Letters from the Synod – Volume 22: 24 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
Today’s Schedule: In the morning, the Synod fathers will hear a revised draft of the Synod’s final report, constructed in light of yesterday’s general assembly debate and the written amendments submitted by the fathers. The fathers will then vote on the revised document, paragraph by paragraph, in the afternoon. It is not yet clear whether the document that results from that voting process will be publicly released, or when.
…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers
The “Media Synod” Need Not Win…
…if appropriate cautions are observed
For well over a decade I’ve considered Sandro Magister of L’Espresso one of the few Vaticanisti worth reading regularly – and arguably the only one who carries an Italian passport. Sandro is a friend, and I still read him faithfully. But the article he posted on his Chiesa Web site yesterday seemed to me to miss the mark badly, and in a way that contributes to the very outcome of Synod 2015 that he deplores.
The article is available here (https://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1351164?eng=y), but to summarise briefly, Magister’s argument is that, no matter what the real Synod does, the “media Synod” that’s been underway since before Synod 2015 formally opened will win the day. Why? Because it’s already planted false interpretive keys in the public mind – false “narratives,” to use that dreadful word again – and those false narratives will win the day.
There’s certainly been a lot of “narrativising” going on here in Rome, as a press corps that isn’t actually covering the Synod (which it can’t access) but what other people are saying about what they think is going on in the Synod (as another friend, John Allen of the Boston Globe put it) tries to find stories to fill the daily demand for copy. Another problem, identified by Magister, is that certain parties in the Synod have used favoured reporters to plant suspicions about Synod fathers with whom they disagree, sometimes abetted by the staff of the Holy See Press Office. A third problem, hinted at by Magister, should also be noted: and that is that too much of the mainstream media – and, increasingly, the blogosphere media – believes in its unlimited infallibility with a tenaciousness that makes Pius IX’s grip on his quite limited infallibility seem tenuous by contrast. A fourth problem is that Italian Vaticanisti, primarily concerned with defending entrenched Curial financial and administrative practices, are taken at face value by some gullible Anglophones, who don’t realise that the locals are using the Synod debates as a blind behind which to lambast influential Synod fathers whose reformist work they deplore.
But taken together and shaken, not stirred, does that necessarily mean that the “media Synod” will trump the real Synod in the public mind? Perhaps among those not paying sufficient attention. Or those already committed to the “narratives” that the media has put in place (because those folks share the same [mis]perceptions that make these “narratives” what they are). Still, discerning readers of the print media and the blogosphere can cut through the static of “narrative” and begin to get an idea of what has actually happened during Synod 2015 if they keep three things in mind when sifting through the chatter.
1. There is the real Pope Francis, and then there is the cartoon Pope Francis.
Eight months after Pope Francis was elected, I wrote in the Wall Street Journal that he had become a global Rorschach blot, onto which Catholics and non-Catholics alike were projecting their hopes and fears, often without paying serious attention to what the Pope actually said or did. The Rorschaching-of-the Pope has not abated since then; it’s intensified, and it’s the primary distorting filter through which a lot of bad reporting and commentary on Synod 2015 has been run. This Rorschaching knows no ideological bounds: the conservative and traditionalist Catholic blogosphere has been just as sunk in it, albeit with an obviously different analysis of What It All Means, than the usual suspects on the port side, like the National Catholic Reporter and the New York Times. But to cite an old friend previously quoted in these LETTERS – Sergeant Joe Friday of the 1950s detective series, Dragnet – any serious analysis of Pope Francis and Synod 2015 should begin with “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
So let’s begin with Fact Number One, which is that Pope Francis is, as he has often said, a son of the Church who believes and teaches what the Church believes and teaches. As Sandro Magister himself points out in his article on the “media synod” effectively trumping the real Synod, “Between the Synod of 2014 and this one of 2015, Francis chalked up more than fifty public statements perfectly in line with the traditional doctrine of the Church: against ‘gender’ ideology, against the divorced and remarried who ‘demand’ communion, and even in favour of an old forgotten virtue like chastity before marriage. ‘Catholic doctrine is not to be touched,’ he repeated at the opening of the Synod.”
These facts don’t fit comfortably within the “narrative” of a non-judgmental, social-reformer pope with a populist touch. The interesting question is, why? Is it because those who live inside the cartoon Pope “narrative” refuse to concede that orthodox Catholics can be compassionate, merciful, committed to the service and empowerment of the poor – even good neighbours whom you might like to have over for a beer to observe such cultural wonders (or signs of the Apocalypse; you choose) as a Chicago Cubs/New York Mets National League championship series? Is it because the Rohrschached Pope is more useful for advancing certain political or ecclesiastical causes than the real Pope? Pope Francis is, admittedly, a complex man. But why do Catholic traditionalists miss his defence of orthodoxy as badly as the two Times, that of New York and that of London? It’s not a great mystery why the Times-people miss, or wilfully ignore, the Pope’s commitment to the truths the Church holds; it ill serves the cultural, social, and political purposes into which they’d like to recruit Pope Francis as a trophy-chaplain. But serious Catholics ought to know better.
It’s entirely predictable that a lot of the mainstream media take on Synod 2015 will run along these lines: “Compassionate, reforming Pope frustrated and blocked by hard-line conservative bishops.” But that is a false story, for which there is no serious evidence. The Pope called for an open debate; an open debate ensued, after the Synod fathers, led by thirteen senior cardinals, made clear that that’s what they wanted. Only the foolish or the ideologically besotted will buy the line that the reformist Francis has been impeded once again by the combined forces of an intransigent Roman Curia and bishops who never really liked Vatican II. That’s rubbish, and it should be treated as such.
