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Logic devolving in push to make episcopal conferences king of the family: Letters from the Synod

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Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, right, leaves a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on 9 October. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, right, leaves a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican on 9 October. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Letters from the Synod: Volume 12 – 13 October

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

Edited by Xavier Rynne II


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…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

Doubts About Devolution – I

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” [2 Corinthians 4.7]

It’s no insult to Synod 2015 to describe it as a contemporary example of what St Paul meant about the Church being an “earthen vessel” for the treasure that is friendship with Jesus Christ, Lord and savior. As numerous reporters and commentators have noted (some more accurately than others), there is a clash of theologies and pastoral sensibilities here at the Synod; procedures and process have been muddled; rumors and rumors-of-rumors abound, both inside the real Synod and in the media/blogosphere Synod. That’s all fairly obvious; it ought not scandalise anyone.

Synod 2015 has not come close to the “knavish imbecility” that Hilaire Belloc thought rampant in the governance of Catholicism over time (as he also thought it a curious sign of the Church’s divine origins, given the Church’s endurance amidst human weakness and failure). But Synod 2015 is no perfect exercise in collegiality and synodality, any more than previous synods were, or any more than Vatican II was. The Church is always, holy, because the Church is the Body of Christ and shares in Christ’s all-holiness. But the notion of the real existing Church, if you will, as a perfected community in history is a dubious conceit redolent of the radical Reformation; it’s certainly not a Catholic idea, as the history of the papacy (among many other things) reminds us.

Still, it’s worth pausing amidst the contentions and all-too-human characteristics of Synod 2015 to note with gratitude just how wonderful other aspects of Synod 2015 are.

The Church is led by a pope from Argentina, who sits in the Synod as primus inter pares among his brother-bishops. The four “delegate-presidents” include a Frenchman, a Filipino, a Brazilian, and a South African. The General Rapporteur is a Hungarian canonist and cardinal. The Eastern Catholic Churches, Byzantine in liturgy and polity but in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, are well-represented in the Synod Aula. African bishops are among the most dynamic leaders of Synod 2015, a development that some would have thought a pious dream in the early twentieth century.

In brief, Synod 2015 is a remarkable display of the universality of the Catholic Church: a striking example of the catholicity of Catholicism.

Universality or catholicity has long been regarded as one of the four “marks” or essential qualities of the Church, along with unity, holiness, and apostolicity. The Church affirms that conviction every Sunday and liturgical solemnity when, in the Nicene Creed, the people of the Church profess their belief in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”. Yet of those four marks, “universality” has, for two millennia, been somewhat more of an abstraction than the others, simply because the missio ad gentes, the “mission to the nations” commanded by the Lord in the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19-20, had not really reached “the ends of the earth”. Now it has. And the reality of a true, existential catholicity is on full display at Synod-2015. The Catholic Church is more a truly “world Church” or “universal Church” today than it ever has been before.

This is true in more than a geographic or ethnic sense, however. Whatever the occasional vulgarities of the blogosphere and Twitter-world, the Church is now engaging in a more truly catholic, which is to say “universal”, conversation than ever before. Some of the aspects that conversation may be alarming, but it’s a truly global conversation in which everyone who wishes to participate does so. Thus while the success of the missio ad gentes and the transportation revolution have driven the “existential universalisation” of the Church in ways you can see simply by looking at the Synod fathers, the IT revolution has done at last as much in making this a “world Church” in an unprecedented way.

All of which raises an interesting question: At the precise moment when Catholicism is living its universality as never before, why are some proposing a return to pre-modern, or at least pre-20th century, forms of ecclesial life by urging a considerable devolution of authority within the Church to national or regional conferences of bishops? What is this New Gallicanism?

To be sure, no one doubts that there are a lot of things that could be better done in the Catholic Church by local bishops or groups of local bishops than by Curial officials in Rome – and that “no one” includes sensible Curial officials. But a universal Church living its universality in unprecedented ways does not need a devolution of teaching authority to what are essentially coordinating structures for common activity in the apostolate: and that is what national or regional bishops’ conferences are, and according to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, all that they can be. Nor does a Church living its universality in a 24/7 world need a devolution of authority over pastoral practices that are intimately bound up with doctrinal unity, for divergence in such practices would severely compromise the unity of faith that is essential to the Church being itself. A look at the deliquescence of the Anglican Communion precisely because of such deconstruction-in-diversity ought to concentrate Catholic minds on this point – divergent practice on matters of serious theological and doctrinal consequence inevitably lead to the decomposition of unity-in-faith.

