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Letters from the Synod: Volume 4 – 2 October

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Letters from the Synod: Volume 4 – 2 October

Reports and Commentary from Rome and around the world on the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II

…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

What might be said at the Synod

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 As has been noted previously in this space, there are “issues beneath the issues” at Synod 2015. Many of those underlying issues touch on central themes of Christian faith: sin and grace; creation and redemption; the nature of divine Revelation and its role in the ongoing life of the Church; the relationship between objective moral norms (or their very existence) and the exercise of conscience; the unique character of the Church and the way authority is (and is not) exercised within the Church. It seems to many that these deeper issues should be surfaced during the Synod, so that it becomes ever more clear that, in confronting evangelically the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family, the Church is not called to tinkering, but to deeper conversion, more radical reflection, and more effective mission.

So: If you were a Synod Father or an expert invited to the Synod, what would you say in the Synod Aula on these and related “deeper issues”? Letters from the Synod posed that question to several sharp Catholic minds; the “model Synod interventions” that will appear in this space for the next several days are the responses we got. If you’re struck by their brevity, remember that interventions (otherwise known as “speeches”) in the formal meetings of the Synod are supposed to last no longer than a few minutes. How serious theological and pastoral reflection in a world already distorted by sound-bites can possibly take place through slightly lengthier sound-bites – many of them no longer than your typical daily Mass homily – is a good question. But into that we need not go right now.  XR2

A priest distributes Communion as Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on 27 September. Photo: CNS/Bob Roller
A priest distributes Communion as Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on 27 September. Photo: CNS/Bob Roller

Model Intervention #1: On sin, grace, and the question of who may worthily receive Holy Communion.

 The pastoral proposal to give Holy Communion to persons who are sexually active in a divorced-remarried relationship poses risks with longstanding consequences for the whole Catholic Church. We do indeed live in an age in which human beings stand deeply in need of the mercy of God, and the Church should be a consistent voice of mercy in the contemporary world; but her voice must also be coherent. It is possible for the Church to be truthful without being merciful, and that would be a failure. But it is not possible for the Church to be authentically merciful without also being truthful.

1517 was a fateful year for the future of Christian unity in Europe.  A rift that opened then divides Christianity today. In 1517, the rift entailed disputes about the necessity of confession, the payment of funds to support the local Church in Germany, the question of justification by faith alone apart from works of charity, and the permissibility of divorce. Strangely, half a millennium later, and in a different way, the Church is at a crossroads that is not entirely different.

The sexual revolution and the rise of the widespread use of contraception in western countries, the moral frailty and individualism of modern culture, the prevalence of divorce, questions about the moral status of homosexual behaviour: all of this has contributed to a new questioning of the longstanding teaching of the Catholic Church in matters of sexuality, and to proposals for a new strategy that has a certain familiarity to those who have studied that fateful year, 1517, and what flowed from it.

Luther famously posited that man could be simultaneously justified and a sinner, simul justus et peccator. He could be justified by faith alone, while remaining enslaved to sin in his heart and in his actions. As he was not justified by works of moral righteousness, his salvation did not necessarily entail moral transformation. This was a powerful idea. Yet despite the best efforts of modern ecumenical theology and dialogue to identify some partial truth in it, we must nevertheless maintain: it is powerfully wrong.

At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel we learn the first simple words of Christ’s preaching: “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) The Gospel message always and everywhere entails repentance. As the medieval and modern doctors have taught in unison, the grace of justification, or friendship with God, means that each human being must be transformed by grace: not only transformed in the mind by faith, but also transformed in the will by hope and charity; saved by grace, yes, but also saved in the heart by turning away from sinful actions and by turning toward God. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”

Thus the Catholic Church has continually maintained the necessity of sacramental confession in the wake of any mortal sin that destroys the integral life of grace.

One of the many difficulties with the current proposal to admit the divorced and civilly-remarried to Holy Communion is that it typically ignores a question that cannot be ignored. Must the couple in the second marriage, in sacramental confession, intend to renounce ongoing sexual relations as a presupposition of their reception of Holy Communion? The Church only asks that they try to do so, with the grace of God, and accepts that growth in continence may be halting. But the Church must require that they renounce the sin of adultery clearly and attempt to make progress in refraining from it.

The serious moral fault of divorce and remarriage cannot simply be relegated to a past act: the failed love of a past marriage. It also concerns the living relationship of the person to God, including what they do or do not do in their body, and in their common life with others. Faith alone is not a sufficient criterion for a proper notion of repentance, or for the reception of the mercy of God. Faith working out its salvation in truth, in the love of God, in regular reception of the sacraments of Penance as well as Holy Communion: it is this alone that truly justifies.