2. Don’t swallow the canard that the opponents of the Kasper Proposal are “fundamentalists.”
This “narrative” fits neatly within the larger Compassionate Reformers vs. Intransigent Meanies “narrative,” adding a frisson of intellectual and cultural smackdown to the mix. But, like the notion that Pope Francis is a Liberal Protestant in a white cassock, it’s nonsense.
The Kasper Proposal to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion after an appropriate “penitential path” has been severely and respectfully criticised by responsible Catholic scholars around the world. It has been criticised on biblical, theological, historical, canonical, and pastoral grounds. Can anyone charging these critics with “fundamentalism” identity a single one of the critics who believes that the world was created in six twenty-four hour periods – the litmus test of “fundamentalism” since the Scopes Trial? The short answer is: No. And the critics of this alleged “fundamentalism” know this, or ought to.
Perhaps a different sort of “fundamentalism” is alleged here, though: a “fundamentalism” that takes Jesus and St Paul at their word, when the former teaches that marriage is indissoluble (Mark 10:5-9) and the latter teaches that those who receive Holy Communion unworthily eat and drink themselves into very, very serious trouble (1 Corinthians 11.29). But that was then, the critics of the “fundamentalists” charge, and this is now – and, well, things are different. To assert that, however, is to assert that there are no stable “givens” in the life of the Church, even those things that the most stringent historical-critical scholar of the Bible will admit are the actual words of Jesus and Paul. And to say that is to say that the Church constructs the Christian reality over time, amidst the flux of history. The alternative view is the one held by Pope Francis and a considerable majority of the fathers of Synod 2015: the Church receives its essential “form” from Christ as a gift – and, as Thomas More and John Fisher believed, that “form” is a treasure of life-giving truth to be defended even to death.
To deny that there are “sacred givens” in the life of the Church is a prescription for endless deconstruction, of the sort that has eviscerated the once-great Christian communities of liberal Protestantism throughout the North Atlantic world. To oppose that deconstruction is not “fundamentalism.” It’s a reaffirmation of the truth the Second Vatican Council taught in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum: Revelation is real, and the Church is accountable to it.
3. Don’t take seriously the line that Synod 2015 has been a nasty exercise in ecclesiastical elbow-throwing.
This “narrative” comes with an extra dollop of ill-grace from those who made such a hash of Synod 2014 and seemed inclined to run that sort of prix-fixe exercise again in 2015. The facts of the matter are that Synod fathers across the spectrum of Catholic opinion were upset at the attempted hijacking of Synod 2014 – and effectively derailed that effort – while the concerns expressed about the process originally planned for Synod 2015 were also widely shared: and, to the credit of the Synod general secretary, were addressed, after the letter to the pope from those thirteen (entirely respectful and loyal) cardinals.
The Nastiness “narrative” also conveys, if unintentionally, an abysmal lack of historical perspective. The Councils and regional synods of the Patristic era – the golden age of collegiality in the Catholic episcopate – were rife with conflict. I’ve already mentioned twice in these Letters the story (which I hope is not apocryphal) of Nicholas of Myra (the model for Old St Nick) throwing a punch at the arch-heretic Arius at the First Council of Nicaea in 325; Nicholas of Myra, like many bishops at of Nicaea I, bore the marks of the torture he had suffered under the Diocletian persecution, and he wasn’t about to take any guff from an intellectual hotshot like Arius when it came to the divinity of Christ I also remember the day when a classmate in graduate school unearthed a text about St Cyril of Alexandria, who led the anti-Nestorian charge at the Council of Ephesus in 431 – and evidently did so while throwing some pretty sharp elbows in defence of Mary’s title as Theotokos, “Mother of God.” In any event, the text, as I recall it, was from a contemporary of Cyril’s and was written on the Alexandrian patriarch’s death. This won’t be a precise quote, but the sense of the thing was, “We rejoice that the patriarch Cyril has been called to his reward; but we fear lest the holy angels, finding him as obnoxious in heaven as we found him on earth, should send him back to us.”
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a high-megaton ecclesiastical put-down. And there has been nothing like it at Synod 2015 – which is not, happily, like the U.S. House of Representatives (or the Republican caucus therein) these days.
There have been serious disagreements at Synod 2015, and some of them are unresolved – not least because, as I indicated yesterday, there was a serious lack of intellectual engagement by many of the principal German-speaking Synod fathers. Serious argument and debate are, however, a part of Catholic life and have been for two millennia (see Acts 11:1-18 and Galatians 2:11). Pretending to suffer a case of the vapours over the reality of ecclesiastical argument and disagreement makes for a pretty poor “narrative,” especially when it comes from those who seem to have lost the argument.
One more facet of the Nastiness “narrative” should be flagged: this business of “I’m shocked, shocked” over disagreement in Synod often runs in harness with the New Progressive Catholic Ultramontanism, one of the truly bizarre features of Catholic life in this pontificate – the idea of the pope as Catholic autocrat, disagreement with whom amounts to indictable ecclesiastical treason. Leaving aside the irony of this charge being laid by commentators who made their reputations, over the past four decades, as fierce and often quite unpleasant critics of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the charge does no honour to Pope Francis. The Pope is a big boy: he can handle disagreement, he can admit error, and he can fight his corner. His putative supporters do him a disservice when they try to turn him into a Roman simulacrum of the old Russian czar, even as they themselves display the liberal authoritarianism that is another unfortunate feature of post-conciliar Catholic life.
The drama of Synod 2015 remains to be played out. Those who have followed it with interest, concern, and hope should read about its finale with a healthy sense of scepticism about accounts of the end-game, the result, and/or What It All Means that reflect distorting “narratives” that tell us far more about the “narrativisers” than about Synod 2015.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Centre