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Pope Francis & Patriarch Kirill: Diplomatic 'Controversies,' Ecumenical Concerns

The announcement of the two-hour meeting to be held between Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow Kirill on Friday in Cuba has brought a lot of excitement—along with some criticism over Francis’s decision to have the meeting at all. There are three basic lines of critique.

First, there’s the political-diplomatic dimension of the meeting. The pope is going to meet the leader of a church that is seen more and more as part of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and an ideological support for his neo-imperial foreign policy. This criticism stresses the risks to Francis’s credibility, especially if considering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting Putin’s military actions in Syria and in Ukraine. (Kirill was, however, more cautious about Ukraine, given the potential consequences of the loss of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine for inter-Orthodox relations between Moscow and Kiev).

Second, there’s the internal politics of the Orthodox churches, in light not only of the historical rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople for supremacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of the upcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches on the Greek island of Crete in June. Some see Francis as naïve in regard as to how the patriarchate of Moscow could use the meeting to assert a new supremacy at a critical time for the future of the Orthodox churches. Here too the war in Ukraine factors into the equation.

Third, there’s the ecumenical dimension of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church has been far less engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church than the patriarch of Constantinople has; in agreeing to meet with Kirill, Francis is accused of sitting at the table with a leader who has not shown the minimum amount of ecumenical spirit required to start a conversation with the pope.

Francis is a risk-taker, and this meeting certainly involves risks.

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Mother Church & Her Battered Daughters

Archbishop Baurillo Rodríguez of Toledo, Spain, drew deserved social media scorn from around the world for remarks in his Feast of the Sacred Family homily on December 27, 2015. Addressing the rise in divorce and perceived causes for family division, Rodríguez demonstrated his—and by extension, the church’s—view of the relationship between women and men as a fundamentally hierarchical one. “Most women who are murdered by their husbands,” the archbishop said, “do not accept them, or have not accepted their demands. Frequently, the macho reaction has its origin in a time when the woman asked for a separation.”

Put aside, if you can, the archbishop’s blaming of the victim and exoneration of the murderer. There’s also a big problem with his logic. Domestic violence can’t be adequately solved by “just talking it out” because abuse isn’t just about disagreement between male and female; it’s about power and control. Emphasizing the differences in gender in this context serves to legitimatize male dominance.

The United States Catholic bishops say as much in a relatively unknown document on pastoral responses to domestic violence, "When I Call for Help": “Domestic violence is learned behavior. Men who batter learn to abuse through observation, experience, and reinforcement. They believe that they have a right to use violence; they are also rewarded, that is, their behavior gives them power and control over their partner.” In complete contradiction to Baurillo Rodríguez, the bishops write: “Ultimately, abused women must make their own decisions about staying or leaving,” and “violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage.”

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Asymmetric Culture War in the Church of Francis

There’s a rift in the Catholic Church in Italy between “Pope Francis Catholics” and those who favor a more muscular response when “non-negotiable values” (an expression Francis never uses) are at stake. The split is particularly visible at the moment because Italy is close to joining other European countries and the West with a law on same-sex unions. It won’t happen without protest.

On January 30, an organization of lay groups (including the Neocatecumenal Way) will hold a rally in Rome to protest the Italian parliament’s consideration of the law. The rally is not the initiative of the Italian bishops, but it has their “external” support, if in an ambiguous way. The president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (appointed president of the conference by Benedict XVI in 2007, likely to be replaced in 2017) strongly voiced his backing, while the powerful secretary of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino (appointed by Francis in March 2014 and now the most visible spokesperson for Francis among the Italian bishops) emphasized that the Catholic laity have the right to organize the rally but did not come out strongly in favor of it. Most Italian bishops support the rally; those who do not are very cautious in establishing distance between themselves and the Bagnasco camp.

The rally is called “Family Day,” and it’s modeled on the 2007 event held by Italian Catholics who turned out in huge numbers to support the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian bishops in their protest against a proposal by the center-left Romano Prodi to legalize same-sex civil unions (as distinct from gay marriage). Family Day 2007 marked the height of the clash between the political theology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on one side, and the political tradition of Catholic progressivism in Italy on the other. Since then, Catholic progressivism in Italian politics has all but disappeared (though not only because of Family Day).

This is relevant for the whole church because Francis has taken a different position than John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

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Washing Feet: Now All the People of God Are Invited

I woke up this morning to the very welcome news that Pope Francis has revised the Holy Thursday rite to include women as well as men in the ritual of the washing of the feet. Or, as the Vatican Radio headline so wonderfully puts it: "Pope changes Holy Thursday decree to include all people of God."

Until now the rubrics for the Mandatum -- the foot-washing ritual, which takes place after the Gospel and homily at Mass on Holy Thursday -- specified that the people whose feet were washed were "men." And that's not the English "men" that sometimes (in a totally not sexist way, as many a mansplainer will tell you) is supposed to mean "men and women"; it's the Latin "men" that means "males." Many bishops, priests, and parishes had been including women anyway, not least, as you are probably well aware, Pope Francis himself. But those who preferred an all-male lineup had the letter of the law on their side. No more: the revised text approved by Francis refers not to the "men" whose feet are washed, but to “those chosen from among the People of God.”

I've seen three basic reactions to this news in my travels online. The first is my own: Hooray! It's about time! The second: Wait, you mean washing women's feet was against the rules before? And the third, well:

Some people are displeased.

I've long argued that if you really believe that the church's refusal to consider ordaining women to the priesthood is a matter of being bound by Tradition, and definitely not just long-entrenched sexism, then you should welcome any opportunity to involve women in the life of the church. An announcement like this, like the inclusion of both females and males as altar servers, should be good news to everyone. But it doesn't always seem to work that way, in part because those most committed to preserving and defending the all-male priesthood are often those least likely to celebrate any elevation of the "people of God." If you see altar servers mainly as priests-in-training and foot-washing mainly as part of Jesus's Last Supper ordination ceremony, then those things should be limited to men, too, to protect the privileges of the priesthood. But the Mandatum isn't only or chiefly about ordination; it's about Jesus's commandment to his disciples -- and thus to all of us -- to love one another as He loved us, and to express that love in humble service. It makes no more sense to exclude women from that rite than it does to exclude them from the Communion line (when Jesus commanded, "Do this in memory of me," did he mean only men?). Pope Francis's letter explains that he changed the rite “so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Last Supper, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity” ("la sua carità senza confini").

So, yes, it's overdue. And yes, it is a big deal, at least if you're a practicing Catholic who thinks how we celebrate the Eucharist is important.

"But it's still just a suggestion, right?" is another reaction I've seen in a few places. "The priest doesn't HAVE to include women."

One big difference I would note between this and the announcement that females are permitted to be altar servers is that this time there is (so far as I know) no hand-wringing letter from the CDW about how confusing it could be to the faithful, about how they will need it to be carefully explained to them if their bishop or pastor should choose to include women. (Instead, there is this from the pope: " I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen." An opportunity for catechesis!) And there is no language carefully preserving the priest's right to go on excluding women if he so chooses. Sure, it's technically still possible, as far as I can tell, for a priest to decide that in the case of his community a group of men alone is most appropriate. He could also now opt for only women, at least as I read the rubrics. But let's remember that the liturgy is the work of the people of God -- to use a phrase Pope Francis is bringing back into vogue -- and not a performance put on by the priest for an audience of laypeople. Your parish priest could decide to ignore Francis's desire that the Holy Thursday Mass more fully express the limitless love of Christ. But why would he? And why, now that the stickler-for-the-rules excuse has been removed, would the people of God put up with it?

The Migrant Crisis & Europe's Christian Leaders

The two most important leaders in Europe advocating for more humane policies towards immigrants are Pope Francis and German chancellor Angela Merkel. They are Christians trying to make a case, on the basis of the Gospel, for a more welcoming old continent. But their message is now more unpopular than ever.

In Germany, the position taken by Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor and an unapologetically public Christian, is politically under attack in the wake of the violent assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Among those who recently joined calls for her resignation because of her generous immigration policies is The New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who not only said that “Merkel must go,” but also called for closed borders and “an orderly deportation process for able-bodied young men.”

Pope Francis’s message on refugees—a message he repeated and defended in a speech to the diplomatic corps on Monday—is similarly unpopular. Four months after his Angelus prayer of September 6, when he called on European parishes and religious communities to offer shelter to migrant families, it is not clear how many European Catholics responded to his appeal, but the impression is that the number is not high. This reveals some of the complexities of the relationship between the pontificate of Francis and the ecclesial-political status quo in the West, and especially in Europe. The church of Francis is not anti-political, nor irredeemably disenchanted by the gap between the Christian utopia and the real world. Pope Francis is trying to address the inconsistencies between the Gospel and the institutional Church: the Church must behave less like a pillar of the Western political establishment and more like a Christian community.

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Faith in Innovation, but Works?

The trouble with justified optimism is that it’s sometimes accompanied by the foolish kind. Many acknowledge the accomplishments of the Paris climate summit in December—getting close to 200 hundred nations to agree on a basic if nonbinding framework for combatting climate change is no small feat—but also note the significant challenges that remain. Yet with all the necessary reminders and caveats come excited pronouncements on the unnamed innovations that will save the planet from ourselves, and expressions of faith in their inevitability.

You can hear it in the statement of Secretary of State John Kerry after the close of the summit: “It won’t be governments that actually make the decision” about how to tackle climate change, he said—“It will be the genius of the American spirit. It will be business unleashed.” You can hear it in the words of Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, whose city increasingly finds itself endangered by rising sea levels:

“I believe in human innovation,” he said. “If, thirty or forty years ago, I’d told you that you were going to be able to communicate with your friends around the world by looking at your watch or with an iPad or an iPhone, you would think I was out of my mind.” Thirty or forty years from now, he said, “We’re going to have innovative solutions to fight back against sea-level rise that we cannot even imagine today.”

Of course, belief in American ingenuity is as old as belief in American exceptionalism, if not the same thing. But when it comes to climate change, waiting for innovation to come to the rescue amounts to a kind of complacency, the exceptionally American kind that arises from abiding belief in the beneficence of the market.

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Trump, Berlusconi & the Church

The rise of Donald Trump among Republican presidential candidates has led many to compare him with my fellow Italian Silvio Berlusconi (see Frank Bruni and others). There are indeed similarities between the two. But a big difference is that Berlusconi had no real opponents within the center-right in Italy in the first decisive elections after the end of the Cold War, in March 1994, which he won after a blitzkrieg campaign that lasted only about ten weeks (but which he had prepared in secret for a few months). The Christian-Democratic party had since the momentous election of 1948 come to dominate the political system that pivoted around a Catholic political elite until the early 1990s, and Berlusconi came to dominate the Italian political system (as prime minister and then as leader of the opposition) for the following twenty years.

But more relevant than the similarities and differences between Trump and Berlusconi is the importance of the Church’s attitude regarding the rise of these populist, demagogic financiers in democratic elections.

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Where Bishops and Theologians Still Talk

I had the opportunity to deliver one of the keynote lectures at the Vatican II conference at the Katholische Akademie in Munich this month, and to respond to the lecture given by Cardinal Karl Lehmann (Bishop of Mainz and former chairman of the Conference of German Bishops) on the legacy and the future of Vatican II. Most of the roughly two hundred people in attendance were German or German-speaking, though there were scholars from other European countries, as well as from Africa, Latin America, and the United States (including James F. Keenan of Boston College and Brad Hinze of Fordham). Several generations of scholars were represented, many inspired by or having studied under the Tübingen systematician Peter Hünermann, founder in 1989 of the European Society for Catholic Theology (full disclosure: I studied with him in Tübingen between 1999 and 2000). There were also students of his students, along with systematicians, historians, ethicists, and canon lawyers. And it was evident that Vatican II remains at the center of Catholic theology in Germany.

The final document is representative of the sensus concilli. In five pages and twelve bulleted points it makes a case for the renewed role of Vatican II in Catholic theology and the church of today: freedom of religion globally and freedom of theology as Wissenschaft (systematic research); a new relationship between theology and the magisterium; reform of church structures; ecumenism and interreligious dialogue; the church and Judaism; liturgy and inculturation; the church and the public square; and the environment.

But it wasn’t just the final statement that made the conference interesting.

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So Much History, So Little Study

The annual conventions of America’s theologians and scholars of religion are great opportunities for non-American academics (like me) to get a sense of what’s happening in the field. Yes, the old country has its European Society for Catholic Theology (founded in 1989), but it can’t yet aspire to be a hub of important activity like the Catholic Theological Society of America, the College Theology Society, or the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

Case in point: catching my attention at the recent AAR annual convention in Atlanta were the translations from French into English of the private journals of two of the most important Catholic theologians in the 20th century, whose work was decisive in the theological developments of Vatican II: Yves Congar and M.D. Chenu. Congar’s journal of the council is already known to the English-speaking audience (it was translated and published in 2012), but here we have now an even more dramatic and personal diary: Journal of a Theologian 1946-1956. Here is an excerpt from the section devoted to the dramatic weeks in the summer of 1950, when Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis (bearing the date August 12) was used to silence scores of Catholic theologians, Congar included.

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Neo-ultramontanism?

“I would like to have a papal bull every morning with my Times at breakfast,” declared the 19th-century ultramontanist William George Ward. Are we currently suffering a case of liberal neo-ultramontanism?  Or quasi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or semi-neo-ultramontanism?  Or some such?      

Many others have raised that question, but most of them don’t like what Pope Francis has been doing.  I do. That includes the restoration of collegiality in the two synods on the family, regardless of the tremors caused by truly open discussion.  That obviously includes Francis’s efforts to reform Vatican offices.  That includes the remarkable series of talks he has given this fall on topics ranging from change in the church to “synodality.”

At the same time, I have to admit that liberal reception of Laudato Si’ has not been free of what used to be called “creeping infallibilism.”  And not every statement of Francis is beyond reasonable criticism.  And, in all honesty, although the homilies in my liberal parish are quite fine, I’m wearied by hearing Francis referred to in the pulpit more often than Jesus.   

What makes me raise this question now, however, is more subtle, the coverage of the meeting this last week of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  My impression is that the overriding framework for covering the meeting was this: Are the bishops aligning their agenda and priorities with that of Francis? 

That’s a perfectly legitimate framework.  (Of course, there are other possible ones, like whether the bishops are aligning their agenda and priorities with the needs of American Catholics or the challenges of American culture.)  The chosen framework has more than a whiff, however, of an ultramontanist assumption, that the bishops should be aligned with the pope and there’s something wrong with them if they are not.

Personally, I believe that there’s a lot wrong with the bishops’ conference, and a lot of it would be repaired if the bishops were closer to Francis’s outlook.  But not if it means turning on a dime.  Not if it means just following the leader, as has happened too often in the past. 

The liberal neo-ultramontanist impulse is understandable. 

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Catholic University's Business School Again

The problems at Catholic University’s business school run even deeper than I thought. Remember what is at stake: the business school has taken large sums of money from the unvirtuous Koch Brothers and other libertarian interests. The worry is that tainted money taints.

Now, CUA could try to deflect this criticism. They could argue that they need the money, and they will never waver in their commitment to traditional, orthodox, Catholic social teaching—the great legacy of people like John A. Ryan, whom Cardinal Turkson has been praising in recent speeches.

But CUA doesn’t take this approach. Quite the opposite, in fact. It actually attacks its critics and brags about these attacks. Look at the attached image. It is a photograph of a poster on public display at CUA’s business school. It boasts about taking large sums of money from the Kochs and the Busch Foundation. And it prominently displays an op-ed written by president John Garvey and then-dean (now provost) Andrew Abela for the Wall Street Journal, displaying the subtitle: “This Catholic university won’t cave to demands made by the liberal social justice movement.”

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Francis Has a Message for the Italian Church

Now well into the post-Synod period, we may yet learn if there will be a “Francis effect” on the U.S. bishops gathering in Baltimore for their annual general assembly (November 16-19). But something is definitely happening in the Italian church, which historically has focused on the special relationship between the pope and the Italian bishops.

Last week, Florence was temporarily the ecclesial capital of Italy, as 2,500 delegates from dioceses and associations convened for a gathering organized by the Italian bishops’ conference and held every ten years. It could prove to be the most important act of reception of Francis’s pontificate by the church in Italy.

This was the fifth ecclesial conference since 1976, and its theme was one chosen when Benedict was still pope: “In Jesus Christ the New Humanism.” But it looked more a “national synod” than the previous pre-cooked events, especially those of 1995 in Palermo and of 2006 in Verona. This is noteworthy because in post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, the format of ecclesial conferences—tightly controlled by the bishops’ conference and the Vatican—is meant precisely to preclude resemblance to anything like a national synod (and thus to avoid something like German Catholicism’s “Würzburger Synode” of 1971 to 1975, an ecclesial event that dealt with the post-conciliar conversion of Joseph Ratzinger and his position within German theology).

Pope Francis gave a great speech to open the gathering, and in this sense we could say that the 2015 conference looked like the conference of 1985 in Loreto. Then, John Paul II gave clear instructions to the Italian Catholic church and to the bishops: change course from the dialogical ethos of the 1970s (a decade when 70 percent of Italians were dividing their votes evenly between the Christian-Democratic Party and the Communist Party) toward a more assertive Catholic church politically; emphasize the role of the elites and church movements (especially Communion and Liberation) and reject the more conciliar organizations of Italian Catholic laity (such as Catholic Action and Italian Catholic Boys and Girls Scouts); and re-Catholicize Italian culture and politics. Some called it John Paul II’s “Polish model” for the Italian church, and did it ever work. The early 1990s saw the end of the political dominance of Christian-Democratic Party in Italy and opened the door to media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated the political scene for the next twenty years.

But it is my impression that the ecclesial conference of Florence is actually closer to the first conference, of 1976, which took place at the end of a tumultuous decade of reception of Vatican II in Italy. Francis made clear in his remarks how he sees the future of the church: no to the dreams of conservatism and fundamentalism; no to the “surrogates of power and money”; a clear statement on the issue of the pro multis in the Missal (“The Lord shed his blood not for some, or for a few or for many but for all”); a call for a more dialogical and socially engaged Italian church.

But unlike John Paul II, Francis with his speech did not create a new paradigm.

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Poll: 'Francis Effect' Influences U.S. Catholics on Global Warming

A new study done by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities has found that Pope Francis is influencing the conversation about global warming in the United States – especially among Catholics. It says:

In this report we conclude that, over the past six months, Americans –especially Catholic Americans –became more engaged in and concerned about global warming. Furthermore, our findings suggest that the Pope’s teachings about global warming contributed to an increase in public engagement on the issue, and influenced the conversation about global warming in America; we refer to this as The Francis Effect.

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Serious Problems at Catholic University's Business School

There’s something rotten at Catholic University’s business school. When it comes to authentic Catholic social teaching, its approach seems to follow that of Seinfeld’s George Costanza— “do the opposite.”

When Pope Francis is speaking passionately about how this economy kills, excludes, and destroys mother earth, this school is taking large sums of money from some of the most unvirtuous business interests in the US—the Koch brothers and other libertarians—and then taking positions favorable to their donors’ interests. In too many instances, the gospel they proclaim is the liberating power of free markets.

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The Question of the Synod’s ‘Reception’

The “synodal process” as defined by Francis has become one of the markers of his pontificate. Until now, the concept of “reception” of the synod was not applied to synods, but mostly reserved for Vatican II and for the ecumenical councils—an ongoing process that is measured in decades and generations, not in months or years. But in fact it’s appropriate to talk about the “reception” of the synod recently concluded, which had something of a conciliar feel: free and honest debates, no scripted talking points, and no pre-cooked final report.

The Synod of Bishops as an institution is just fifty years old, and there is no track record of the reception of synods (the first one was celebrated in 1967), except maybe the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 on the reception of Vatican II. For all the other synods we can talk only of the reception of the apostolic exhortations that followed—documents that were not necessarily the fruit of synodal discussions, and certainly not the fruit of a two-year long synodal process like the one most recently concluded. The reception of synods before Francis was in the hands of an episcopate largely shaped—that is, appointed—by the pope who wrote the exhortation. The situation today is quite different.

