Unforced Errors?

Francis & the Fate of the Synod
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When asked in 1972 by Richard Nixon what he thought about the impact of the French Revolution, the then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai replied, “It’s too early to say.” This story is inaccurate—Zhou likely thought he was being asked about the French student demonstrations of 1968—but the point remains: an event’s meaning can take a long time to work itself out. I write only a few days after the Synod on the Family closed, but the same can be said of it: its fate rests in the hands of the entire church, not least in those of the pope who will likely issue with unprecedented alacrity an apostolic exhortation in response to the synod’s final report.

In good Franciscan (papal, that is) fashion, I would like to focus my reflections on three words: process, papacy, and accompaniment.

Process. Synods are one of the church’s treasures. The Jesuit theologian and historian Norman Tanner sees them as “a miracle of human endeavor and above all a miracle of divine grace.” Over centuries, they have enabled Christians to resolve major doctrinal and disciplinary disagreements and to preserve unity.

Pope Francis clearly concurs. His vision of synodality, expressed in an October 17 address commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Paul VI’s creation of the Synod of Bishops, is inspiring in many ways. Francis spoke of a church on a common journey; an ecclesial culture of listening to all believers; an exercise of synodality on local, regional, and universal levels; and the need for a conversion of the papacy, not least a keener sense of the pope’s solidarity with his brother bishops and all of the baptized.

Past synods largely have not lived up to early hopes. They have often been tightly controlled; topics and even certain words were proscribed. The “parrhesia,” or bold speech, commended by Francis thankfully has been much more evident under his pontificate. Compared even to last year’s first meeting on the family, this past assembly seemed to be marked—not without struggle—by greater transparency: e.g., immediate release of all reports of the small linguistic working groups, no opaquely prepared midterm report (Relatio post disceptationem). The final report was likewise a significant improvement over the initial working document (instrumentum laboris). Some turgid language is inevitable in these documents, but the end result was less Western-centric and more scriptural, direct, evangelical, hopeful.

Notwithstanding those improvements, it remains problematic that (1) the drafting committee for the Final Report was appointed by the pope rather than elected by the synod, (2) that the synod secretariat did not make available to the public the full texts or even summaries (as at previous synods) of all of the participants’ interventions, and (3) that the Vatican Press Office offered sometimes highly selective summaries of each day’s discussions. Given such limited access to the deliberations, “outsiders” found it hard to have a clear sense of the synod’s deliberations.

Russell Shaw’s 2008 book, Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church, should be required reading for anyone involved or interested in the synodal process. Shaw, the communications director for the U.S. bishops from 1969 to 1987, has long criticized the intersecting dangers of clericalism and secrecy. Clericalism regards the non-ordained as inferior and consigns them to dependence and passivity, while secrecy flows from the assumption that “lesser” members of the church do not have the right or even the need to know about their leaders’ doings; such knowledge, it is held, might even cause scandal and harm. The interplay of clericalism and secrecy thus undermines ecclesial communication and accountability. 

One of Shaw’s warnings is particularly relevant to the Synod on the Family: the dangers of “closed sessions” of episcopal gatherings. Against the claim that such sessions permit freer discussion, he argues that “Openness in conducting business that impacts on the People of God is a central part of effective and transparent episcopal leadership.”

In short, a genuinely synodal church, according to the pope’s aforementioned address, must reject the concentration of power in “restricted power groups” and seek instead greater “participation, solidarity, and transparency in the administration of public matters.” The Synod on the Family, of all topics, should have been more transparent, inclusive, and accountable from the outset. These failures were entirely avoidable.

Papacy. Ultramontanism is a perennial temptation for modern Catholicism. Many Catholics—left and right—are effectively ultramontane in locating all authority and initiative in the papacy: they place too much hope—or fear—in what the pope can do. They subscribe—in hope or in fear—to a “great man” theory of the papacy in which other believers—even bishops—are supporting cast. They differ simply on which issues they think the pope should ride herd and on which ones he should zip it.

Vatican I, often thought by supporters and critics alike to give free rein to the papacy, was actually much more circumscribed. It declared that the Holy Spirit does not give the pope special revelation to promulgate new doctrine, but divine assistance to “religiously guard and faithfully expound” the deposit of faith entrusted to the apostles and their successors. Vatican I thus articulated a necessary paradox: the pope’s fullness of power is rather narrowly focused. The papacy is—literally—conservative. It’s about consolidation, not innovation. To claim that the pope might, in the words of a participant in one of the recent synod’s small working groups, “in effect, twist the hands of God,” betrays a hopefully inadvertent but destructive ultramontanism. The pope is the servant of tradition, not its master.

