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.

When we see a Jesuit pope criticizing “hostile inflexibility”, it’s hard not to think of these old 17th and 18th century battles. When history is written, will this synod be seen as one of the last battles between orthodoxy and Jansenism? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s not implausible, and it would certainly turn the prevailing narrative on its head! My point is not that this is the only frame of reference, but it's certainly a valid one, and it doesn't get the attention it deserves.

The lack of historical context also has a geographical angle. Much of the conservative angst seems to revolve around the idea that the Catholic Church will slide into irrelevance like liberal Protestantism (let’s set aside the issue of whether this analysis of liberal Protestantism is real or perceived). But there aren’t two branches of Christianity. There are three. Our four, if we count the once-dominant but now sadly fading non-Chalcedonian churches.

This is relevant, of course, because our Orthodox brothers and sisters have taken a more flexible approach to the question of marriage, without ever losing the secure doctrinal foundation of the faith. This is the famous principal of economia, which recognizes that operating in a broken and sinful world requires an element of flexibility. So while the gold standard would be a marriage in line with the gospel, it would be licit to make some accommodation with human weakness—a second marriage might be tolerated, but it would come with a penitential character.

This is well known in Catholic circles. It came up at Vatican II, but was immediately shot down and subject to no further debate. My point here is not to debate the merits of economia in Catholic pastoral practice. It is simply to address the lack of this vital historical context in ongoing analysis and commentary.

Thus Ross Douthat can arrogantly announce that “the pastoral argument is basically just rubbish”, without any acknowledgment of this long and venerable tradition in one of the Church’s two lungs. And in a far more intelligent and balanced piece, Damon Linker also ignores this deep historical dimension. He argues that the conservatives see the Church as a “rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live” as opposed to those who emphasize “a message of universal inclusion, hope, love and mercy”. But surely the Orthodox Church also teaches a “vision of the right way to live”? It just does so while making an accommodation for human weakness. And its edifice has not fallen down yet, 2000 years on. Its doctrinal integrity still stands.

A little more historical awareness in these debates—especially in the English-speaking world—would go a long way. After all, this is a Church that thinks in centuries!


Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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