Another thought occurs. While there is no sector of the world Church that does not have its issues with “Rome” and how things are done (or aren’t done) in Rome, “Rome” (meaning the central authority of the Church) is a crucial guarantor that problems often mis-managed for various reasons “at home” – the sexual abuse crisis in its pre-2002 phase comes to mind – are dealt with in a serious and effective way, which has been true of local churches since “Rome” got seriously involved in addressing the grave sins and crimes of the abuse crisis. Thus one wonders why those who celebrate a new and more assertive Roman role in disciplining malfeasant bishops when they fail to address the sexual abuse of the young are among those calling for a devolution of authority to national or regional bishops’ conferences. It does seem a bit inconsistent.

There are other doubts about devolution, theological and historical in nature, that will be explored in this space in the days ahead.

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



What Might Be Said at the Synod  – IV

We continue today our series of “Model Interventions”, prepared by various Catholic thinkers, which we hope will help inform both the Synod’s general assemblies and its language-based small group discussions. XR2

Shedding the Light of Vatican II on Marriage


We are here, near the tomb of St Peter and gathered around his successor, to consider how we might best respond as pastors to the contemporary challenges facing marriage and family life.

This is not the first time the Church has confronted these questions in our age.  In the final document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the great Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Council fathers took up “Problems of Special Urgency” confronting the Church, addressing, in the first place, “The Dignity of Marriage and Family”.

Rereading Gaudium et Spes today, one is struck by the scriptural depth and pastoral insight of its teaching on the family.  Unfortunately, Part II of this Synod’s working document (or Instrumentum Laboris), which we take up in our discussions this week, passes over in silence central elements of this profound teaching. In our work, therefore, let us reaffirm that Vatican II remains the touchstone for our response to the world’s challenges to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Gaudium et Spes begins its treatment of the family with a definition of marriage as an “intimate partnership” of “life and love” between a man and a woman, “established by the Creator”, “rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent . . . ordained for the procreation and education of children”.  It then reflects beautifully, with rich Biblical images, on how this natural reality was elevated by Christ to the dignity of a Christian sacrament.  It makes clear, therefore, precisely what a marriage is, even on the natural level, and how it is elevated and perfected by the grace of Christ – and how powerful that grace in overcoming the wounds of evil and sin that remain present in our fallen world.

Instead of taking up this scriptural teaching of the Council, the Instrumentum Laboris speaks at great length about marriage and family, but it gives no definition of them.  When it does refer to Gaudium et Spes, it summarises it, rather anemically, as “placing love at the center of the family”.  That is true enough. But it ignores Vatican II’s references to consent, indissolubility, and the ordering of marriage to the procreation of children.  The Instrumentum Laboris with which we are working could also have confessed more robustly the conviction, which I trust we shall share, that the power of grace can overcome the wounds of sin in contemporary families.

Like Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which St John Paul II promulgated as an authoritative guide to the reception of the Council, and which draws heavily from Gaudium et Spes in speaking about family life) should also be a model for our work.  Its discussion of marriage (in paragraphs 1601-1666) is striking for its straightforward clarity, Scriptural richness, and pastoral sensitivity.  It discusses marriage in God’s plan (in the order of creation, as wounded by sin, and as restored in Christ), emphasising God’s faithfulness to couples in the grace of the sacrament, offered to strengthen them to persevere through the difficulties of married life.

Vatican II shines a ray of Gospel light on the difficulties of marriage and family in the contemporary world.  Let us allow it to illuminate our work this week and next – and when we return home to be the “Church permanently in mission” that the Holy Father called us to be in Evangelii Gaudium.


…for the Synod and the Church to hear

We continue today the publication of Bishop Robert Barron’s keynote address last month at the World Congress of Families in Philadelphia, “Imago Dei as Privilege and Mission”, Part One of which may be found in Letters from the Synod #11.

To summarise Part One with desperate brevity:

1) The Biblical view of the human person in Genesis 1-2 is by far the “highest” such conception on offer in the world, and has been since it was first articulated.

2) Atheists old and new have gotten things precisely backwards, for the closer we come to the God of the Bible the more fully we become the selves we were meant to be and which our noblest aspirations call us to be.

3) The Biblical story of human origins is theological and liturgical, a story in which the creation “flows” from God in a stately procession, culminating in the creation of Adam and Eve, whose mission is to worship the Creator on behalf of the whole creation. Thus the first “mission” or vocation of those made in God’s image is a priestly mission.

