Monday, October 19, 2015

Best & Worst of Bishops Behaving Badly, or Week 2 of the Family Synod

As amply demonstrated by last week's synod proceedings in Rome, Pope Francis' brand of Jesuit or Ignatian spirituality is down and dirty. Cardinal Dolan of New York explained that in Ignatian spirituality, "a mess, confusion, questions are a good thing. Very often our desire for something very tidy, very predictable, something very structured, in itself sometimes can be an obstacle to the work of grace." Well, I don't know if my heart can stand it. Here's my take on last week's chaos.

1. Worldwide Smack-down: Africa vs. Germany

Along with Cardinal Kasper, the German bishops are pushing strongly for communion for the divorced and civilly remarried and acceptance of same-sex unions for gay couples. One German bishop called these issues cultural rather than doctrinal, and spoke in support of giving authority to “national bishops conferences’ to search for pastoral solutions that are in tune with their specific cultural context.” Jumping on the bandwagon, Archbishop Cupich of Chicago found the logic of allowing communion for divorced and remarried to apply to homosexual couples as well.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Sarah of Africa compared the idolatory of Western freedom to an apocalyptic beast. He identified as a major threat the family's "subjectivist disintegration in the secularized West through quick and easy divorce, abortion, homosexual unions, euthanasia et cetera," He continued: “We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human; but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated.”

Kudos to both sides for laying their cards on the table. My vote: Thumbs up for clarity. Thumbs down for eroding my peace of mind.

2. Minority Report: Practicing Catholics Edition

Cardinal Dolan recently blogged about the "new minority" in the Church, a minority also worthy of inclusion. Surprisingly, the "new minority" sounds a lot like Catholics who strive to follow the Church and practice their faith to the best of their ability:

Can I suggest as well that there is now a new minority in the world and even in the Church?  I am thinking of those who, relying on God’s grace and mercy, strive for virtue and fidelity: Couples who — given the fact that, at least in North America, only half of our people even enter the sacrament of matrimony–  approach the Church for the sacrament;  Couples who, inspired by the Church’s teaching that marriage is forever, have persevered through trials; couples who welcome God’s gifts of many babies; a young man and woman who have chosen not to live together until marriage; a gay man or woman who wants to be chaste; a couple who has decided that the wife would sacrifice a promising professional career to stay at home and raise their children — these wonderful people today often feel themselves a minority, certainly in culture, but even, at times in the Church!

This is encouragement that practicing Catholics badly need to hear from a prince of the Church. As popular blogger and mom of 10 Simcha Fisher wrote recently, the faithful sheep are suffering, too. She commented: "We can become so caught up in the great cultural and spiritual wars of our era — wars that swirl around avant-garde sins begging for extravagant mercy — that we forget the family back home, the poor family, the ones we’re defending when we go out to fight.... The Church is full of the obedient wounded. The flock who never strayed have troubles of their own." Amen. And thank you.

The situation is even more apparent in countries less fortunate than our own, where being faithful can require extraordinary sacrifice. For the Synod fathers to promote a worldview that renders those sacrifices worthless, impotent, and foolish is a crushing blow. A Romanian doctor who was invited to speak to the Synod made an impassioned plea on behalf of those who stayed true to their beliefs in a time of trial:

My father was a Christian political leader, who was imprisoned by the communists for 17 years. My parents were engaged to marry, but their wedding took place 17 years later. My mother waited all those years for my father, although she didn’t even know if he was still alive. They have been heroically faithful to God and to their engagement. Their example shows that God’s grace can overcame terrible social circumstances and material poverty....The Church’s mission is to save souls. Evil, in this world, comes from sin. Not from income disparity or “climate change”....if the Catholic Church gives in to the spirit of this world, it is going to be very difficult for all the other Christians to resist it.

It is good for these voices to be heard. My vote: Thumbs up.

3. Tempest in a Teapot, or the Lettergate that Wasn't 

A lot of ink has been spilled about a private letter written by 13 (or 9) cardinals to the Pope in order to express their deep disquiet about the direction of the Synod. The letter supposedly highlighted three concerns: the faulty document that the bishops were given to whip into shape, the new Synodal process for 2015, and whether the 10-member drafting committee will ensure that the final document represents the views of all bishops, rather than just a select few.

While it's good to know that some cardinals are concerned, the contents of the letter are hardly new or breathtaking. Kvetching (in public and private) is par for the course during a synod. Whatever the letter said (since there's confusion about the actual text), it doesn't sound any more critical than the public small group reports. My vote: Meh.