The Church can change some disciplinary measures and can dispense with formalities and penalties in various times and places. She cannot change the fundamental structure of the sacramental life as instituted by Jesus Christ and as discerned with patience by the conciliar and dogmatic decrees of the Church. She cannot alter the perennial definition of what marriage is, of what the grace of justification consists in, and of the relationship between Holy Communion and the sacrament of Penance.

Today, we face a moment of serious discernment regarding all these matters, and they are largely concentrated in a particular pastoral proposal that in fact would turn the Church away from her consistent teaching and pastoral practice of the past two millennia.

There cannot be a simple gentlemen’s agreement to allow this to become the tacitly adopted practice in certain local Churches.  Any ambiguity that continues to linger around this question risks deeply dividing the Church and leading to effects as serious as those of the early sixteenth century: and that is not something with which this generation of Catholic bishops should wish to be associated. Nor is that an outcome that can serve way the unity and mission of the Church of Christ in a genuine way. Only the truth receives grace.

If we are to promote the mercy of Christ authentically in our own age, as the Holy Father has so forcefully and profoundly reminded us that we must do, then we must do so in continuity with the enduring teachings of the apostolic Church.

Model Intervention #2: On the true meaning of the development of doctrine

When Blessed John Henry Newman published An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in 1845, he listed seven “notes” for discerning when a true development of doctrine has occurred in the history of the Catholic Church. Among these were the preservation of a coherent type or form of doctrine; continuity of principles; logical sequence of reasoning through time; anticipation of future teaching implicit in past teaching; and the way newly developed teachings both preserve and extend the teachings of the past, presenting them in a new context with what Newman called “chronic vigor”.

These notes are clearly present in the modern teaching of the Catholic Church on human sexuality and the nature of marriage: from Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, to the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes (particularly paragraph 48); from Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae to St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Familiaris Consortio, and on to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What form of teaching do we find preserved and deepened here?

That marriage is an indissoluble sacramental union of a man and a woman in their natural complementarity, open to life; and that this expression of human sexuality is morally normative for all human beings. In fact, one could argue that the linchpin of modern Catholic teaching on human sexuality is found in Humanae Vitae, in the teaching that, in marriage, the unitive and procreative dimensions of human sexuality are inseparable, without grave moral (and social) consequences.

Today of course we see this teaching radically questioned, not only outside of the Church, but from within – and by appeal to Newman’s theory of development. Is it not time to make room in the self-understanding and life of the Church for the bourgeois norms of sexuality that we find around us? Can we not simply lay down the intellectual and pastoral weapons by which we fight what some call a “culture war” and accept homosexual acts, contraception, extramarital sexual relations?

What is happening in these proposals is, of course, not a question of the pastoral practices of compassion, merciful kindness, and patience in teaching the truth. Rather, what is being proposed is a matter of changing or “developing” the teaching of Christ, the apostles, and the modern magisterium, to the point where they are no longer recognisable.

To facilitate this change, appeal is often made to history: history instructs us that the Church can make distinctions over time; that we should not be fundamentalists; that there are no stable truths that persist through time (at least no stable truths that we find inconvenient or embarrassing in our increasingly secularised, uncomprehending society).

There is another 19th-century thinker, a rival to Newman, whose influence is felt in these agitations: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. For in Hegels thinking, human beings are only and always beings in time. They can be assured of no stable truths that transcend the flux of history. All truth develops in the flux of history and situations; and in that context, we must continually rethink our fundamental commitments and beliefs.

Transposed into the domain of the development of doctrine, this Hegelian approach to the human condition gives us a thoroughly, indeed radically, contextual notion of the Churchs moral teachings. When the culture around us has altered considerably, we must preserve generic truths of our own tradition but forsake specifics. So indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman should be affirmed, but mostly because it is an embodiment of love. When that love is dead, the marriage is dead. It can be mourned or repented of; but if love springs up again, then the new union that results must also be respected.

Similarly, marriage is between a man and a woman; but because it is a union of love, we can see that a union of love between two persons of the same sex is also something like a union. Couples should be faithful to one another because commitment implies moral authenticity; but if such fidelity is found wanting, we can still find moral authenticity in those who co-habit, or in those who have ongoing sexual relationships with those who are not their spouses. Now that the veil of time is pulled back, we see new essences emerging, new definitions, in light of a new situation.

All of this, of course, is what John Henry Newman rightly identified as corruption, not development; as apostasy, not fidelity; as the innovations of a new era of private judgment in which dogma cannot be tolerated if it infringes upon modern liberal subjectivity, not as a reflection of the catholic and apostolic faith.  

