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Can Faith be Notable?

Last Sunday the front page of the New York Times Book Review carried a thoughtful review by Mark Lilla of a new book on Saint Augustine.  Congratulations to the editors, as well as to Lilla.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, something Augustine probably explained somewhere; and the Book Review’s good deed made me wonder, somewhat skeptically, if 2015 might be the year when its annual “Holiday Books” issue would break precedent and actually give some notice to serious books about religion. 

I am hardly the first to roll my eyes about the oddity of the “Holiday Books” almost ostentatious neglect of religion.  It’s long been an annual joke among many people who believe that religion deserves thoughtful, knowledgeable explorations beyond the usual pressure points where it intersects with (a) violence; (b) sex; (c) politics; (d) celebrity; and (e) greed.  Oh, and did I mention violence, sex, and politics?  

Granted, the “Holiday Books” issue is essentially a cash-cow, chockfull of ads and reviews for gifty-ish books in categories like Travel, Photography, Pop Music, Humor, Cooking, Gardening, and Hollywood.  “Holiday,” in effect, means hobby, avocation, entertainment, recreation, and so on.  It certainly doesn’t mean anything to do with the beliefs and sentiments that gave birth to these holidays.  Don’t imagine that anyone celebrating those holidays might be grateful for books addressing those very beliefs and sentiments.  And might shell out good money for them. 

There’s no war against Christmas here.  “Holiday Books” is just a seasonal expression of the Book Review’s normal practice. Which is to feature every commercial press’s Washington memoir or big-name fiction while ignoring any university (or especially religious) press’s significant probing into the relationship of faith and reason.  Last Sunday’s front-page review, I’m afraid, was the exception proving the rule.   

The “Holiday Books” issue is not all gifties, however.  It usually lists “100 Notable Books,” of the year, half from Fiction and Poetry, half from Nonfiction. Profound religious and spiritual questions always run like seams of rich ore through that Fiction and Poetry—and through some of the Nonfiction, too.  Such is the human condition. 

But in 2014 was there one book, one single book, of theology, or of philosophy of religion, or of religious history, sociology, biography, or art, worthy, in the eyes of the Book Review’s editors, to be listed among those fifty Nonfiction notables?  


Maybe 2015 will be different.  This is the season of hope.

UPDATE, November 28: The "100 Notable Books of 2015" has arrived, and I'm afraid the exception did prove the rule.  Augustine, the biography by Robin Lane Fox was on the Non-Fiction list.  The only other book that might possibly qualify was Witches of America by Alex Mar, "journalistic profiles of fascinating moern practitioners of the occult."  Perhaps readerss have their own nominees. 


Grief and Gratitude at Thanksgiving

I was at the women’s medium security prison in Framingham Sunday where I celebrated the Thanksgiving liturgy for them.  Presiding at Framingham for Thanksgiving, Christmas or Mothers Day is, as you might imagine, rather sad.

I began by telling them that that day was the 16th anniversary of the death of my niece Megan who died at 19 after a 3-year battle against leukemia.  Three days earlier it was the six-month anniversary of Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, S.J.’s sudden death at 46 years of age.  Lúcás is my best friend.

I told them I had talked with my sister, Deb, Megan’s mom, about how much I was grieving over Lúcás’s death this thanksgiving.  I told her that I realized I would mourn him the rest of my life and she simply said, yes.

The women at Framingham felt comforted that I knew what grief was like at Thanksgiving. 

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“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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Vatican's Disaster in the Making: Probe of Journalists

One of the many interesting things about the new movie Spotlight is that it shows how slow the Boston Globe was to chase the story that it ultimately published in 2002 about the systematic coverup of  clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. The newspaper had gotten similar information five years earlier, it turned out, but editors who either felt a connection to the Catholic Church or were otherwise reluctant to offend a mostly Catholic readership had edged it aside. Under the leadership of a new editor, the paper sought and reported the truth.

This comes to mind as the Vatican pursues the disastrous course of criminally investigating two Italian journalists who wrote books based on documents leaked from the Vatican. What is this but an effort to intimidate journalists from reporting the truth?