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Ross Douthat, Vatican II Catholic

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is both a political conservative and a self-described “orthodox” Catholic. Very orthodox. Really, really, orthodox. At least in the abstract. Less so, he winningly admits, in temperament. Nevertheless, he has taken great exception to the direction in which Pope Francis, that wily Jesuit, is taking the church. Douthat is especially distressed over the Synod on the Family and the pope’s advocacy for some reform that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics who have not received an annulment to receive Communion. He thinks making accommodations to the “sexual revolution” will more or less destroy the church. He goes further, suggesting that those in favor of such reforms are flirting with…well, heresy. He’s coy about employing the term, but his meaning is clear.

His October 18 column, “The Plot to Change Catholicism,” went so far as to cast doubt on Pope Francis’s and Cardinal Walter Kasper’s fidelity to church teaching. Douthat is certain that what Jesus said about divorce requires little interpretation, and that the church’s teaching in this area is unchanging, unambiguous, and absolute. In making that case, Douthat seems willfully blind to the accommodations the church has made for marital failure with both the Petrine and Pauline privileges and in the annulment process. If Jesus’s teaching on marriage is so obvious, one could add, why did it take the church a thousand years to conclude that marriage was a sacrament? Finally, if the church over time came to embrace that development of doctrine, why is any further development out of bounds?

Douthat’s unfortunate column has prompted some prominent Catholic theologians and scholars to issue a statement questioning his “professional qualifications” for writing about such technical doctrinal and theological questions. Several of the authors and signatories to the statement are valued contributors to Commonweal. We sympathize with their exasperation with how Douthat presents the conservative take on these questions as the only “orthodox” position. The Catholic tradition is larger and more multifarious than Douthat imagines, or wishes to imagine. His suggestion that those who favor reform are simply betraying the tradition and Protestantizing the church is especially troubling.

But we must disagree with Douthat’s critics on whether he has standing to comment on these controversies or advocate forcefully for his view. Since the Second Vatican Council, it has been the right of lay Catholics to make their voices heard even on doctrinal and theological controversies. Indeed, it must be said that Douthat’s engagement with Catholicism is far more nuanced and better informed than that of Frank Bruni or Maureen Dowd, two more liberal Catholics who often comment on Catholicism for the Times.   

In a recent lecture on the crisis of conservative Catholicism brought on by this papacy, Douthat pronounced the Second Vatican Council a failure. Yet it was that “failed” gathering of bishops that urged Catholic laypersons such as Douthat to take active responsibility for the church. Douthat is more of a Vatican II Catholic than he suspects. In that same talk, Douthat admitted that conservative Catholics need a more robust theory of the development of doctrine. At the very least, he said, there needs to be a conservative answer to John Noonan’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change. Not really. Judge Noonan’s book is a conservative case for doctrinal development.

The End Is the Beginning

​Developing.

ROME—Put away the tea leaves. After three weeks of argument, intrigue, and, yes, prayer, the fourteenth Ordinary Synod of Bishops—comprising 270 clerics from around the world—has voted. Two-thirds of the synod fathers supported opening a path for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to fuller participation in the life of the church—including liturgically. In some countries, the divorced and civilly remarried cannot serve as lectors, catechists, or godparents.

In conversation with a priest, according to the synod’s final summary text, a person can become “conscious of [his or her] situation before God”—through the “internal forum.” This process, according to the text, may help a person discern what “prevents the possibility of fuller participation in the life of the church,” and to figure out what can be done to “make it [the participation] grow.” (In 1991, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ruled out the internal forum as a pathway for the divorced and civilly remarried to return to Communion.)

The text does not specify whether this could result in a return to the Communion line. But, importantly, neither does it foreclose the possibility—something many synod fathers wanted to rule out. For weeks, those synod fathers had been arguing for a final relatio that closed the door on Communion for the divorced and remarried. They didn't win the day. The synod—which is a consultative body, not a deliberative one—could have sent Pope Francis a document that simply reaffirmed the current practice of barring the civilly remarried from the Eucharist. It didn’t. That’s important.

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Synod critics lack historical context

I had decided not to write about the synod on the family. There are a lot of people far more qualified than me discussing it, and—in sharp contrast with the merchants of doom announcing schism or the end of civilization—I actually don’t think it is that important in the larger scheme of things. I’d much rather let the Holy Spirit do his work, and talk about Laudato Si’, the throwaway culture, and the economy of exclusion.

