Well, that was fun, and by “fun” I mean “let’s never do that again.”
At least not for another year.
What a mess. The twitchy year leading up to the Synod on the Family has seen a steady rise in anxiety in the very tiny corner of the Catholic pool represented by social media and blogs.
The nature of the synod is nothing new: different factions arguing about doctrine and pastoral concerns are as old as the Church itself. Remember Galatians? “When Peter came to Antioch I rebuked him to his face, because he stood condemned.” If bloggers were covering the Council of Jerusalem, their comments would have been “zOMG! Dissidents trying to weaken doctrine by relaxing rules on circumcision!” It was All Panic All The Time.
Were there reasonable concerns about the way this synod would unfold? Very much so, and many people managed to express these concerns without headlines about “Our Doom in the Making” or posts illustrated by GIFs of wolves wandering the ruins of Rome.
I was certainly concerned that Pope Francis not only thought it was a good idea to summon a middling theologian like Cardinal Kasper from semi-retirement to shape the dialog heading into the synod, but then heaped lavish praise on his theologically faulty and wholly untenable proposals for re-admitting the divorced-and-remarried to the Eucharist. That Cardinal Kasper subsequently proved himself to be a thin-skinned, arrogant liar confirmed some of the worst fears about the Pope’s judgment.
Kasper’s “we doan need no stinkin’ Africans” gaff revealed his paternalistic Germanic colonialism. That he was perfectly willing to ruin, or at least damage, the career of a respected Vatican journalist by lying to cover his own caboose is shameful, and it would have worked if the reporter hadn’t recorded the interview. Watching a publication like Commonweal labor mightily to spin his comments even after he repudiated them was a fine reminder that the progressive wing of the church is overpopulated by political hacks.
Kasper needs to return home and we should never have to hear from him again in any serious debate. He has nothing of value to offer on the subject, and he shouldn’t have been asked to advance his opinions in the first place.
The synod proceeded to run like a broken merry-go-round, as these things often do. This time, however, the chaos of various factions fighting to advance their views was broadcast in real time thanks to social media. Add to this the usual awful Vatican media management, and you wound up with explosive headlines guaranteed to sow confusion, possibly for years to come.
The amplifying quality of modern electronic media made all this rise from mere procedural quarreling into The Pivotal Moment in the Church in Our Time and Maybe in All History No Really I’m Not Even Kidding You Guys! It’s in our nature to inflate the importance and uniqueness of our times. I read comments about the church being poised on a knife edge and think, “Yes, as always. Get a grip.”
That people could write, in all seriousness, that the “Relatio post disceptationem” was “the worst official document in the history of the church” just shows the state of ignorance of some of the people shouting the loudest. It would be nice if some who profess to love Latin so much would bother to learn it, so then maybe they’d realize that “Relatio post disceptationem” means “report after a debate” and is thus not an “official church document,” much less the “worst” official church document in our history. Have these people even heard of Siena or Pisa?
The Relatio landed with a thud as people took turns either praising its prophetic willingness to discard actual Catholic teaching or condemning it as some kind of latterday Thalia purpose-built to destroy the church. It was neither. Most of it was perfectly fine, although it provided an incomplete portrait of the debate as it stood and thus failed its basic brief. Four or five paragraphs were utterly awful, and the language in the section on homosexuality was simply a disgrace. (There are suggestions that these paragraphs were inserted–perhaps without the knowledge of Cardinal Erdo–by Special Secretary Bishop Bruno Forte.)
Now that the synod has come and gone and the October Schism anticipated by certain doomsayers failed to materialize, I wonder if some of the reactionaries are disappointed. There’s a radical fringe that would like to be shed of not merely the progressives and dissidents, but also the moderates. As 2014 unfolded, they filled social media with a nonstop klaxon of fear. I do not doubt that those who wailed the loudest did so out of love of the church and genuine concern for Her, but they were reacting from a place of anxiety not reason, and there is no fear in love: perfect love drives out fear.
Pope Francis attempted to bridge the divide in his final address to the synod fathers, but it seems to set up false equivalencies between those who want to maintain the continuity of doctrine and those who don’t. He spoke of …
… a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
– The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
– The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
– The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
– The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing!
The very nature of the process–Francis deployed the word “parrhesia,” a rhetorical term meaning to speak frankly without fear of offense–means that the synod would produce documents and statements that would run against the grain. People can’t conduct a full debate without the freedom to put all points on the table and evaluate them honestly, candidly, and without fear.
The synod is a process, and the process will continue. We say some alarming things in any vigorous debate. Modern culture suffers from a sexual insanity, and any debate which touches on sexuality–as debate about the family must–will be tense, often controversial, and almost certainly misunderstood both within and without the church. The process and the perception of the process are thus at odds. We shouldn’t fear it, but we should understand it, and continue to do our best to discuss faith in charity, without undue anxiety and with confidence in the Holy Spirit Who guides and inspires us.