It would be presumptuous, of course, of anyone to offer advice to the College of Cardinals gathered for private discussions with Pope Francis during the two days of the “extraordinary consistory” currently underway. Doubly presumptuous, because who would listen – or read – some random, unofficial figure anyway?
So far, details from the first day of the consistory have been quite sparse and general. Which is surprising given the challenges that the Church faces both internally and from an increasingly hostile world. (It’s telling that one of the things we definitely – and significantly – do know is that the Women’s Ordination Conference was turned away.)
And doubly surprising, too, because a fair number of the Cardinals are serious and accomplished men who have thought – and thought deeply – about the current situation of the Church. Some are even more than ready to act, boldly.
Still, if someone presumptuous, against all proper respect and good judgment, wanted to offer the College as a group some humble words of advice, the first move might be to counsel them to take and read C.S. Lewis’s great little book The Screwtape Letters. And even more, to ponder the subtle wickedness and snares of the Devil – a real Devil, not merely some literary concoction or “symbolic reality” as the head of a prominent religious order put it not long ago – a malign personal being, an evil spirit who, with his legions, is seeking the ruin of us all.
That, ultimately, is what the Church is called to battle now. A diabolical assault, more open – it often seems these days – than ever.
And let’s imagine – since what we’re considering is so utterly preposterous anyway – that such a presumptuous person, having already lost all sense of restraint, were to go on and enumerate, in good Trinitarian fashion, three specific subjects for the Cardinals to consider with the greatest urgency. So as to ward off what might otherwise lead to despair.
What might those be?
1. Your Eminences, before all else, please do not think that you can make nice with the world. Take it from someone in a country that has gone farthest into the wilds of postmodernity. (Nota bene: this presumptuous person appears to be from the United States). Some of you have personal reasons why you want to be indulgent towards everything LGBT+. Others, looking at the masses seeking to enter the wealthier countries, think open borders is the equivalent of what the Gospel calls welcoming the poor and the stranger. Still others regard climate change as an “existential” threat and hope that joining the environmental movement will buy back some of the respect that the Church has lost. There’s a modicum of truth in each of these positions, but – to speak a fuller truth – so little that it’s not worth selling the birthright for this mess of pottage. And besides, do not be deceived. The postmodern world hates the Church. It accuses the Church of “hate” because the world recognizes that, in the end, there is clear opposition between what it loves and the love of God. Making nice may buy you a little time, but it’s later than you think.
2. Which brings us to a second point. The day is far spent, and the night comes on. We are outmanned and outgunned at every point: at the U.N., the EU, in individual national governments, the traditional media, social media, schools and universities, the medical profession, most of the legal profession, and even with local librarians (who still sternly enforce morals, but the upside-down morals of mainstream culture). There is still hope – to be sure – because our hope is in the one who made Heaven and Earth. And we must engage in the struggle with a firm belief in that hope, against all odds and against all the backlash our resistance will bring.
3. Finally, do not let the world set the terms of the debate within the Church herself. One of the main discussion points that we’ve been told by the experts needs to take place in these days is the way that the document on the reform of the curia, Predicate Evangelium, will allow even lay people to run Vatican offices. We can leave to the experts and Cardinals the finer points of whether it is ecclesial ordination (as was the case for the first 1000 years of Christianity) that confers authority, or whether it’s designation of office by the pope (a more recent and spotty reality, and a further concentration of power in the papacy that seems to cut against the desire for a more collegial, less centralized hierarchy).
But the larger question is whether the Church will model itself on the open and shifting structures of our flailing modern democracies or whether the truths of revelation and bestowing of the keys to the kingdom require a different way of understanding the Church.
For anyone in a country well advanced into postmodernity, the newer Church reforms suggest the distribution of responsibilities via what is essentially a neo-Marxist perspective – i.e., questions of power and the distribution of power among currently favored social groups (women, racial minorities, LGBT+). To embrace that perspective, however, is to join the dying world in a delusion. Unequal distribution of power is not necessarily injustice. It may even be a requirement in an institution like the Church. The way the world seeks equity is merely a playing of one power off against another. The Church is in a different business, the pursuit of truth, (true) justice, and holiness.
Such, at least, would be the first (presumptuous) musings and unsolicited (and probably unwelcome) advice of someone with no authority to speak – to anyone, about anything. Yet given how bewildered Church and world are at the moment, what harm could such a person’s presumption really do? It might even, dare one presume to say, do some good.
*Image: Eight Heads of Ecclesiastics by Jean-Georges Vibert (1840-1902) [The MET, New York]