4) The second creation account in Genesis, with its story of Adam naming the animals, suggests the prophetic or truth-telling mission of those made in imago Dei.

5) The summons to stewardship at the end of Genesis 1 identifies humanity’s third mission/vocation: to “Edenise” the world in an exercise of kingship displayed in right-ordering the things of this world through service.       

6) The “Fall” damaged all three of these missions/vocations: rather than right worship, Adam and Eve and their descendants fell into self-worship; rather than right-ordering, humanity introduced disorder into creation, based on human whim and pride; rather than exercising proper stewardship, humanity began to submit to the Evil One as his subordinates, rather than acting as “the viceroys of the Creator God”.

Now, to the continuation of Bishop Barron’s reflections:.


by Bishop Robert Barron

 Israel, Christ, and the Church

So what does God do [after the Fall]?  He sends a rescue operation.  A basic Biblical truth is that God never delights in sin or the suffering of the sinner.  Rather, he burns to set things right.  All Scriptural references to the anger or wrath of God should not be interpreted along emotional lines, as though God falls in and out of snits; they should instead be read as poetic evocations of God’s passion for justice.  The means that the Lord chose for his work of salvation was a people, Israel, a family formed after his own mind and heart.  By the integrity of their worship and their moral life, they would become a beacon to the rest of the world, drawing everyone back into union with their Creator.  Notice please how God sends a series of priests, prophets, and kings—anointed figures—whose purpose is to shape Israel once again according to the pattern of Adam before the fall.

The priests—including Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the myriad officials of the Jerusalem temple—instructed Israel in right praise.  The temple, adorned inside and out with depictions of plants, animals, sun, moon, and the planets, was designed to be a recapitulation of the Garden, the place where the whole of creation gathered to praise the Lord:  “Mt. Zion, the great king’s city, the true pole of the earth” was the place where all of the tribes of Israel went up.  And once they were gathered in prayer, they would, in principle, attract all of the nations of the world.  The prophets—including Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel—were sent in order to align the mind of Israel with the mind of Yahweh.  The Bible is clear that sin has affected, not only the will, but the mind as well, thus preventing us from seeing the world according to the patterns of grace.  It was precisely due to the fallenness of the mind that the prophets were, almost without exception, seen as strange and marginal figures, out of step with mainstream thought, and why many of them were persecuted.  Finally, God sent a line of kings—from Saul and David to Solomon, Josiah, and Hezekiah—whose task was to restore the lost order of Eden, to govern the nation according to the purposes of God and to protect it from threats both internal and external.

Now just as the temple leadership became corrupt and the prophets were ignored or killed, so the kings of Israel tended not to live up to their calling.  Even David, Israel’s greatest king, was a murderer and adulterer, and Solomon, the wisest of all the nation’s leaders, succumbed to idolatry.  And therefore Israel’s mission went off the rails, and the family covenant was unfulfilled.  The most heartbreaking and theologically challenging moment in Israelite history was the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple, and the forced exile of the cream of the society, affected by the Babylonian invaders in 587 BC.  This demonstrated, in the minds of the most theologically alert, that Israel’s identity and purpose were seriously compromised.

This is why Israel began to dream of a Messiah, a new David, a new Moses, who would fulfill the covenant, restore the integrity of the temple, deal with the enemies of the nation, unite the tribes, and ultimately rule as Lord of the world.  We can discern the job description of the anointed one easily enough by consulting the Psalms and the Prophets.  How wonderful and illuminating, therefore, that the first Christians referred to Jesus of Nazareth as Maschiach, rendered in Greek as Christos.  In so naming him, they were acknowledging Jesus as precisely the figure for whom the heart of Israel longed.

Was Jesus a priest?  Definitively so!  In reference to himself, he said, “you have a greater than the temple here”, implying that his own person is now the privileged place where divinity and humanity are reconciled.  And on the cross, he performed the final priestly act, offering his body as an oblation to the Father.  Was he a prophet?  Unsurpassably so!  Not only did he preach the truth, but he was, as St John so clearly argues, the Truth in person, so that every gesture of his was also an illuminating word.  We notice how central to his teaching were non-violence, forgiveness, and compassion, the very values that restore the lost order of Eden.