As for the work of this Synod, there should be little question about the discernment we should make with regard to the questions at hand and their relationship to any authentically Catholic development of doctrine. True development is development that deepens and extends the Churchs tradition, according to a hermeneutic of continuity that Benedict XVI contrasted to a hermeneutic of rupture.  If we bishops would be faithful teachers, shepherds, and sanctifiers in a Church that is ever ancient and ever new, we must safeguard and present anew in all its freshness the splendor of the truth – the truth of the apostles and of the consistent teaching of the modern magisterium – so that it might shine anew in our world and, as it has done so often in the past, bring joy to human hearts.

Die Deutschefrage [The German Question]

In 1994, an anthology of “replies” to the encyclical Veritatis Splendor from German Catholic theologians included the striking claim that these thinkers had a special responsibility to call John Paul II to task for what he had taught in The Splendor of Truth. Why? Because German theology held a privileged place within the Catholic theological world; the Pope had, so to speak, dissed the great strides German thinkers had made in moral theology; and it was the Germans’ duty to let the world know about that.

Theologians are as vulnerable to vanity as the rest of us in the trade of idea-crafting. But even by the standards of the intellectuals’ guild, this was breathtaking.  And it was not only a matter of these German theologians heaping barely-disguised contempt on one of the great scholar-popes in Catholic history (contempt, one could not help feel, that had a certain ethnic component to it). It was the assertion of a self-evident German theological hegemony that rang a lot of alarm bells. Who had written that memo? Who had bestowed that accolade?

It’s certainly true that the world Church owes German-speaking Catholicism a great debt of intellectual gratitude. It was something of a journalistic exaggeration to suggest that, at Vatican II, “the Rhine flowed into the Tiber”, as one popularised account of the Council put it.

But it was not that much of an exaggeration. For decades, German Catholic scholarship was at the forefront of Catholic theological life, as were German biblical studies, German historical studies, German thinking about Catholic social doctrine – and that’s before we get to the critical role played in the Liturgical Movement of the first six decades of the twentieth century by Germans like Joseph Jungmann, SJ, and Pius Parsch. (Parsch was not reticent about his role; in the last edition of The Church’s Year of Grace, he publicly thanked Pius XII, the “Father of Christendom”, for taking his – that is, Parsch’s – advice in restoring the Easter Vigil.)

Those decades of ideas-with-consequences, which were not without difficulties because of the Church politics of the time (not to mention the Nazi period and World War II), left an indelible mark on Vatican II through the work as theological advisers to the Council of men like Karl Rahner, SJ, and Joseph Ratzinger, both of whom played crucial roles in the development of the Council’s two dogmatic constitutions, on the Church and on Divine Revelation. And if German Catholic scholarship divided, in the post-Vatican II years, between what Ratzinger (as Pope Benedict XVI) would call the party of “continuity” and the party of “rupture”, full marks should nonetheless be given to German Catholic theology for many of the seminal insights that are at the center of Vatican II’s teaching.

Unfortunately, the rift in the interpretation of Vatican II between the “party of rupture” and the “party of continuity” was not confined to the lecture hall, the seminar room, and the crafting of dissertations. In Germany, the “party of rupture” took hold, not only of German Catholic academic life, but of the German episcopate and the vast German Catholic church bureaucracy – a massive complex made possible by the Kirchensteuer, the “Church tax” that pours huge sums of  tax money into German Catholicism’s coffers (and from which, to be fair, the German bishops pour vast sums of money into the Church in the Third World). And the “party of rupture” had little use for John Paul II. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say (as I did in the special preface I wrote to the German edition of Witness to Hope, the first volume of my John Paul II biography) that John Paul’s magisterium had its roughest reception in the German-speaking world, in part because German Catholic thinkers took John Paul II to be anti-modern (when in truth he was a thoroughly modern intellectual with a different reading of the modern world and its challenges).

In any event, Veritatis Splendor was a bridge too far for a lot of German Catholic theologians. And their reassertion of their privileged place in the world of Catholic thought was a not-terribly-well-disguised declaration of independence from the teaching authority of the Church.

Two of the most prominent figures in 21st-century German Catholicism, Cardinals Walter Kasper and Reinhard Marx, both academic theologians by training, have played prominent roles in the debate over marriage and the family in recent years; it seems unlikely that they are going to be wallflowers this month, in Rome and in the media. Kasper’s proposals, which he always insists involve no abandonment of doctrine, have been widely discussed (not least by those who insist that his proposals do exactly that). It’s Cardinal Marx whose recent comments and activities suggest that the “party of rupture” that dominates the German Church is not in a compromising mood.