Respect for a free press -- a media free to report the truth -- requires that news reporters not be coerced into giving up their confidential sources. Most states in the United States have shield laws that offer reporters some measure of protection. There is a great need for a federal version of that law, but even without it, procedures the Justice Department has in place make it unusual for reporters to be subpoenaed -- much less placed under criminal investigation themselves for reporting the news. Italy also has protections for reporters. Vatican City does not.

There have been many fine Vatican statements about the duty of the news media to seek the truth, including addresses by Pope Francis, but they don't mean much if the church is going to be bent on criminalizing investigative reporting. The Vatican should stop  this investigation immediately. If it can't do so for the right reason -- to respect the role of a free press -- then it should consider the public relations disaster that would develop if it files criminal charges against these journalists. 


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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Translation as Meditation

MFA studies at the Iowa Writing Program took Aviya Kushner from the intimate world of her close reading of Hebrew scriptures to a first time encounter of the bible in English translation. Luckily, the dissonance that she encountered, caused by translations, was met with understanding, nay happy encouragement, by her teacher, Marylynne Robinson. Their discussion led Kushner to write The Grammar of God over a period of many years. She shaped the book into a personal account of meeting an interpretive world that had only fleeting resonance with the Hebrew she knew from childhood. A poet and an exegete, Kushner reads the Hebrew in direct English interlinear translation, and comments on what the bare substitution of English for Hebrew can never reveal. She then lists seriatim, five or more differing English translations of the same text, suggesting how each attempt tries to capture what the Hebrew says.

The philological study is not barren, rather meditative and prayerful. Every reader comes to the scriptures with a history. Kushner, raised as a Chassidic Jew with family lost in the Holocaust, traces the legacy of reading to the German city where her family disappeared – to be shot and buried in unmarked graves. Her account of her upbringing – her father a theoretical mathematician and her mother an expert in Ancient Near Eastern languages – stresses the interpretive traditions of the rabbis. She was born into the dialogue of centuries of commentary. Her brother can recite whole sections of the Torah from memory, and she spent years sometimes as a poetry student of Derek Walcott in Boston, or in other pursuits in Israel, and then in Iowa in the Writing Program, coming to terms with burden of her belief, her history, and her own aspirations as a writer.

This book is an invitation to challenge readings of familiar scriptural texts. All translators betray what they attempt to convey – this is a truism. But Kushner is particularly sensitive in her desire to show how English translators through the centuries struggled to open to believers that ancient text they so revered. Quite an experience – to be brought into the scholar’s understanding of Genesis, Psalms, and the Law. But this is passionate understanding, indeed.

Family Meals

In yesterday’s audience Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the family by talking about family meals where, he said, people share not only food but affection, stories, events. He regards this element of life-together as a reliable thermometer by which to measure the health of relationships: if something’s going wrong, if there’s some hidden wound, this is quickly recognized at the table. “A family that hardly ever eats together, or in which people don’t talk but watch television or a smartphone, is not much of a family.” We are in danger of losing an important Christian symbol. 

"Christianity has a special vocation to life-together, everybody knows that. The Lord Jesus liked to teach at table, and he sometimes represented the Kingdom of God as a festive banquet. He also chose the table to leave the disciples his spiritual testament–he did this at supper–concentrated in the memorial of his Sacrifice, the gift of his Body and his Blood as the food and drink of salvation, which nourish true and lasting love.

"In this perspective we can say that the family is “at home” at Mass, precisely because it brings its own experience of life-together and opens it up to the grace of a universal life-together, of God’s love for the world. Sharing in the Eucharist, the family is purified of the temptation to close in upon itself; strengthened in love and fidelity, it broadens the boundaries of its own fellowship according to the heart of Christ."

It is hard today to recover the value of family meals. “People talk at table; people listen at table.” There’s no egoistic silence–everybody doing his own thing, watching TV or on the computer, and people aren’t talking.

I grew up in a large family, and it was rare when there were fewer than ten people around our dining room table. And, God knows, we talked!

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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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Over & Out

It was all an accident. My mother was not born Catholic, but Lutheran, Missouri Synod. When it came time to decide which tradition I would be raised in, my parents decided that it was in everyone’s best interests for me to get the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from a Catholic priest. That’s what my paternal grandmother—devout Irish Catholic that she was—would want, they reasoned. No one dared to rouse her secret temper. So Catholic I would be. As my mom and grandma were washing dishes after my baptism party, the Catholic turned to the Lutheran and asked, “Honey, why did you have Grant baptized Catholic? You’re the one who goes to church.”

Apparently my mom took that comment to heart, because when it came time for me to go off to school, my parents sent me to a Lutheran preschool, and then for kindergarten to another Lutheran school. It was called Our Savior, and my child mind reckoned that was the place you sent your kids after you had saved up enough money.  I was still working on my soteriology.

Of all my school supplies, I was proudest of my Popeye folder. It was no mere paper-holder. A comic strip was printed on its front and back covers. Every day, I smuggled a comic book disguised as folder—into school, school. About a week after I started kindergarten, my teacher noticed that I could read. I was rewarded by being dragged before the first-graders, plopped down in a too-tall chair, and, made to read to them, accompanied only by the silent metronomes of my swinging legs. Doubtless the highlight of their academic year. Eventually my teacher suggested to my parents that I transfer to the local Catholic school, St. Paul of the Cross, where she thought I’d receive a better education.

They took that advice to heart too. So off I went to St. Paul’s—just a few years after Peter Steinfels darkened its doors, I might add. It was a convivial place. First graders fortunate to have Miss Sullivan (Ms. hadn’t quite come into wide use in Chicagoland), and speedy enough to finish their Friday book reports early, were granted exclusive access to the carpeted play area in the front of the classroom. There were puzzles. Books. And the only thing anyone really cared about: a huge bucket of popsicle sticks. Dave and Eric and I tended to be the the speediest students in the room. One Friday morning, we burned through our book reports, grabbed the bin of popsicle sticks, and went to work on a modest work of art. On the dark brown carpeting, we arranged dozens of beige popsicle sticks in the shape of a mermaid. An anatomically correct mermaid. Miss Sullivan was amused, but not pleased. No more popsicle sticks for us, for at least a week.

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Bishop Barron's Evolving Tolerance

Intervening on the Douthat controversy, Bishop Robert Barron has urged his fellow Catholics to recognize that the Church has always been a place of great controversy--and pleads with us all for more engagement with and tolerance of each other's ideas. In an essay entitled, "Ross Douthat and the Catholic Academy," he writes: "The letter to the Times is indicative indeed of a much wider problem in our intellectual culture, namely, the tendency to avoid real argument and to censor what makes us, for whatever reason, uncomfortable."  Nice.  Broad-minded. 

Mmm. Just for kicks, I googled "Barron" and "Dowd." And the google was not disappointed. It highlighted an essay entitled "Why It's Okay to Be Against Heresy and For Imposing One's Views on Others"--right next to a picture of Maureen Dowd. While many columnists don't write their own column titles, I think it is safe to attribute this title to Bishop Barron, since it's on his own website.

His view toward open-minded discussion is not quite the same in the older essay, at least on the surface. Barron writes: "The Catholic Church is not a Voltairean debating society; it is a community that stands for some very definite things, which implies, necessarily, that it sets its back against very definite things."

What's changed? I like to think it's the grace of office. 

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


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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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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Split Decisions

ROME—Today the Holy See published final suggestions from the small groups before the synod drafting committee submits its summary document for voting this Saturday. On the most contested issue—whether the church should do something about the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried—the synod fathers seem evenly split. (Even while few said they completely rejected to the idea.) Some who favor taking action suggested that Pope Francis appoint a special commission to study the problem. Others proposed addressing the issue on a case-by-case basis through the “internal forum,” that is, a spiritual discernment in concert with a priest, perhaps with guidance from the local bishops conference or even the Holy See itself, which might lead to reconciliation and Communion.