Was he a king?  Absolutely!  He did battle with the powers, both religious and secular, that held Israel captive, and he fought, not with the weapons of the world, but with the weapons of the spirit.  That battle came to a head on the cross, when all of the forces of sin and dysfunction met him and found themselves swallowed up in the divine mercy:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.  How appropriate, therefore, was Pilate’s placing of a sign over the cross of Jesus, designating the crucified one as “King of the Jews”.  Though the Roman governor meant it as an ironic mock, the joke was, in fact, on him.  To any first century Jew, the declaration of someone as King of the Jews implied, by extension, that he was King of the nations—and this is precisely what Paul announced so regularly and so passionately:  “Jesus is Lord!”

As priest, prophet, and king, Jesus became, not simply the founder of a new community, but the organic head of a new body.  Grafted onto him, the Church takes on the task and responsibility of Israel and Adam:  to Edenise the world and to restore creation to its integrity.  As Vatican II so clearly taught, all of the members of the mystical body, therefore, have priestly, prophetic, and kingly orders.  All of the baptised are meant to be vehicles of sanctification, instruction, and right governance.  In accord with the subjectivism of our culture, many Christians think of their spiritual lives in an essentially individualist way, as the cultivation of their personal friendship with God.  But this is to overlook something that the New Testament authors took for granted, namely that Christians exist not for themselves but for the world.  Jesus compared his followers to salt, which is designed to preserve and enhance something other than itself, and to light, whose purpose is to be set on a stand in order to illumine what is around it. Pope Paul VI articulated the same truth as follows:  the Church doesn’t have a mission; the Church is a mission.

(To be concluded tomorrow)


…being other items of interest

Cardinal Collins on the Art of Accompaniment

The following intervention was given to the general assembly of the Synod of bishops on Saturday, October 10, by Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, with special reference to section 110 of the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris:

We are called to accompany people with a compassion that challenges, and that leads to conversion and to a heart on fire for Christ. Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Pastors, who must daily accompany their people in their struggles, should imitate Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and with clarity and charity preach the call to conversion, which is the foundation for the liberating message of Jesus “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
  2. The Gospel message is entrusted to us; but our greater task is to form messengers, for all the faithful are called to the apostolate, especially parents entrusted with the evangelisation of their children.
  3. Men in particular need to be challenged in order to assume their responsibilities in society, so that the young are not deprived of paternal models to guide them along the sure path that can sustain their hope.
  4. Young people should be presented with the fullness of God’s plan for human love, with all of its challenges and its invitation to heroic sanctity. Pastoral experience shows that they rise to this challenge with a reaction similar to the disciples of Emmaus: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

Our mission is to make disciples, but secular culture is more effective in unmaking them. This is nowhere more evident than in the secular vision of the family, of sexuality, of gender, of fidelity, and of the human person.

We must certainly start where people are at, in their subjective personal situations, and accompany them. But to do so with evangelical integrity, we must effectively share with them the objective truths of Sacred Scripture and Tradition, which challenge the secular assumptions that they draw in with the air they breathe. The goal is to form missionary disciples within the family who will evangelise the world.

“Go, make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). That is the mandate Jesus gives us at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. In Luke, on the road to Emmaus, he shows us how to do so.

First, he drew near, and accompanied his downcast disciples as they walked in the wrong direction, into the night. He started by asking questions about their present disposition and by listening to them, but he did not stop there. Instead, he challenged them with the Word of God: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” (Luke 24:25). His presentation of the objective vision of Scripture broke through their subjective self-absorption and, along with his loving presence, brought them to conversion. The disciples of Emmaus accepted the Word of God that challenged them, and asked Jesus to remain with them. When the Lord was made known to them in the Breaking of the Bread they changed direction and, with burning hearts, raced through the night to Jerusalem to bear joyful witness to the community gathered there.

A sad display

The nasty habit of denouncing-without-naming was, according to portside Catholic commentators, one of the unpleasant characteristics of the antediluvian, pre-Vatican II Church – a charge typically illustrated by reference to the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. Taking that critique, for the moment, at face value, one would have to note that some bad Roman habits never die.

The following tweet was transmitted Saturday by the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, the journal reviewed before publication by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See (which, we hasten to add, has better things to do than censor tweets, especially those followed, as this one was, by poorly-drawn cartoons of mummies being wrapped in binding strips and silenced).


We incorrectly identified Fr Antonio Spadaro, SJ, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, as a member of the drafting committee for Synod 2015’s final report. We regret the error, apologise for any confusion it may have caused, and send Fr Spadaro our good wishes – accompanied by our hope that his future Tweets will be less dismissive of the legitimate concerns of many Synod fathers. XR2


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