Several months ago, Cardinal Marx as much as said that the Synod would not have any real effect on how the German episcopate, of which he is president, handled the pastoral problems of divorced and civilly-remarried Catholics in Germany. The German bishops were not branch officers of a global corporation, did not take orders blindly from headquarters in Rome, and would, if necessary, make their own pastoral arrangements by their own authority. The not-so-subtle hint was that the universal Church really had no way of reining the German episcopate in, and that attempts to do so would simply make the German bishops dig in their heels.

Several German diocesan bishops (and the German prefect of the Congregation or the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller) took Cardinal Marx to task, so it would be false to assume that Marx speaks for a unanimous bishops’ conference, although he likely speaks for a majority. What can be said with confidence is that he speaks for the dominant currents in German Catholic intellectual, bureaucratic, and pastoral life. And the symmetry between his approach to Synod 2015 and that of the Belgian and Swiss hierarchies, who seem equally committed to the “party of rupture” interpretation of what Vatican II did to and for the Church, suggests that the world Church has a serious problem on its hands: much of the Church in northern Europe seems to be in some sort of psychological schism – formally “on board”, but, in sentiment and attitude, rather checked-out.

Those who pay close attention to European Catholic affairs have been aware of this for a while, although few wanted to talk about it, in the countries involved or in Rome. Yes a case can be made that it’s healthier for all concerned if that attitude of superiority and independence suggested by the German reaction to Veritatis Splendor should be exposed, now, for what it is, especially among senior German churchmen, in light of their approach to Synod 2014 and Synod 2015.

It’s also important to remember that the Catholic Church has been through similar struggles before. The multi-headed hydra of Gallicanism (defined by the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church as “the collective name for the body of doctrine which asserted the more or less complete freedom of the Roman Catholic Church, especially in France, from the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy”) roiled Catholic life for centuries. Some will, no doubt, raise an eyebrow at the thought that the East Franks (otherwise known as the Germans) are now repeating the errors of their old competitor, the West Franks (otherwise known as the French). But to borrow from that witty sociologist, Peter Rossi, there are many ironies in the fire – even in Church history, it seems.

Two other points worth remembering : 1) die Deutschefrage in the Catholic Church, the German Question, has a particular character because of the role played in German Catholic life by the Church bureaucracy (second-largest employer in the country) and the lay movements with which it is allied and 2) this Question appears in an especially tragic way because of the collapse of Catholic practice in Germany. According to the 2014-15 yearbook published by the German bishops, for example, diocesan Mass attendance (“worshippers”) as a percentage of total diocesan Catholic population was 10.3 per cent in Berlin, 10.7 per cent in Cardinal Marx’s Munich, 10 per cent in Cardinal Kasper’s former diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, and 9.4 per cent in Cologne.

Identifying the causal links among these three phenomena – the largest and best-funded Catholic bureaucracy in the world, the collapse of German Catholic practice, and the confused condition of German Catholic theology within the “party of rupture” – is behind the scope of this brief comment.  But it is at least worth suggesting here (as I did in Evangelical Catholicism and more recently in the newly-released, revised and enlarged edition of Letters to a Young Catholic) that the collapse of Christian practice referred to as “secularisation” has at least as much to do with the Church’s failure to preach the liberating power of the Gospel than it does with some allegedly inexorable historical process before which the Catholic Church stands helpless, and in the face of which the Church must simply make the best accommodation it can. For contrary to a lot of sociological expectation a hundred years ago, if you preach it they will come. But to preach it you have to believe it (as in believing-in-the-Gospel-and-the-crucified-and-risen-Lord-Jesus-Christ) as the truth of the world and the key to human fulfillment and happiness, not as some option in a supermarket of lifestyle alternatives.

The German experience of empty churches is mirrored in Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium, where the “rupturing” currents of thought evident in Germany are also prominent; so one might also speak of die Österreichischfrage, die Schweizerfrage, and die Belgierfrage (the Austrian, Swiss, and Belgian questions) in the 21st-century Church and at Synod 2015 – although there are certainly differences among these four countries. But it is the Germans, led by Cardinal Marx and Cardinal Kasper, who seem to be the current leaders of the “party of rupture”. It is Marx who has asserted a kind of new Gallicanism. And it is in the interaction between these cardinals and the leaders of the vibrant young churches of the Third World, particularly in Africa, that some sparks will likely be generated during Synod 2015.

