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Now who’s trying to roll back Vatican II? Letters from the Synod

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Letters from the Synod: Volume 8 – 7 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


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…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

Fault lines

As has been noted in this space before, it’s virtually impossible to have a serious discussion when the basic materials allowed into the conversation are three-minute sound-bites.

Nonetheless, that is the modus operandi the Synod general secretariat has devised for the Synod 2015’s general assemblies: three-minute speeches, with no follow-up questions, discussion, or debate. There is more openness and exchange in the Synod’s language-based discussion groups – the circuli minores, “or small circles” (memorably and mischievously mistranslated by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in Appointment in Rome as the “minor circuses”) – and in the hour of free discussion in general assembly at the conclusion of some of the Synod’s work days. Unfortunately, however, the general assemblies of the Synod, though they always have been: hours of speech-making, albeit in bite-size bits, with no real engagement between speakers and listeners.

Despite all of that, it is still possible to discern some of the issues beneath the issues at a Synod by a close reading of what is said in these three-minute discorsi. And that established datum of Synod-observation continues to hold at Synod 2015, in which the first rounds of these speeches have unveiled some striking fault-lines among the Synod’s members.

One of these fault lines involves the very definition of “family”. Can that word be properly predicated of any relationship, however structured and however lived? Do the “signs of the times” dictate how the Church should think of “family”, or does the relevant evangelical model for the Church remain the Holy Family? Does the path of “pastoral accompaniment” require the Church to accept whatever definition of “family” couples or groups wish to ascribe to themselves?

Another, related fault line touches on the question of the definition of marriage – an obviously contentious question throughout the world, however bizarre that contestation might have seemed at the 1980 Synod on the Family (which led to St. John Paul II’s epic apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio [The Community of the Family]). Must the Church re-think or re-imagine the family for the twenty-first century according to the mores of the moment, at least as they present themselves in the West? How would such a re-imagining be received in a world Church whose most vital young local churches have received the Christian doctrine of marriage and family as a liberation? And if the Church is, analogously, a “family”, how do those in same-sex relationships relate to the “family” of the Church?

Yet another fault line is defined by those, on the one hand, who think that the Church should uphold what some call a summons to heroic virtue (although Vatican II called it “the universal call to holiness” in Lumen Gentium, its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), and, on the other, by those who argue that this sets an impossibly high standard, given contemporary realities. In other words, and to take a specific example, should the Church’s pastoral practice follow Moses, who permitted writs of divorce to be issued because the realities of his time, or Jesus, who taught the indissolubility of marriage as expressing the truth about the God-given nature of marriage from “the beginning”?

Still another fault line involves basic questions of ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. Do local (or national) churches have the authority to make pastoral provisions that may differ from what has been the settled practice of the universal Church? If such a local pastoral provision is in conflict with the longstanding practice of the world Church (as in the case of local churches that offer Holy Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried), what does that say about the relationship of that local church to the universal Church?

This, in turn, raises the contested question, along which another fault line may be found, of whether pastoral practice can be essentially disengaged from doctrinal principle, such that doctrine is affirmed but “pastoral accompaniment” is achieved by a practice that would seem to many to contradict the principle on which prior practice has been based.

Still another fault line engages questions of evangelical method and communications strategy. There are those who agree that the Church must do a better job of communicating the “Yes” that underwrites every “No” the Church must say, but who also believe, with regret, that there are always going to those who reject the “Yes” no matter how it is presented. And there are those who argue against any public use of language by the Church that a marginal or minority group might consider a signal of rejection.

This fault line, in turn, suggests that there are some basic divisions within the synodal house on whether human nature is essentially good, or whether it still bears the mark of original sin (although the longing for goodness and beatitude remains built into us, despite original sin).

Then there is the question of how best to actualise Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy at the pastoral level. Some Synod fathers seem to believe that using the third rite of reconciliation with general absolution during the Year of Mercy will invite those who have abandoned the sacrament to return to it in its normal forms, involving individual confession, after the Year of Mercy is concluded. Others believe that the widespread and (typically) unauthorised use of general absolution without individual confession was one factor in diminishing the recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation that is notable throughout the developed world.

More broadly, there is an evident fault line between those who read contemporary western culture as deeply (and often aggressively) antithetical to the Gospel and the classic teaching of the Church on chastity, marriage, and the family, and those who read the western signs of the times differently, finding that contemporary western culture still bears many marks of its biblical and Christian heritage that the Church should affirm. (This fault line seems to be defined, geographically, by the Atlantic Ocean, with North Americans and some Latin Americans taking the former position, and northern Europeans taking the latter position.)

The fault line marked “culture” also includes the question of how the Church best engages the world. There is much talk at the Synod about “dialogue” with culture, and in fact no one opposes that. The question is, to what end is that dialogue conducted? From the Church’s side of the dialogue, does this conversation aim at conversion, or is it simply…open? It is not easy to reconcile the latter option with Pope’s Francis’s images of the Church as a “field hospital” that is “permanently in mission”. Are those taken into the field hospital through an exercise of the Church’s mercy and compassion invited to conversion, or, if they are Christians, to deepen their already-existing friendship with Jesus Christ? That would seem to be the implication of reading the two images together, as one imagines the Holy Father would have us do; but one rarely hears the word “conversion” from those pressing for “dialogue”.

