belief and action. We still contribute to the common good, to use the classical term, even though, in our societies, there is no common idea of what is good. We do so because we believe certain things are good for all human beings. Besides, if you have to live in the same cage as the other animals, mere prudence means you at least try to get along.
But within the Church, the common good is only part of what we need to guide us in the few years we have on earth before we enter eternity. Which is why, for a thinking and believing Catholic who wants to live the faith every day to the full, ambiguities and a general blurring of lines in the Church are not matters of indifference. They’re what it’s all about.
During the press briefing yesterday, the first working day of the Amazon Synod, a foreign journalist asked a panel consisting mostly of missionaries who have spent many years in the Amazon region what the now notorious pregnant figurines in the strange tree-planting ritual last weekend meant.
Personally, I have a soft spot for these missionaries and cut them more than a little slack because they do what I know in my bones I could never do: year after year, stay at the task of evangelizing, in hard conditions, facing many unknowns, often with few and weak prospects of success.
And I commend them, further, for mostly saying at the briefing yesterday that they didn’t know what the ritual meant.
One or two of them, though, expressed what I think has now become a condescending canard: that indigenous cultures look at the world differently than we do. (Who knew?) And that one of the Church’s tasks now is both to understand those cultures and to encourage indigenous peoples to share the rich resources of their beliefs and practices with the rest of us.
Believing as I do that indigenous people are human beings – and are therefore not stupid – I wouldn’t be surprised if they themselves grow wary about flattery like this.
They know there is a large and rich world beyond their borders. And that many of their young people – especially the women we were told – move to the large cities in the Amazon because their own social circles are hurting.
So when the flatterer departs, I expect that smart indigenous people check to see that they still have their wallets.
Missionaries, in my experience, are not strict about doctrine. Most of them probably can’t be and still function. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can just let things slide in our own sphere. In the end, we’re either with Christ and the Gospel, or we’re kind of with Him, but also really would rather belong to our all-too-human cultures.
Speaking of which, before the public panel broached the meaning of Amazonian ritual and how to evangelize, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the general relator of the Synod, boldly laid out proposals about married priests and women in clerical roles at the opening of the general session.
As we’ve heard said before, the subject has come up after consultations with indigenous people. They are asking for these changes so that their sacramental life can be more regular, at least allowing for Sunday Mass and more frequent reception of the Eucharist.
It’s a very good thing to want regular access to the sacraments, but the changes are far-reaching and deserve careful examination and debate before the Church decides one way or another.
Pope Francis has said that he does not read, listen to, or watch the critics. But both he and his main collaborators on the Synod must be getting an earful somehow because Cardinal Baldisseri, the synod president, and Cardinal Hummes have taken the unusual step of defending the very idea of the synod and its much decried Working Document.
The pope took an even more unusual step in his opening statement to the synod yesterday. He said, speaking in Spanish to make things easier, that the Working Document is a “martyr-text (un texto mártir) destined to be destroyed , because it’s the point of departure, so that the Spirit is going to work in us and, now, to walk with us under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
The point being that the Spirit would cause “a process” to be born from the dialogue that will now begin so that the defunct text can be resurrected in a renewed spiritual form. One of the pope’s guiding principles is that we should “start processes” not seek to “dominate spaces.”
Still, it’s a lot to ask that Christlike powers of resurrection emerge in a synodal “process.”
And it’s not merely cynical to question whether there can be real dialogue, even under the Holy Spirit, within this synod as constituted. Even a cursory look at the list of people chosen to participate shows that they’re all pretty much already of the same mind about the controversial matters.
If there had been a desire for real dialogue, there would have been at least a few figures chosen to participate in “the process” who would challenge the most radical proposals. As things stand, there’s basically Cardinal Sarah – a figure to be reckoned with, to be sure. But even such a man can only do so much given the orientation of scores of other participants.
And yet there is a God in Israel. And a Holy Spirit – which Francis urged the participants not to throw out of the room. We’ll soon see what that Spirit will do.
*Image: The Holy Spirit with a Model of Ptolemy’s World by Herman Hahn, 1610 [National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland]