Norbertine Father Jim Baraniak, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere, Wisconsin, watches workers prepare to mount a fiberglass corpus to a cross at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Ashwaubenon (OSV News photo/Sam Lucero).

Peter Steinfels’s polemical response to two pieces I wrote about the forthcoming Synod on Synodality and its Instrumentum Laboris should not go unanswered. Let me reply to it by focusing on three key issues.

First, Steinfels’s response wrongly suggests that my reflections were directed against Pope Francis himself. I fear Steinfels’ animus against Sandro Magister has skewed his reading of my article on Magister’s blog, Settimo Cielo. As a former editor, he must know that writers have no say in, much less control over, editorial commentary. I had no knowledge of Magister’s introductory remarks until I read them when the article appeared.

Readers would never guess from Steinfels’s response that my article on Magister’s blog culminates with a direct quotation from a homily of Pope Francis. This quotation—in conjunction with Yves Congar’s views, which I discuss in the article—sum up the lesson I want the Synod to take to heart. The day after his election, Francis told the cardinals, “My wish is that all of us…will have the courage, yes, the courage, to walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s Cross; to build the Church on the Lord’s blood which was poured out on the Cross; and to profess the one glory: Christ crucified. And in this way, the Church will go forward.” The Lord’s Cross, Christ crucified as the way forward: such an exhortation is absent from the Synod’s working document.

Nor would a reader guess from reading Steinfels’s response to my First Things article that I cite Pope Francis in order to confirm the importance of Henri de Lubac’s book on the Church. Peter makes much of the title of the article: “What Henri de Lubac Would Think of the Synod on Synodality.” Again, the title was not my choice but the editor’s—as I suspect the title given to Steinfels’s response, “Blame it on Joachim of Fiore,” was not chosen by him but by an editor. (The title I proposed for my piece was “A de Lubac-Inspired Modest Proposal to the Synod.”) I did not presume to know what de Lubac would think about the Instrumentum Laboris. Rather, I offered advice to the participants in the Synod that was inspired by my reading of de Lubac’s book on the spiritual posterity of Joachim of Fiore. And my suggestion (here I do claim full responsibility) was that each session should begin by pondering the magnificent Christ-centered confession and proclamation of Gaudium et Spes that I quote at end of my article. Steinfels, though not enthusiastic about that idea, did not take exception to it.

The second point that deserves comment concerns my own criticism of the Instrumentum Laboris. Steinfels concedes that the document “is not a good read,” but he disputes my assessment of its Christological inadequacy. He assures us that the document does indeed mention “Jesus Christ,” “Lord,” “Gospel.” It would be a woeful Church document that failed to do so! He goes on to cite a few passages containing quotes from the New Testament, including a fine quote from the Letter to the Ephesians. Once again, he fails to tell the reader that, in my article on the Magister blog, I concede that “important [Christological] elements can be culled from [the Instrumentum’s] pages.” And I enumerate several of these, including that very quote from Ephesians, which I call “compelling, but undeveloped.” And that’s the heart of my complaint. I lament that “these elements are never gathered into a coherent and challenging whole.” As a friend puts it: “The Instrumentum reads more like a facilitation manual for a meeting than an invitation to new life in Christ.”

The Lord’s Cross, Christ crucified as the way forward: such an exhortation is absent from the Synod’s working document.

That new life is enabled only by the Cross, as Pope Francis had insisted to the cardinals. Yet no mention of the Cross is to be found in the document! Peter himself admits that he “would have welcomed more attention to the Cross.” Yet he seems less concerned about its absence than I am. He says he doesn’t know how to judge when “the Christology of a document of this nature is ‘pallid’” (as I had characterized it). Tutored by Saint Paul, I can confidently assert that a Christology without the Cross is pallid indeed. It is no longer the Good News that the New Testament proclaims: Christ crucified “the wisdom and power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).

Steinfels raises a third issue that deserves further attention. He thinks my worries about the Christological crisis in the Church are “useful” but “exaggerated.” Yet how else does one account for the rampant confusion regarding Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, or the distressing increase of young people disaffiliating from the Church? As Steinfels states, he and I have long differed—sometimes in the pages of Commonweal—over the problem of Christological amnesia in contemporary Catholicism. I have repeatedly pointed to the marginalization of the Cross in much contemporary theology and the scant appreciation by many Catholics of its salvific import. I have warned that liturgical communities often resemble a “decapitated body” in which the Headship of Christ is nowhere in evidence.

Steinfels thinks I exaggerate. I think he minimizes how much of Catholic life and theology now proceeds “etsi Christus non daretur,” as though Christ were not given. These are not my words but those of Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa preaching before the pope and Curia. My articles discussing Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac aimed to show that they had already anticipated this defection from Christ fifty years ago. Steinfels considers the cautions I have repeatedly voiced to be “a distraction from many looming but less explicitly doctrinal threats to the vitality of the Church.” Therein may lie the crucial difference between us. I believe that the “doctrinal” is absolutely central. For unless we are clear about what we believe and can “give an account of the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15), we have no basis for adequately addressing what Steinfels calls the other “looming threats to the vitality of the Church.”

Here I agree with St. John Henry Newman who deplored “liberalizing” trends in Church and theology in his “Biglietto Address” (delivered on the occasion of his appointment as cardinal). Whatever “liberalism’s” merits, which Newman does not deny, it fails to do justice to the indispensable doctrinal supports of its own praiseworthy endeavors. It fails to honor what Newman in his Apologia terms the “dogmatic principle,” whose purview is not mere opinion or sentiment, but objective truth about reality itself.

Our praying the Creed each Sunday during the Eucharistic celebration is no quaint vestige of a past age but the foundation of all that we profess and practice. As Newman put it in one of his sermons: “It is the Incarnation of the Son of God rather than any doctrine drawn from a partial view of Scripture (however true and momentous it may be) which is the article of a standing or a falling Church.” And, as de Lubac stresses, the dogma is Christ himself. He alone, through his paschal mystery, makes all things new. He alone anchors our hope that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all manner of things shall be well.”

Many years ago, before we became “old” friends, Peter Steinfels and I were part of a group that drafted the statement “Called to Be Catholic,” which was the foundational document of the Common Ground Initiative. There we wrote: “Jesus Christ, present in scripture and in sacrament, is central to all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured.” Christ is, or ought to be, the Measure of everything the Church does. That was the central point of both my articles about the Synod.

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is a longtime Commonweal contributor.

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