back to top
Tuesday, July 23, 2024
8.6 C

Fights, factions and Francis: unhelpful narratives from Synod 2015

Most read

Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago talks with German Cardinal Walter Kasper as they leave the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on 5 October. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago talks with German Cardinal Walter Kasper as they leave the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on 5 October. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Letters from the Synod: Volume 17 – 19 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and elsewhere, on the XIV Ordinary General assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II

…from and about Synod 2015

Here is the calendar for the third week of Synod 2015:

- Advertisement -

Monday, October 19: Discussion in the 13 language-based circuli minores from 0900 to 1230, and then again from 1630 to 1900

Tuesday, October 20: Discussion in the circuli minores from 0900 to 1230, followed by a general assembly (from 1630-1900), during which the Synod will hear reports from the discussion groups, the modi or amendments to Part III of the working document will be handed in, and a first vote will be taken for election to the Synod’s permanent council.

Wednesday, October 21:  A “free day,” during which the commission for the Synod’s final report will meet to prepare the Progetto, the draft, of the final report.

Thursday, October 22: The Synod general assembly will meet from 0900-1030 to conduct the second and final vote for election to the Synod general council, and the Progetto of the final report will be presented and given to the Synod fathers. Then, from 1630 until 1900, the general assembly will hear interventions on the Progetto and written observation on the Progetto will be handed in.

Friday, October 23: Another “free day”, during which the drafting commission will refine the final report.

Saturday, October 24: From 0900 to 1230, the final report as refined by the drafting commission will be read to the Synod. Then, from 1630 to 1900, voting on the final report will take place, paragraph by paragraph (according to Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Synod general secretary), after which the Te Deum will be sung.

Sunday, October 25: The solemn closing of Synod 2015, at a concelebrated Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.


…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

Unhelpful “Narratives”

In the vast wasteland of contemporary English usage, “narrative”, deployed as a substitute for “story-line”, does not quite achieve the fingernails-down-the-blackboard cringe-worthiness of “fan-base” (formerly, “fans”) and “body of work” (formerly, “career”). Things being what they are, however, “narrative” seems here to stay until something else from faux-sociologese comes along. So I’ll stop kvetching and, having gotten that out of my system, get on with the task at hand: identifying and critiquing several “narratives” about Synod 2015 that are quite unhelpful in understanding what’s going on here.

(1) The first of these is the claim that there are “no camps” or factions in the Synod. Attempts to challenge the world media’s fixation on intra-ecclesial conflict, and the widespread habit of parsing any such conflict in conventional political terms, are always welcome. But to do this by blandly insisting that there aren’t divisions at Synod 2015 just won’t wash. There are obviously different, and sometimes quite conflicted, theological tendencies and approaches to pastoral care present at the Synod; everyone directly involved knows it; so does everyone paying serious attention to the debates within the Synod general assembly and the language-based Synod discussion groups; and the voting on the Synod final document will illuminate those theological and pastoral differences.

It’s also true that the contentions at Synod 2015 are being conducted, in the main, in a civilised way; no one has yet played Nicholas of Myra to someone else’s Arius by throwing a punch, as Old Saint Nick is supposed to have done at the First Council of Nicaea, and more than a few Synod fathers, while still unhappy with the process, nonetheless note that this Synod has been far more interesting and engaging than any of its predecessors. All that being said, the facts remain: the contentions are here, they’re real, and they’re being debated. Which is, over the long haul, good for the Church, as honest and open argument always is.

And the people of the Church are mature enough to understand that. The “no camps” storyline more often than not expresses a subtle clericalism, which imagines that those in the pews can’t handle the fact that their fathers in Christ are divided on certain questions. Well, we can. And it’s a sign of respect for our Christian and ecclesial maturity to recognise that, by refusing to trade in gossamer-thin “narratives” about sweetness-and-light that may be intended as soothing, but are in fact simply annoying.

(2) According to the second unhelpful narrative, those defending the tradition of the Church on worthiness to receive Holy Communion keep dividing mercy and truth. Wrong. The defenders of the tradition are precisely those who are linking mercy and truth, recognising that, while there can be truth without mercy (and making clear that this should always be avoided in pastoral care), there can be no mercy without truth. For mercy without truth is sentimentalism, not the touch of the divine healer calling us to deeper conversion. It may stretch the imaginations of some to concede that the defenders of tradition are, in fact, men of compassion and mercy, qualities that the port side of the Barque of Peter sometimes imagines are unique to itself. But they are, and to suggest otherwise is to engage in a canard that runs the risk of deteriorating into calumny.

(3) Then there is narrative about “conscience”, according to which conscience is inviolable. Here is a partial truth masquerading as the fullness of Catholic truth. As yesterday’s Special Edition of Letters from the Synod suggested, the modern Catholic understanding of conscience was given its classic articulation by Blessed John Henry Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. There, Newman closely linked conscience to revealed truth and the truths we can know by reason, warned against confusing “conscience” with personal willfulness, and rejected the claim that the proper judgment of “conscience”, rightly understood, means whatever-I-believe.

No one denies that coercive state power should be kept out of the inviolable sanctuary of conscience in matters of religious belief, but that is not the issue being contested at Synod 2015. Neither is the question of whether one is obliged to follow one’s conscience, which is clear from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1790. The question is whether any claim of “conscience” constitutes a kind of open admission ticket to the sacramental life of the Church. An affirmative answer to that question seems very, very difficult to square with the Church’s teaching – as was made clear to the segregationists who “in conscience” defied the archbishop of New Orleans on the issue of school desegregation and were informed that they were no longer in full communion with the Church because of their recalcitrance, “conscientious” or otherwise.  The segregationists were employing what Newman called, in another context, “private judgment”: an individualistic notion in serious tension with the Catholic understanding of the claims of Revelation and the nature of the Church.

(4) The fourth unhelpful narrative uses the bugbear word of the Catholic left and insists that the defenders of the Church’s tradition on chastity, marriage, and the family, on worthiness to receive Holy Communion, and on the locus of teaching authority in the Church are theologically “conservative”. About which, several things should be said.

All serious theology is in some sense “conservative”, in that theology “conserves”, explicates, and deepens the Church’s understanding of those truths that make the Church the Church. Absent those truths and that conservation, the Church is simply another non-governmental organisation, as Pope Francis reminds us. Absent those truths and that conservation, there is no authentic development, which is always organic, building on the deposit of faith. Absent those truths and that conservation, there is no authentic Catholic reform, which is always a matter of re-forming the Church according to the “form” given it by Christ.

Moreover, and perhaps more to the immediate point, the real issue at the Synod is not primarily one of theological tendencies – Thomists vs. Rahnerians vs. Balthasarians vs. Ratzingerians vs. Kasperites vs. Liberation Theologians, etc. The real issue is far more basic: Does the Catholic Church of 2015 still affirm the reality and binding force of divine Revelation, as it did in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum? Or has the Church adopted the view that the “sacred givens” in her life float atop of, and must be read through, the swirling currents of the flow of history? It should be obvious that the Church’s convictions about the reality of Revelation, as registered in Dei Verbum, and the Church’s careful discernment of the “signs of the times,” as mandated by Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, are not antithetical; the classic Catholic “both/and” is fully at work here. The question is, what interprets what? What has epistemic, and thus analytic, priority here? Do we read the signs of the times through the prism of Revelation, or do the signs of the times judge the “relevance” of Revelation?

That’s the issue, and it can’t be parsed intelligently in conservative/liberal terms.

(5) Finally, there’s the narrative according to which the defenders of tradition are being excessively “deductive”, while the proponents of change want to apply an inductive method that begins with the data of human experience. Thus one camp is charged with being cold-hearted logic-choppers, while the other is portrayed as being far more sensitive, compassionate, etc.

But are “deduction” and “induction” the only two options when we’re talking about truth, mercy, pastoral accompaniment, and growth in the life of grace, which is growth in friendship with Jesus Christ? One might have thought that, from an evangelical point of view, what’s wanted is neither deduction nor induction but what might be called “mystagogical discernment”: the wisdom that comes from an immersion in “the mysteries”, the sacraments, and from putting on a biblical view of the world, both of which open our eyes to the possibilities created by the work of grace within us.

There are many important questions being explored at Synod 2015. Those questions deserve a far more serious treatment than they get when they’re run through the filters of these five false and distorting “narratives”. Serious people understand that and conduct themselves accordingly. Happily, there are not a few of them in Rome in October 2015, and their seriousness is the best guarantor of the open, candid, and truly ecclesial conversation the Holy Father has urged on us all.

George Weigel
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Centre


Questions for the “Kasper Proposal”

A regular reader of Letters from the Synod recently wrote us, offering some cogent observations on paragraph 122 of the Synod’s working document. The paragraph in question is reprinted just below, followed by the reader’s notes on some of the difficulties of what has become widely known as the “Kasper Proposal”.


  1. The synod fathers also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Various synod fathers insisted on maintaining the present discipline, because of the constitutive relationship between participation in the Eucharist and communion with the Church as well as her teaching on the indissoluble character of marriage. Others proposed a more individualised approach, permitting access in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions, primarily in irreversible situations and those involving moral obligations towards children who would have to endure unjust suffering. Access to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice, determined by the diocesan bishop. The subject needs to be thoroughly examined, keeping in mind the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances, given that “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735].

Now to our reader’s comments…

The bond of the marriage that has been forsaken: What has happened to this bond? Does this sacred bond not deserve the respect of the Church? What about the spouse and children who were the family created by that marriage bond? Is it “prudent and wise” (to cite the German bishops’ criteria) to consider this bond so summarily dissolved? Is it “merciful” to the spouses and children of the original family?