4. Lights of Hope: Canonization of Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin

On Sunday, October 18, Pope Francis canonized the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, popularly known as the Little Flower. These saints of the ordinary are wonderful role models for all mothers and fathers, especially those practicing Catholics that Cardinal Dolan has reached out to support. As I wrote in my Catholic Digest article:

The Martins were not great philosophers, brave martyrs, or founders of religious orders. The most important thing they did during their lives was to create a family environment that nurtured the blossoming sainthood of their smallest child, Therese. This is what all mothers and fathers are called to do  -- to raise their children to be saints. The example of the Martins gives us hope that we can follow in their footsteps.

My vote: Thumbs up.

5. Decentralization Update: Oh noooo.....

After only a brief mention during the first week of the Synod, the issue of decentralization or "local-option Catholicism" has swelled into a chorus of howling by Church-watchers. Muddying the waters even further, Pope Francis gave a speech last Saturday on his vision of a "Synodal church." The speech stressed the ability of each one of the baptized to discern the will of God. Pope Francis also emphasized that bishops have the power to discern what problems exist in their local churches. It is less clear whether the power to discern equals the power to govern, in Pope Francis' opinion. To a certain extent, the speech reads like an argument for Church governance along the lines of a Constitutional monarchy, where the monarch -- in this case, the pope -- has no real power.

Allowing local bishops or councils of regional bishops to decide doctrine for their particular countries would quite frankly be an unmitigated disaster. As George Weigel explained:

  • it defies logic and theology to suggest that "what is sacrilege in one part of the world Church ... is a font of grace in another"
  • shifting political borders in embattled countries could cause shifts in doctrine
  • the world is becoming smaller rather than bigger because of revolutions in communications and transportation; universality has never been easier to achieve, why throw it away? 

My vote: Thumbs down!

Canva graphic created with image by Andreas Tille (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. I can't even keep on top of all the information and op-ed's coming out right now.... thanks for trying to make it a bit clearer!

    1. Karee, very good and balanced. One additional thought, on the Pope's "synodality" address. I think the media coverage risks being too closely dominated by the communion for the divorced and remarried debate that it could miss other aspects of the debate. I am not convinced that Francis sees "synodality" as just a ruse to create a path for Kasper, which is what I think some of the commentary out there is suggesting. For one thing, we must not forget that this was a speech on the 50th anniversary of the institution of the synod, established by his hero Paul VI, so he was bound to sing its praises. More broadly, though, I think the synod resonates with Francis for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the Kasper proposal. First, is Francis' experience with CELAM, the Latin American Bishops' Conference--a synod. CELAM has produced important pastoral documents that inform the regional experience of Catholicism in ways that are responsive to local concerns. Arguably, CELAM has had no problem hewing closely to orthodoxy, clamping down on Liberation Theology in the 1990s and generally towing the line on matters of sex and reproduction, while allowing breathing room for the Church leaders (like Oscar Romero) to fight against perceived injustice. Second, Francis' entire pontificate is predicated on the principles drawn up at the 2007 CELAM conference at Aparecida, which probably did more to cement Francis' favorable impression of "synodality" than any other factor. And third, while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis also headed the Eastern Rite Ordinariate of Argentina, and was therefore exposed to the functioning of "synodality" in the Orthodox and Eastern Rite tradition (again, hardly beds of heterodoxy). Accordingly, while I do think we must be vigilant to the way pastoral policy is delegated to local bishops' conferences (i.e., to ensure that doctrine is not compromised), I don't really see Francis as having muddied the waters on this issue because it is really a different issue.

    2. If the pope had raised this issue as part of curial reform, I would have been a lot less concerned. Shifting administrative responsibility away from the curia and towards regional conferences could have several benefits. But this was raised at the Family Synod and is being heavily championed by the Kasper faction as a means to achieve doctrinal change by calling it practice and making it a regional choice. Administrative decentralization doesn't bother me. The possibility of doctrinal decentralization gives me hives!

    3. I don't think the speech on Saturday was formally part of the Synod, but it will certainly be seen that way.

  2. I'm not sure I would be as discouraged (perhaps unsettled is abetter word) by the comments of Pope Francis. He has a history of managing deep conflict (.e. Being picked to lead Jesuits in Argentina) which probably had starker contrasts than the issues today - liberation theology being the main split.

    1. In the end, he always seems to support the magisterium and the deposit of faith, but the process of hearing all points of view is the popes responsibility,and I think he will encourage more compassion within the limits of what the early church taught about chastity. We will all wait and see!

    2. "In the end, he always seems to support the magisterium and the deposit of faith, but the process of hearing all points of view is the popes responsibility." Yes, he hasn't said or done anything irrevocable yet, so we are all waiting to see the end result. He has spoken frequently and eloquently in line with the magisterium, so there is that reason for hope. His commitment to listening to all points of view is admirable, as long as he doesn't ultimately advocate for one that is harmful to the church.