A Piecemeal Vatican III?

Note: A reminder that the beginning of my eight-week course on St. Augustine’s City of God is only two weeks away. And as today’s column argues, we all need to engage the deeper parts of our Catholic tradition if we’re to have any chance of responding to the many crises we now face. If you want to be better prepared for that challenge, just click the box TCT Courses in the banner above and follow the simple instructions to enroll. – Robert Royal

Our reading today is from the Book of Benedict XVI (A Life: Volume Two), in which he recounts to biographer Peter Seewald what often happened, even during the great decades of  St. John Paul II’s papacy: “Whenever I went to Germany in the 1980s or 1990s. . .I always knew the questions in advance. They were about the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and similar problems, which kept coming back.”

Some things never change. The German synod alone is testimony to that, but the phenomenon now extends far beyond Germany. Benedict’s own greatness shows in his refusal to just accept the situation: “If we let ourselves be caught up in these discussions, then the Church becomes fixed on just a small number of rules or prohibitions. We stand there like moralists with a few old-fashioned views, and the real greatness of the faith does not appear at all.” [Emphasis added.]

Words very much worth keeping in mind now that Pope Francis has announced that he’s adding an extra year to the Synod on Synodality: “The fruits of the synodal process under way are many, but so that they might come to full maturity, it is necessary not to be in a rush.” The process was supposed to culminate in October 2023 with a month-long meeting of the bishops in Rome. There will now be a second bishops’ meeting in October 2024.

And who knows? Since this whole “process” is evolving on a very slow track towards “full maturity,” we may yet see even more time devoted to what seems to be morphing into something like a piecemeal Vatican III.

It’s difficult to say what the extra year will bring to this process. We’ve already seen that fixation on the same old questions that Benedict identified 30 years ago – women’s ordination, contraception, abortion, and now homosexuality – all long-ago settled by Catholic tradition and papal authority, are now very much present as the Church allegedly  “listens” to the voices of  “the faithful.”

It’s the nature of the beast that the most passionate activists show up whenever there’s an opening like this, in worldly matters as well as in the Church. And they keep showing up, long after traditional participants have gone home to tend to jobs, families, parishes – the places where meaning is found in concrete daily lives, not political/ecclesial crusades.

But since we now have another year for the “process,” Rome might wish to consider a few things, if anyone there is really listening:

  • Benedict XVI once warned that we had to distinguish between the Vatican II of the media and the actual Vatican II of the Council Fathers. You can’t stop the progressive, mostly anti-Catholic media from doing what they do. But if we’re really serious about the synodal process, we should already be making sure that this not be the synod of the media, but the synod of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. So how do you communicate with the faithful despite a media that serves as a megaphone for the most extreme voices in the Church?
  • Further, at this moment of worldwide irrationality, hysteria, and disorder, the Church is called upon to be the steady adult in the room. Please, ditch the adolescent 70’s art in the synod materials, which looks like pandering to the immature of all ages.
Vatican I, 1870 (artist unknown)
  • If we’re not in a rush, let’s dig slowly, deeper into the real crises in the Faith today, which is not the hottest issue on Twitter but the fundamental spiritual struggle that lies at the heart of Christianity.
  • Take up Benedict’s warning that amidst the media distortions “the real greatness of the faith does not appear at all.” It’s often been said, but bears constant repeating, that in a time like ours the horizontal message of the Gospel – love your neighbor – is being constantly emphasized, especially in political terms. But the Cross also reminds us that the vertical dimension – loving God utterly and above all – is the foundation of the horizontal dimension. Without the transcendent, our love of neighbor will be just another modern quest for utopia, destined for shipwreck on the shoals of human nature.
  • Recovering that vertical dimension is the primary challenge of the Church today. Our sciences and technologies have provided us with immense material benefits. At the same time, they have led many people into something quite like atheistic materialism.
  • The Church has various practices of prayer, spirituality, asceticism, and contemplation richer than any other religious tradition. The world – and not only the Church – is impoverished and suffering from the loss of a dimension that brings us all to a more fully human way of being. Has anyone involved in the synodal process taken seriously the need to recover and teach those Catholic practices before we sit down to listen to people who have not themselves ever heard of them?
  • Ultimately, the Church exists not merely to preach the Gospel, but to convert the world to Christ. Listening to what people have to say may help with the “how” of the preaching. But at the end of the day if people already had the keys to salvation, the Church’s own existence would be superfluous.
  • The adult in the room has to be convinced of the truth and urgency of the message. And has to have the courage and wisdom to deliver that message, knowing full well that no number of PR consultants, no degree of human winsomeness, no amount of dialogue will ward off the inevitable backlash. We have it on the highest authority, “Remember my word that I said to you: The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (Jn. 15:20)

So the extra year could be a chance for greater maturity. To judge by the results so far, the odds look very much against it. But we also have it on good authority that with God, nothing is impossible.


You may also enjoy:

Michael Pakaluk’s Is Vatican II Spent?

Stephen P. White’s The Pope’s Peculiar Take on the Council – and America

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.