This week may mark a watershed in modern Catholicism. On Wednesday, the Amazonia Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation will be released (more on that later in the week). Ever since that head-spinning event (Pachamama was only the most conspicuous disorder), we have seemed to be headed to major changes on priestly celibacy, deaconesses, and – in several respects – the very nature of the Church.
It’s rumored in Rome that Pope Francis may have retreated a bit on those issues now, perhaps owing to the controversy over the Cardinal Sarah/Benedict XVI book defending priestly celibacy. The Exhortation may “only” recommend establishing a commission on celibacy. If true, we’ll still have yet another case of papal ambiguity. The faithful will be left trying to determine whether the commission is intended really to “study,” or to create an expectation – as happened in the 1960s, with the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control.
Either way, by intention or not, the current papacy has brought back something that we thought died in 1978 with the election of Karol Wojtyla: the feeling that virtually everything in the Church is up for grabs, not only celibacy and deaconesses, but marriage, sexuality, Hell, the Devil, Communion, teaching authority. Jorge Bergoglio may be pope in Rome, but it often seems these days that many of the ideas he entertains are manufactured in Germany.
During the German synod in recent days, for instance, a laywoman dismissed Cardinal Woelki’s objections that a mixed clerical/lay group convened to make rules is a denial – a Protestantization – of the real nature of the Church. She asserted, on her own authority, that his “model of authority” was no longer valid. Francis has issued some statements opposed to such assumptions, to little effect.
But why not? High figures in the Vatican make up their own rules, as well. The pope met recently with the Argentine president, Alberto Fernandez, who is pro-abortion, divorced, and living with a “domestic partner” (his second since divorcing). None of that stopped Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, another Argentinean, head of the Pontifical Council for the Social Sciences, from giving them both Communion at Mass. Sanchez Sorondo called American journalist Diane Montagna and other Americans who raise questions about such laxness “fanatics.”
Are you a fanatic if you believe the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance. [CCC1415]
The Argentine president and his girlfriend may have gone to Confession and promised to live chastely. And repented of intentions to legalize baby killing. However unlikely, that would be welcome. But if so, that could have been made clear to remove any possibility of scandal or confusion about Church disciplines – far preferable to slandering people who take reception of the Eucharist seriously.
Benedict XVI’s personal secretary, Archbishop George Ganswein, it appears (no one in Rome seems to want to know or say for sure), was sidelined from his position as Prefect of the Papal Household last week owing to the flap over that book on celibacy. Somehow you get the impression that Bishop Sanchez Sorondo’s cavalier attitude about the Eucharist, “the source and summit” of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium 11), will not put him in jeopardy.
The Exhortation that will be released Wednesday, however, will not only have major repercussions within the Church. Given the centrality of priesthood and celibacy, it will be easy to overlook that the Amazon synod addressed various worldly matters such as environment and economics as well.
The world pays very little attention these days to what the Catholic Church has to say – unless, of course, the Church is encouraging “world leaders” to do what they already want to do, as with climate change and open borders.
That’s a tragedy – for the world – because without Catholic Social Teaching (CST), the world (as becomes more evident hourly) has no idea what human life is, or what it’s for. Even the modern notion of human rights, absent God and the idea of man as made in His image and likeness, is a mere abstraction that quickly degenerates into self-destructive willfulness on questions like abortion and sexual identity.
But there’s another reason that CST attracts so little attention: the often quite poor and partisan way that Catholic principles are misapplied – by popes, bishops, priests – to real-world situations that don’t remotely correspond to their assumptions. And not only in rhapsodic flights about indigenous peoples living in the Amazon.
For example, Bishop Sanchez Sorondo famously opined after a trip to China, “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” Can someone in his position really not know that: China is a world-class polluter, practices social surveillance and repression like no other nation on earth, and is subjecting religious believers to persecution, re-education, and outright martyrdom?
Pope Francis himself has said repeatedly that a Third World War is currently being fought, but in piecemeal fashion, so that we don’t notice. If so, we should be able to look and see what he’s saying. But there’s nothing to see. During the Cold War, America and the USSR fought proxy wars in Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Angola, Vietnam, etc. But that was decades ago.
Today, militant Islam is engaged in terrorism and re-establishing the caliphate. All the decent nations in the world seek to stop it. And despite the dozens of small armed conflicts that always exist at any given moment, it’s difficult to see how all that adds up to global war, except in the sense that the fallen world is always at war with itself.
Pope Francis often says, “This economy kills.” And it does, as all economies do. But we have a global economic system that, for all its flaws, is something quite close to a miracle. And in large-scale economic terms is constantly improving.
Just the other day at a special Vatican seminar on economics, he called for global wealth redistribution and pointed out that 5 million children die worldwide every year from preventable causes.
Five million dead is terrible, but it’s down from 12 million not long ago. And there are many ways to “save the children.” Fifty-three million children, more than ten times the number who die because of poverty, are aborted every year – without anything like special Vatican initiatives.
It’s unrealistic, I suppose, to expect the pope or bishops to Google some of these questions and look at what’s actually happening in the world. They prefer old socialist or new radical perspectives – troubled teenager Greta Thunberg, to a sober Scandinavian environmentalist like Bjørn Lomborg; Pachamama romanticism to the hard work of crafting practical compromises. Their moral pronouncements sound wise and compassionate, but in current circumstances, are very poor contributions to public affairs.
Keep an eye out, of course, for how celibacy, deaconesses, and Church governance are treated in the coming Exhortation. But don’t forget that there’s a world of other problems in play as well.
*Image: The Apostle Peter by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1775 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]