George Weigel
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

…for the Synod and the Church to hear

A convert to Catholicism during his university studies, Bishop James D. Conley has been Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, since 2012, after serving as auxiliary bishop of Denver, a pastor in his native Wichita, Kansas, and an official of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome. Bishop Conley’s answers to the questions posed to him and others by Letters from the Synod follow. XR2

Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, discusses the key to evangelisation during the Catholic Medical Association's annual educational conference in 2014. Photo: CNS/Jacque Brund
Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, discusses the key to evangelisation during the Catholic Medical Association’s annual educational conference in 2014. Photo: CNS/Jacque Brund

1) In your pastoral experience in Lincoln, how does the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family present itself? 

There are two levels of marital and family crisis evident in the Diocese of Lincoln.  The first, and more obvious, is the disintegration of the family itself— the absence of fathers, the ubiquity of divorce, the formation of “same-sex” families, etc.  This is the crisis that is most visible and most often remarked upon.

But in my experience, this crisis is partially the consequence of a deeper problem.  This second kind of family crisis is occurring within the homes of intact, traditional, and often religiously active families. This is the crisis of radical isolation—the crisis of contraception which leads to a lack of generosity and an unwillingness to sacrifice; the crisis of pornography at all levels; a kind of hyper- activity (sports, clubs, etc.) that fragments the family; and the crisis of unmoderated consumption of media — all of which leads to radical isolation.  This crisis of loneliness, self-centeredness, abandonment of family prayer, and a loss of a vibrant cultural life is the crisis that leads to the more obvious signs of social and family breakdown.

The crisis of marriage and family life is a social crisis—but at its core it’s a spiritual, intellectual, and personal crisis, best addressed through transformative relationships with Christ and his Church.

2) What have you found to be effective pastoral strategies in addressing issues of chastity, marriage, and the family?

The most effective means of addressing our family and marriage crises, or any crisis of life, is formation in Christian holiness— formation in the missionary discipleship to which we are called.  And this can only come about through prayer, conversion of heart, and authentic friendship with the Lord.

Addressing the crisis in marriage and family means helping to form authentic Catholic communities, rooted in sacred worship and prayer, offering social support in Christian charity, and animated by a clear sense of apostolic mission – and an obvious desire for holiness.  People simply need to want to grow in holiness, to deepen their friendship with Jesus.

Crises are best addressed by the presence of a vibrant, attractive, and dynamic alternative, especially one that responds to the fundamental causes of social and spiritual disintegration.  The restoration of a joyful Christian culture provides a context in which apostolates like Courage, Endow, Beloved, FOCUS, etc., can address specific sexual, familial, and social issues.

3) What are your hopes for Synod 2015? How could it be most helpful to you in your responsibilities as chief shepherd of the Church of Lincoln?

The challenge for any bishop in the post-Christian west is to present Christ, as if for the first time, to souls who have, at least implicitly, rejected their own false notions of the Gospel. With regard to families, the challenge is to present a vision in which the faith is a meaningful, doable, and sustainable center for family and cultural life.  Bishops need guidance for articulating the Gospel in a secular context, and for drawing families into the mission of the Church as collaborators.  We need assistance in proclaiming objective and normative realities, compellingly, to a postmodern, relativistic culture, and doing so with joy, confidence and a holy zeal.  We need to help families encounter Christ—the true and living Christ— and help them to shape their lives around Gospel.  We need to help young people understand sexuality in the context of the rich Christian understanding of the human person. And we need to form Christian communities capable of resisting a culture of radical individualism.

Ultimately, as ever, we need to present the living Christ, the source of all peace, and all grace, in every human family.

If Synod 2015 can assist bishops in meeting those challenges, it will be a worthwhile exercise and immensely helpful. The Church can no longer operate according to an institutional model.  She must operate with compelling missionary dynamism.  If the synod encourages and equips bishops to become, and form, missionary disciples for the family, its effects will be profound.

…being other items of interest 

An excerpt from St Augustine, Sermon on Pastors

…Christians must imitate Christ’s sufferings, not set their hearts on pleasures. He who is weak will be strengthened when told: “Yes, expect the temptations of this world, but the Lord will deliver you from them all if your heart has not abandoned him. For it was to strengthen your heart that he came to suffer and die, came to be spit upon and crowned with thorns, came to be accused of shameful things, yes, came to be fastened to the wood of the cross. All these things he did for you, and you did nothing. He did them not for himself, but for you.”

But what sort of shepherds are they who for fear of giving offence not only fail to prepare the sheep for the temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to this world. On the contrary, God foretold hardship upon hardship in this world until the end of time. And you want the Christian to be exempt from these troubles? Precisely because he is a Christian, he is destined to suffer more in this world….

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