And then there is the ongoing debate that takes place between those who hold that mercy without truth is false compassion (and false pastoral care), and those who would argue that a rich display of mercy may lead the disaffected to reconsideration and repentance. In brief: Is the exercise of the Church’s mercy, which is Christ’s mercy, a response to repentance or an inducement to repentance? Can it be both? If so, how, without vitiating the call to repentance?

Our friend the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, used to say that Vatican II was an ecclesiological council, in which the Church reflected deeply and comprehensively on its own nature. True enough. Yet like every other ecumenical council in history, Vatican II has been followed by contention – and in the case of Synod 2015, contention on the very basic issues of ecclesiology that the Council addressed. Thus the current Synod might well be considered another exercise in the reception (or digestion) of Vatican II.

At Synod 2015, one way to frame the principal ecclesiological contention is through a maritime image with along history in the Catholic Church: Does the Barque of Peter have a keel or not? Are all in the Barque obliged to honor the keel, which is the fundamental structure that defines the boat and holds it together? Can there be such widely divergent understandings of what constitutes the keel that the keel eventually disintegrates? Can the unity-in-diversity sought by Vatican II and cherished by the Church throughout its history become so diverse that unity is fractured? And if so, what does that do to the “Church permanently in mission” of which Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, and for which all those most powerfully committed to the New Evangelisation long?

For decades now, it has seemed clear to some that there is a de facto schism in the Church, although it is psychological rather than formally ecclesial: the schism involves “checking out” in one’s mind from the teaching authority of the Church – exercising one’s own understanding of “diversity”, so to speak – while maintaining the appearance of unity through participation in the formal structures of the Church. If this is in fact the case, it is an inherently unstable situation, and one that mitigates against the New Evangelisation. Perhaps Synod 2015 will do the world Church a great favor by bringing to light what has previously been hidden, so that it can be addressed in the spirit of candor, charity, and fraternity to which Pope Francis bids the Synod, and the rest of us.

Xavier Rynne II


Now who’s trying to roll back Vatican II?

The following comment was offered to Letters from the Synod by Professor Michael Gorman of the Catholic University of America’s School of Philosophy. XR2

Liberal Catholics often accuse conservative Catholics of attempting to return to the days before the Second Vatican Council. Conservatives sometimes admit the charge and sometimes deny it. All this feels familiar. What no one expects is for liberals to be the ones trying to renege on the Council’s teachings.

But sometimes the unexpected happens. A case in point is Cardinal Walter Kasper and his allies, who, paradoxically, may be among the most reactionary forces in the contemporary Church. For in proposing to rework the Church’s sacramental discipline in such a way that those who are divorced and civilly remarried can be admitted to Holy Communion, they are, in effect if not in intention, working against the spirit of the Council, not to mention its letter.

Let’s begin with some undisputed points. First, as laid out in Canon 916, someone who is conscious of grave sin should not present himself for Holy Communion, and indeed, under certain circumstances described in Canon 915, should even be denied Holy Communion by the minister.

Second, someone in a sexual union with someone other than his spouse has seriously violated his marriage vows. This applies to someone who is having a secret affair, but equally to someone who has permanently left his spouse and begun a new relationship. We commonly refer to such people as “remarried” and as being in “second marriages”, but such expressions are inaccurate at best. Those who have entered into second relationships are—as we are obliged to presume until the opposite has been duly proved—actually married to the person with whom they originally went through the rite of marriage. They are not “remarried”, then, but violating the bond that ties them to the spouse they married.  To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they are living in a state of “public adultery” (CCC 2384).

So then: Those conscious of grave sin should not receive Holy Communion, and those in second unions who have married without a decree of nullity being granted in respect of the first marriage are, objectively, adulterers. Does it follow from these two undisputed propositions that those in this type of second union should not receive Holy Communion? It does, but only on the additional assumption that adultery is gravely wrong. Leaving to one side the difficult (and important) issues surrounding the subjective requirements for grave sin, the core issue is whether what the adulterer has done is objectively grave in itself. Those who want to change the Church’s public discipline on Holy Communion for the so-called “remarried” are implicitly committed to the position that it is not.

But how can so serious a violation of marriage as adultery not be matter for serious sin? Such an idea seems to make sense only on the supposition that marriage itself is not serious. The idea, in other words, seems to be that while adultery is the breaking of a promise, it’s not the breaking of an important promise, and hence it’s not an important breaking. In short, marriage just isn’t a very big deal. And this amounts to a de facto repudiation of the teaching of Vatican II on the importance of marriage, which would return us to the days when marriage was not thought of as a fully serious way to follow Christ.

Supporters of the proposal might respond that this misses the point – that their concern is more pastoral than theoretical. We grant, they might say, that adultery is grave matter, but for those in a second relationship, faithfulness to the failed marriage is often too difficult. Faithfulness in such cases requires trying in good conscience to convert the new relationship into one in which the couple “live as brother and sister”, and this is simply too much to ask. As Cardinal Kasper put it in an interview with Commonweal magazine, “heroism is not for the average Christian”. But this is just a different reversal of Vatican II—a reversal of its teaching on the universal call to holiness. Holiness can require heroism. Perhaps it always does. Hasn’t the Council taught us that all Christians, not just priests and religious, are called to live a holy life?