At least that’s what comes through in the reports of the individual language groups. There were four English-language discussions, a diverse group that included people from the Americas, Asia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. The only one to definitively call for action on Communion for the remarried was Group B, whose moderator was Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, and whose relator was Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin. Their group proposed a process of “reverential listening,” that might include: Considering whether the first marriage should be annulled (that’s the external forum), or whether it should be considered in the internal forum, “with recourse to a delegate of the bishop where one is established for this purpose.” This process, it was proposed, might also mean “attending to the wounds caused by divorce,” an account of the second marriage—including “its stability, fruitfulness, and the responsibilities that flow from it,” and focusing on the spiritual growth through repentance.

This group also discussed the possibility of “spiritual communion” for those whose “objective state of life—an irregular union” bars them from receiving the Eucharist but may not be “subjectively culpable of any continuing state of sin.” Something like this was proposed by Pope Benedict XVI back in 1984. In Commonweal’s interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, he addressed the issue: “Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ. But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion?”

The same group also asked Pope Francis to set up a commission to study the situations of Catholic in “irregular unions,” including the divorced and remarried, and those in polygamous relationships.

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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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'He Came Not for the Healthy'

Hervé Janson, the superior general of the Little Brother of Jesus, is the only non-priest who is participating in the Synod on the Family with voice and vote, having been elected to represent the Union of Superior Generals. The following is a translation of his intervention at the synod.

First of all, I would like to clarify the uniqueness of my situation among you, bishops from all over the earth, since I am a simple brother, the moderator of a religious congregation which is international, to be sure, but very modest, with less than two hundred brothers: the Little Brothers of Jesus, inspired by the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

My brothers of the Union of Superior Generals told me that they voted for me because, by our vocation, in the imitation of Jesus of Nazareth, we live among the people in their neighborhoods, shoulder to shoulder with very simple families who often struggle as best they can to live and bring up their children. We are witnesses of so many families who, for me, are models of holiness; they are the ones who will receive us into the kingdom! And sometimes, I suffer from what our mother the church imposes on their backs, burdens which we ourselves would not be able to support, as Jesus said to the Pharisees! For there are many women and men who suffer from being rejected by their pastors. Through a very special grace which dumbfounds me but for which I should thank you, I find myself the only brother who is a full-fledged member of this synod of bishops which is reflecting on the situations and mission of families. Astonishment and trembling, all the more so in so far as the status of the sisters is different, the same as that of the families. But we cannot ignore the fact that families make up the immense majority of the People of God that we are. But what value do we give to our reflection upon them?

There is an Oriental proverb that says: “Before you judge anyone, put on his sandals!” The paradox of this affair: we are all celibates, for the most part. But can we at least listen to people, listen to their sufferings, their propositions, their thirst for recognition and proximity?

I am thinking of these African Christian women I knew when I lived in Cameroon, spouses of a polygamous Muslim husband: they felt excluded from the church, unaccompanied, very much alone.

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Paul Baumann on 'St. Paul'

Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),

wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders.

But the “famously inept equestrian,” Paul notes, was “a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still.” The headline of the review, courtesy of the Post: “Was Saint Paul Really Such a Jerk?” Read the whole thing here.

Has the Synod Turned a Corner?

ROME—Hoping to see a resolution to the most neuralgic issues being debated at the Synod of the Family by the time it ends next weekend? Don’t hold your breath. That’s the message that came through during today’s briefing at the Holy See Press Office. While “there is confidence” among the synod fathers that “something can emerge from this process of fermentation,” according to Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, there is no consensus on questions related to Communion for the divorced and remarried, homosexuality, and others living in “irregular relationships.”

That makes it highly unlikely that the final summary document, which synod fathers will vote on—paragraph by paragraph—later this week, will include definitive language on any of the contested issues. That doesn’t mean Pope Francis won’t step in at some point—my money is on a post-synodal study commission—and it certainly doesn’t mean that these three weeks of discernment have been a waste. To the contrary, as Francis made clear in his remarks commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the synod on Saturday, the synodality established by this meeting of bishops is a preview of what he wants to see from the whole church. “A synodal church is a listening church, aware that listening is more than hearing.” He continued: “It is a reciprocal listening in which each one has something to learn.”

