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How to avoid being tripped up by coverage of the Synod

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Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, talk as they leave the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on 5 October. Photo: Paul Haring/CNS
Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, talk as they leave the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on 5 October. Photo: Paul Haring/CNS

In the vast wasteland of contemporary English usage, “narrative”, deployed as a substitute for “storyline” 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 got 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.

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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 this 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 [18 October – see the Catholic Weekly’s website, – Ed.] 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 wilfulness, 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.

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