The Divided Synod

Pope Francis outside the Synod meeting, October 15, 2015. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty)

As I write I do not know what the final synod report will say. One of the drafters described it as being more questions than answers. “The questions will be clear,” said Oswald Cardinal Gracias of Mumbai at a press briefing Thursday. “The answers will not be so clear.”

So, after a two-year rollercoaster ride toward this synod, the Church may be left embracing more questions than answers, which is to say issues that have been considered closed for 2,000 years will likely remain open questions in Catholic life for the foreseeable future.

Absent a strong intervention from Pope Francis to affirm the Catholic teachings, the result is likely to be a profound dislocation in the authority structures of the Catholic Church.

We know that many synod fathers made powerful arguments in favor of the unbroken, distinctive Catholic teaching on marriage, drawn straight from the words of Christ and affirmed by Saint Paul. We now also know, thanks to the modern world, of the many bishops and cardinals who really wish to give Communion to people living in second marriages while their first spouse still lives. We cannot un-know what was on display, thanks in part to Pope Francis’s desire to build a more authentic church, with less hypocrisy, to let us in on the secret, to be frank about where the Church is.

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We know from polls and from parish life that many, many ordinary churchgoing Catholics do not support many Catholic teachings. Dissent is not shocking; it has been normalized. A study from the Austin Institute found that on Mass at any given Sunday in the U.S., 40 percent of those in the pews describe themselves as “traditional Catholics,” 40 percent say they are “moderate Catholics,” and the remainder are “liberal” or “other” Catholics. There has been, in America at least, a massive collapse in the transmission belt of basic Catholic teachings, and not only about sex.

We now know, as a result of the frankness Pope Francis encouraged for this synod, that a substantial chunk of Catholic bishops do not believe in indissolubility. Not really, except as some kind of ethereal ideal divorced from the “mess of reality.”

I am not sure the Holy Father understands what it will mean to so many of us to have kicked out from under us the last vestiges of that sense that we had the unbroken authority of Rome at our backs.

This brings the idea that a variety of views on these issues are acceptable within the Catholic identity to a new level, which is to say, it makes the Catholic Church as an authoritative community challenging to believe in a new way.

I’ve begun to suspect that this may be part of Pope Francis’s point. I am not sure the Holy Father understands what it will mean to so many of us to have kicked out from under us the last vestiges of that sense that we had the unbroken authority of Rome at our backs. But let’s try for a moment to look, with clear eyes and open hearts, at the problem the pope is addressing.

I really don’t think the text — Communion for divorced people who by their remarriage are living in an adulterating second civil union — is Pope Francis’s core point. The subtext of the two-year shakeup leading to a publicly divided Church may be his real goal: reform of the dysfunctional structure of the Catholic Church as a failed authoritative hierarchy.

Francis hinted as much in his remarkable speech celebrating 50 years of the synod, a kind of intermediary creation of Vatican II, calling for a “conversion of the papacy”:

Committing ourselves to building a synodal Church — a mission to which we are all called, each one in the role the Lord gives him — is pregnant with ecumenical implications. For this reason, when I was speaking recently to a delegation from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I reaffirmed my conviction that “the careful examination of how in the Church the principle of synodality and the service of the one who presides are articulated, will make a significant contribution to the progress of relations between our Churches.”

I am convinced that, in a synodal Church, greater light will be shed on the exercise of Petrine primacy. The Pope does not stand alone, above the Church; but inside her, as a baptized person among the baptized and inside the College of Bishops as a Bishop among the Bishops, called, at the same time — as successor of the Apostle Peter — to guide the Church of Rome which presides in love over all Churches.

Dysfunctional bureaucracies are the worst of all worlds: They impede rather than unleash human energy, creativity, and, yes, love, while failing to sustain the goods a successful hierarchy can foster — including effective communal action. Clericalization leaves the essential tasks of saving souls and tending to the needy to a dwindling professional class. Could it be that Pope Francis’s time in the streets of Argentina has given him Protestant envy and a hunger for a new model of Catholic engagement that unleashes the laity, the promise of Vatican II?

People in the modern world are hungry for community and intimacy and, yes, moral truth.

Surely this is less absurd, as a goal, than imagining that the pope believes, as the Kasperites suggest, that an overstretched and dysfunctional bureaucratic structure filled with an inadequate number of priests and an overabundance of divorces is going to have time, energy, and manpower to “journey with” very many divorced Americans in an intense process of reflection on the sins of failed marriages, leading to new growth.

That cannot be the point, because I doubt even Cardinal Kasper believes it would really happen; the way Catholic parishes are set up now, donuts with the priest is about the limit of intimacy the average parishioner can expect. People in the modern world are hungry for community and intimacy and, yes, moral truth, even as we bridle at restrictions on our freedom and identity.

#share#Catholic parishes will not become warmer because we become a less authoritative Church structurally. That is perhaps the central problem in the framing of the synod. The problems of coldness, of the passivity of the laity, of a lack of intimacy and authenticity and community, these are very real problems in Catholic life, and not unrelated to the urgent central problem that Catholic parishes in America are not passing Catholicism on even to people in their pews, and that many Catholic parents are not passing their faith on to their children. But it is not the moral commands of Christ, or His Church, that are the reasons for this lack, and their loosening is not going to create the communities we need.

I could list for you now all the reasons this decentralization of authority structures, including the papacy itself, the last vestige of effective authority, seems to me to be a strategy for disaster for the Catholic Church, but that is somewhat beside the point.

If the watchwords for the immediate future are decentralization and de-clericalization, then fundamentally we faithful Catholics are going to have to surrender the dream of a revival of authority by the bishops as a solution to the problems we face and we share.

#related#We are going to have to take on the tasks Pope Francis is assigning to us, of building the Catholic communities we hunger for on our own. We are going to have to seek out those leaders — bishops and priests — who are helpful to us in making Christian homes and communities, even if at times it feels a bit Protestant to be doing so.

We are going to have to find a way to teach our children that it really is possible to pick one person, to love him or her, to enfold all your children within the vow of marriage, and to subordinate the powerful claims of Eros so that, at a minimum, men and women do not hurt one another, or any of our children, with our bodies and our desires.

We are going to have to build something new: to love like people who know love is really possible, to suffer like people who know that suffering never has the final word.


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