Attempts to restore the ancien régime sometimes come from surprising corners. Few would have expected that a German theologian who began his career in the 1960s would be leading us back to a pre-conciliar Church where lay married Catholics are treated as second-class citizens. But so it seems to be. And thus it must be resisted, out of respect for married persons and their fully Christian state of life.

Michael Gorman
Michael Gorman is associate professor  of Philosophy, the Catholic University of America



Cardinal Robert Sarah has been Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Roman Curia’s liturgy office, since November 2014, having previously served in Rome as President of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”, which exercises the pope’s ministry of charity throughout the world, and as Secretary of Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (which everyone in Rome still calls by its old Latin name, “Propaganda Fidei” or just “Prop”). Born in 1945 in the small village of Ourous in Guinea, Robert Sarah was educated buy the Spiritan fathers and did theological and biblical studies in Rome and Jerusalem before returning to his native country, where he became Archbishop of Conakry in 1979 – the youngest bishop in the world. He defended the Church against the Marxist dictatorship of Sekou Touré and shortly after the dictator’s death discovered that his had been the first name on a list, found on the late president’s desk, of enemies of the regime to be executed. Perhaps the most touching moment in his recent book-length interview, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith with Nicolas Diat [Ignatius Press] comes near the beginning, when he reports that neither he nor his parents, when young Robert was invited to enter the minor seminary, had ever previously imagined that a black man could be a pries – all the priests they had ever known had been European missionaries.

We commend God or Nothing to our readers: a marvelous book, full of faith, insight, and good humor, by a man who will play a large role in Synod 201, and in the future of the world Church. The excerpts below give some flavor of the cardinal’s mind, heart, and spirit. XR2


Cardinal Robert Sarah, centre, leaves the concluding session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in October 2014. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Cardinal Robert Sarah, centre, leaves the concluding session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in October 2014. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Nicolas Diat: Well, then, in such a complex era, where is the best path for the Church?

Cardinal Robert Sarah: I am repeating myself, but I think that the major concern must continue to be God. The circumstances and developments in the world surely do not help us to give God his proper place. Western societies are organised and live as thought God did not exist. Christians themselves, on many occasions, have settled down to a silent apostasy. If the concerns of contemporary man are centered almost exclusively on the economy, technology, and the immediacy of material happiness that has been wrongly sentimentalised, God becomes distant; often in the West the last things and eternity have unnecessarily become a sort of psychological burden.

Well, then, given this existential abyss, the Church has only one option left: she must radiate Christ exclusively, his glory and his hope. She must immerse herself more deeply in the grace of the sacraments, which are the manifestation and continuation of God’s salvific presence in our midst. Only then will God be able to find his place again. The Church proclaims the Word of God and celebrates the sacraments in the world. She must do this with the utmost honesty, a genuine rigor, a merciful respect for human miseries that she has the duty to lead toward the “splendor of truth”…

Nicolas Diat: In your opinion, would [Pope] Francis like to make the government of the Church more flexible?

Cardinal Robert Sarah: I think that Francis wants to give on-the-ground pastoral experiences a fair place in the reflection by the central government of the Church…Similarly, the pope’s desire to foster synodal reflection is a fortunate initiative. Indeed, the Synod should become a new Emmaus experience during which the heart of the Church is burning with the fire of the Scriptures. For in each of our synodal assemblies, Jesus joins us and walks with us toward the inn and the breaking of the bread. There, he reveals his risen face and sends us back so that we can find the other apostles and rebuild the Church in terris [in many lands] where she has been abandoned or disfigured by our disappointed ambitions and frustrated hopes. One we reach the Cenacle again, the place of the first Eucharist, Jesus then breathes on us so that we can announce to the world that he is alive. The “little hope”, as Charles Péguy used to say, then revives in us.

Nicolas Diat: Eternity, in three words ?

Cardinal Robert Sarah: Live, love, and communion.

Eternity is a great, wheeling motion, exaltation forever, plunging into the life of God, into the love of God, and into God’s trinitarian communion.

Eternity is the present moment. Eternity is in the palm of your hand. Eternity is a sowing with fire, which suddenly takes root and breaks down the barriers that prevent our hearts from being a deep abyss.

Eternity is you, Lord. And we find you in love and communion: you in me and you in them with me for eternity.

…being other items of interest

More on that Letter to the Synod from converts 

Letters from the Synod #5 included the text of an open letter to the Holy Father and the Synod Fathers from over 100 converts to Catholicism. The full list of signatories, along with the original letter, is now available online. We thank the authors of the open letter for their witness and commend their work to the attention of our readers. XR2

The Catholic Thing

And while we’re in the spirit of commendation, we’re happy to commend to readers of Letters from the Synod the work of our colleagues at The Catholic Thing, who have been busily following synodal affairs while sharing in the work of this project. XR2

Five guiding principles for the Synod
A good opening day for Catholicism 

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