The wrongfulness of the second union: According to Jesus, anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. So, what of the wrongfulness of the second union? It is not enough to regret the break-up of the sacramental marriage in a penitential process. The wrongfulness of the second union also needs to be addressed. How is that accomplished in a penitential path leading to the sacraments? What does the Sacrament of Penance mean if the wrongfulness of the second union where the partners continue to live as husband-and-wife is not the subject of confession, contrition, and satisfaction?

Objective wrongfulness: It is true that people in a second union contracted civilly can create a viable family life. Some say that the language of “living in sin” or living in an adulterous relationship is harsh and inappropriate here, when a couple are trying so hard to live a solid family life. But even if there is truth in this (and it’s certainly the case that charity is essential), doesn’t the fact remain that the union is wrongful in terms of the mystery of Christ and his Church celebrated in the Eucharist? And isn’t it worth noting the social science that tells us that second marriages are even more susceptible to serious marital and family problems than first marriages, and are more liable to break down than the first marriage?

The impact on marriage and the family: Are the defenders of the Kasper Proposal sure that the proposal, implemented, will have a beneficial impact on marriage and the family? It seems more likely that it will weaken marriage and family, trivialise marriage, encourage divorce, and harm especially women and children. How can the proponents be confident that the Kasper Proposal will strengthen the Church, bring people back to Mass and the sacraments, encourage vocations to the priesthood, and engender a truly evangelising spirit? Isn’t it counterintuitive to imagine these benefits coming from such a concession to the confusions of this moment in western cultural history?

The impact on the unity of faith and of the Church: Have the proponents of the Kasper “penitential path” sufficiently evaluated the impact on the faith and unity of the Church of introducing a practice that recent popes have considered and rejected? Have they considered what will happen when the world gets the news that the Catholic Church has agreed admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion? Isn’t it inevitable that such a decision be universally welcomed (or deplored) as the Catholic Church approving divorce and second unions “tout cour”.

Revising the Catechism of the Catholic Church: How do supporters of the Kasper Proposal suggest that we amend second 1650 of the Catechism (which now reads as follows)?

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” [Mark 10,11-22]. The Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognised as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1650).

A false “development”: The sponsors of the Kasper Proposal have tried to argue that the its endorsement of a penitential path to the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and civilly remarried either leaves doctrine intact or is a genuine development of doctrine. But how can this be? CCC 1650 suggests that the penitential path proposal is not a genuine development but, rather, stands the tradition on its head, setting it aside and contradicting it. How can this “development” be said to emerge organically from the tradition?

Impact on the doctrine of worthy reception of Holy Communion and on the Sacrament of Penance: Will the Kasper Proposal, if adopted, not be understood as tacit permission to receive Holy Communion without conversion of life? If the divorced and remarried can receive Holy Communion without a fundamental change in their lives, won’t it be understood by Catholics generally that anyone who has sinned seriously can receive Holy Communion without repentance and conversion? Given that the Sacrament of Penance is ordered to the Eucharist and that Catholics go to confession in view of Holy Communion, whether because they must or because it is fitting for a more worthy reception of Holy Communion, can’t we expect that the Sacrament of Penance will be frequented less – or in some places, even less?

Devolving the decision: Given the clearly interconnected doctrinal and pastoral dimensions of the question, wouldn’t it be very ill-advised to devolve jurisdiction in this matter to regions, countries, or dioceses?

[Important questions, these, no doubt to be the subject of intense discussion in the next 48 hours, as the Synod’s language-based discussion groups conclude their work and offer specific recommendations for amending the Synod working document to the drafting commission for the final report. XR2]

for the Synod and the Church to hear

As Synod 2015 intensifies, the following letter from the bishop St Ignatius, martyred here in Rome in the early second century A.D., merits reflection by all of those engaged in the Synod, within and without – but especially by those bishop-members who will be making decisions of great consequence later this week.

St Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans

I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.

No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.

The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathise with me because you will know what urges me on.

The prince of this world is determined to lay hold of me and to undermine my will which is intent on God. Let none of you here help him; instead show yourselves on my side, which is also God’s side. Do not talk about Jesus Christ as long as you love this world. Do not harbour envious thoughts. And supposing I should see you, if then I should beg you to intervene on my behalf, do not believe what I say. Believe instead what I am now writing to you. For though I am alive as I write to you, still my real desire is to die. My love of this life has been crucified, and there is no yearning in me for any earthly thing. Rather within me is the living water which says deep inside me: “Come to the Father.” I no longer take pleasure in perishable food or in the delights of this world. I want only God’s bread, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, formed of the seed of David, and for drink I crave his blood, which is love that cannot perish.

I am no longer willing to live a merely human life, and you can bring about my wish if you will. Please, then, do me this favour, so that you in turn may meet with equal kindness. Put briefly, this is my request: believe what I am saying to you. Jesus Christ himself will make it clear to you that I am saying the truth. Only truth can come from that mouth by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me that I may obtain my desire…

- Advertisement -
- Advertisement -