Synoding is hard work—this has been a constant refrain of all the synod fathers who have appeared at the press conferences. And who could doubt it? It’s not unusual for participants to put in twelve-hour days. Coleridge spoke of a sense of “weariness” among the synod fathers. “I have a strong sense that we wonder how we’re going to get through to Sunday morning [when the synod concludes]—how we’re going to write a final document.”

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Cardinal Wuerl Has Had Enough

ROME—In an interview with America magazine, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., makes it clear that he is having none of the agitation against Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family. Nothing has been “rigged.” Nothing has been “manipulated.” Rather, the cardinal approves of this synod process, which is much more open than any other anyone can remember. “I see it as widening the participation of the bishops (compared to the past),” the cardinal said. He reiterated many of the same points in his interview with the National Catholic Reporter.

As for those who have been critical of this synod, he told Gerard O’Connell:

There are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality.

What about those who suggest the pope has been puppet-mastering the whole shebang?

I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

O’Connell asked what the cardinal thought would come out of the synod:

I think that right now there has been so much tainting of how the synod is being seen. I don’t think the process has been tainted, I don’t think the synod itself has been tainted, but the lens through which it is being seen by many, many people has been tainted, and so I suspect that that will have some impact. It’s not going to be a long term impact because you can only paint something in false tones and have it remain understood incorrectly for so long, after a while the church wins out.  The great maxim—magna est veritas et semper prevalebit—the truth is great and it always wins out, even with all of this propaganda and all of this distortion.

Cardinal Wuerl is no radical. He is speaking for himself, of course, but he’s been around for a while. He has attended many synods—and held a primary leadership role in the 2012 synod. He knows of what he speaks. No doubt the cardinal is giving voice to the frustration of many other synod fathers. Is he hedging against a possible no-result? I don’t think so, not after Pope Francis’s remember-I’m-the-pope speech yesterday (which sounded a lot like the one he gave last year, just before he appointed a commission to study the question of the annulment process, which he eventually reformed). Cardinal Wuerl may have just reset the table for the synod’s most important work—which begins tomorrow. 

Synod Sounds

ROME—The Holy See Press Office has taken to holding two-part press conferences, which is great if you want to hear more voices explaining what’s happening inside the synod hall, but not so great if you want lots of time for Q & A. Yesterday was one such presser. First we had reports on the synod fathers’ various interventions, and then we heard a couple of “fraternal delegates” to the synod—that is, representatives of non-Catholic religious communities.

So, what’s happening inside the aula? Discussions are becoming “more emotional,” according to one Vatican spokesperson. There’s been a slight shift from earlier interventions. The synod fathers are hearing about a very wide range of issues, including Humanae vitae, violence between Christians and Catholics (was this a reference to Ukraine? Unclear), the suffering of childless couples, adoption, intrafamily violence, families displaced by migration, care of the elderly, who often suffer isolation and a feeling of uselessness that leads to suicide, families torn by sexual abuse, “the martyrdom of silence in many families where incest has taken place.” The synod fathers also heard interventions about sexual education. One urged the church to resist the dominant, “disastrous” secular model of sex-ed. It should present its teachings as a pathway of love, not sin.

Some synod fathers spoke at length about Pope Francis’s reform of the annulment process (it’s speedier now, and less expensive). Others shared personal experiences of ministering to couples, recounting the experience of being formed by the husbands and wives they had set out to form. It’s easy for bishops to be drawn into the sense of being in control, one synod father said in the aula, as though they are the only ones to impart knowledge. But, he continued, ministry with couples always involves mutual enrichment.

At the heart of the synod, according to one participant, is human sexuality. He acknowledged that most bishops don’t know how to talk about it because they’re celibate. This is why married couples are essential to the discussion. And indeed, the synod fathers heard from some—Sharron Cole, a former board member of a natural family planning organization, even pressed them to reconsider Humanae vitae.

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