Yet I find some of the recent debate perplexing. I’m not talking about the disgraceful attacks on Pope Francis by those very prelates who used to put such a high premium on loyalty to the pope, or the petty conspiracy theories. No, I’m talking about the really limited historical context on display, especially by the critics who reject any openings toward pastoral flexibility.

This lack of context stretches across both time and space. Much of the historical analysis begins and ends with Vatican II, with the world divided into “conservatives” who prioritize unchanged truth and “liberals” who prioritize mercy and meeting people where they are. This also fits neatly (too neatly) with the very western political dynamic, especially in the US. But it’s too narrow a perspective. While a lot of people are looking back 50 years, very few are looking back 300 years, to the debates about Jansenism. Seen from this broader historical perspective, the position of the “conservatives” might appear less a defense of orthodoxy than a flirtation with Jansenism—especially by stressing that salvation comes from moral rigorism and rigid adherence to rules and norms.

Is it too surprising that the Jansenist impulse is alive and kicking? Again, from a historical perspective, it shouldn’t be. Arianism survived for centuries after Nicaea. Monophysitism survived for centuries after Chalcedon. It’s not too surprising, then, that we see traces of Jansenism a mere three centuries after Clement XI’s Unigenitus! Nor is it surprising that this is especially pronounced in places like the US or Australia, areas that were once heavily influenced by the Irish Church (I would argue that what lost all credibility in Ireland was less the Catholic Church than the Jansenist caricature of it). And in the US, a lot of the most vehement opposition is coming from converts—converts from Calvinist forms of Christianity.

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A Nobel Prize for Catholic Social Thought?

The 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences—commonly but less than accurately referred to as the “Nobel Prize in Economics”—was awarded this month to Princeton’s Angus Deaton “for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare.” (I personally was rooting for someone from Columbia, mainly because I thought there might be a party we grad students could crash.)

Deaton’s voluminous research spans a range of economic subfields. Among the contributions cited by the Nobel committee were his work on measuring and comparing poverty and inequality across nations, and his pioneering use of household surveys in poor countries. He has earned a reputation for following the evidence wherever it leads, and his nuanced perspectives on a number of important policy questions have made it hard to pigeonhole him ideologically.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Since the prize was announced, commentators from across the political spectrum have cited his work as vindicating their own views. His former Princeton colleague and fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman quotes him favorably in a blog post on the capture of the American political system by financial elites. The libertarian Cato Institute, which hosted Deaton in 2013 for a forum on his book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, also finds him simpatico. Writing for the Cato at Liberty blog, Ian Vásquez highlights Deaton’s skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid:

When thinking about aid, the developed world would do well by heeding Deaton’s advice and by not asking what we should do. “Who put us in charge?” Deaton rightly asks. “We often have such a poor understanding of what they need or want, or of how their societies work, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good…We need to let poor people help themselves and get out of the way—or, more positively, stop doing things that are obstructing them.”

To anyone accustomed to thinking in terms of the usual conservative-liberal binary, it might sound like Krugman and Vásquez are talking about two different people. It’s not often you hear someone inveighing against the corrosive effect of money in politics and then arguing in the next breath that we’re doing too much on behalf of the global poor. In reality, Deaton’s views evince a clear logic. When considered through the lens of Catholic social thought and its workhorse concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good, they actually make a great deal of sense.

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Magister, No

ROME—In the beginning was the letter. And the letter was published. By Sandro Magister, longtime Vaticanista, sometime critic of this papacy, and current insinuator of the idea that one of those responsible for leaking the text may be the most famous resident of Casa Santa Marta.

Last week, Magister published a letter sent by several cardinals to Pope Francis, criticizing the synod process for favoring those who want to change church practice on a range of contested issues. The letter, which was sent to the pope before the synod began, received a direct response when Francis delivered an unscheduled address on the second day of the proceedings. He reminded the synod fathers that he had personally approved of the synod process, and urged them not to fall victim to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy.” (That memorable line was amusingly interpreted by the camptastically named “Xavier Rynne II”—who has been aiming his firehose of verbiage at the goings-on here since the synod began. And by George if he doesn’t think the pope’s phrase wasn’t really referring to those who have been hoping for some change out of this meeting. XR2 assures that the leak “certainly did not involve the Holy Father.” So that’s a relief.)

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