The papacy, moreover, is above all a ministry of unity, which makes the pope’s closing discourse to the synod so disturbing. He ripped those “closed hearts” who sit in the “chair of Moses” and condescendingly judge those in difficult situations; those who “‘indoctrinate’ [the Gospel] in dead stones to be hurled at others”; those “elder brothers” and “jealous laborers” who regard themselves as “defenders of doctrine.” It was an address lacking in generosity and even fairness, one that Paul VI, for example, never would have delivered. Much is rightly made of Francis’s Jesuit vision or “way of proceeding”: his emphasis, for instance, on mission, discernment, and the fundamental desire to “help souls.” But, where is the broad catholicity and self-abnegation of the “Presupposition” at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, which enjoins all to “search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved”? Nor does the speech give any comfort to those who have noted the pope’s relentless, sometimes daily condemnation of unnamed-yet-easily-surmised “doctors of the law.” He failed to acknowledge that those who disagree with him might be acting in good faith, that they might be wrong but not pharisaic.

Christian unity means neither uniformity nor the suppression of disagreement and even conflict. But, it does rule out ad hominem attacks in the name of mercy, exclusion in the name of inclusion. It rules out partisanship and stigmatizing. The pope is the pope of all believers. Francis’s gratuitous rhetoric does not allay fears that the deck has been—and will be—stacked against those who might disagree with him.

Accompaniment. The pope’s pastoral vision of “accompaniment” is appealing and needed. During his 2013 visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, he spoke of the need to form believers and ministers who can “step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearings; […] able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity.” True accompaniment refuses the opposition of law and mercy, of orthodoxy and compassion.

Unfortunately, some synodal participants’ understandings of accompaniment seemed to manifest an implicit despair concerning the power of the Gospel to transform lives and the graced ability of men and women to live chastely. Binding norms become desirable but often unattainable ideals. Faith—and its moral demands—is experienced as a burden, rather than as a liberation or a path to human flourishing. Such views do not emphasize sufficiently that accompaniment and the “law of gradualism” have a goal—holiness—that can be reached by all, not just a heroic few. The Jesuit historian John O’Malley notes in What Happened at Vatican II that the council unprecedentedly affirmed that holiness is “what the church is all about.” Despite their pastoral intent, the (temporarily shelved?) Kasper Proposal and those like it unintentionally weaken the council’s affirmation of the universal call to holiness.

Cardinal Kasper’s argument to allow some divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment to receive Communion after a “penitential path” simultaneously asks too much and too little. Too much, because it contradicts centuries-old, conciliar teaching on the need to receive Communion in a state of grace as well as the necessity of a firm purpose of amendment in order to receive absolution. Too little, because it does not truly heal the wounds of sin (e.g., adultery remains) and also absolves the community of the need to accompany those in difficult situations.

More deeply, the synod discussions were haunted by a rather Western clash between, in the late Cardinal Francis George’s words, a contemporary world in which everything is permitted and nothing truly forgiven, and Christianity which affirms that “much is forbidden, but everything can be forgiven.” Christ offers a sometimes gentle, sometimes severe mercy that demands all things and forgives all things. Some synodal participants unfortunately tended to set mercy and judgment at odds, and so recommended that the church avoid “judgmental” language such as “adultery.”

Hearing hundreds of homilies from dozens of priests each year, I’d say that “judgmental” is about the last word that describes most contemporary Catholic preaching and ministry. More common is a bland moralism that reduces the Gospel to a Jesus-the-Example whom we follow by doing more, by trying a little harder to be a better person. It focuses more on what we do than on what God has done and continues to do for us. Grace, the Cross, and the empty tomb make scarce appearance.

Instead of judgmentalism, one finds in much Catholic preaching an almost-total lack of encouragement, challenge, or comfort offered to people trying to live chaste lives (which is all of us). This is a real scandal, and both church and society are reaping the fruits of our collective failure to form our own people. Possibly never has the church been accused so much of judgmentalism and yet passed less judgment. This is not accompaniment, but abandonment, of families.

In sum, Francis has rightly called the church away from self-centered mentalities and structures towards the various peripheries of our world. He has rightly called shepherds to be close to their flocks and to put aside a comfortable but deadening clericalist distance. He has rightly called for the church not to be afraid of God’s tenderness. None of those goals requires any form of the Kasper Proposal’s insufficient mercy. The question now is if and when—and at what cost—the pope will seek to implement a path he clearly favors. It may be “too early to say,” but such a decision would short-circuit the synodal process to which he has committed the church and cripple the accompaniment that leads to true life.

Published in the December 4, 2015 issue: 

Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

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