October will be a long and unpleasant month for Catholics. Pope Francis has convened a synod — a meeting of several hundred bishops from all over the world — to discuss matters related to marriage and the family. It will be the second synod on the topic; the first was held in October 2014. That one was received rapturously in the world media, which thought the Catholic Church was finally getting with the times and would update her teachings on the indissolubility of marriage and perhaps even same-sex unions. Synods don't decide anything in the Catholic way of doing things. They only advise the pope, and it remains for him to decide. Nevertheless if a consensus emerged among the world's leading bishops that the Catholic Church should, as many other Christian communities have done, capitulate to the sexual revolution, that would be major news. That's not what the synod decided last year, but there were certainly those who wished to go in that direction and manipulated the media to give that impression.
Synod 2015 then will be a bruising affair. Those who favour changing the Church's doctrine and practice insist that they will not touch the former in modifying the latter. This is quite impossible, for sacramental practice expresses doctrine. The critical point discussed at Synod 2014 was whether those who are validly married in the Church but then civilly divorce and remarry should be admitted to Holy Communion in some or all circumstances. Catholic doctrine does not permit divorce, so a person living in a civil marriage with someone other than the original spouse of the valid sacramental marriage is in an adulterous union (Mark 10:2-12). Living in a state of serious sin means that, according to Saint Paul, it is impossible to receive Holy Communion without committing the further sin of "profaning the body and blood of the Lord" (I Corinthians 11:27-29).
Nevertheless, a determined lobby of mostly northern European bishops, led by retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, have argued for a change. Kasper, a long-time theological opponent of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, has been given special prominence by Pope Francis, leading many to conclude that the Holy Father favours Kasper's proposals, though he has not said so directly; and Kasper has contradicted himself on the degree to which his ideas enjoy papal favour.
The stakes are high. Those who think that attempting to do what Kasper and others propose would be catastrophic for the Church's fi delity and witness are at Synod 2015 fully armed, as it were, theologically, organizationally and rhetorically. Church history gives us many examples, from the Acts of the Apostles onward through the early councils, of difficult battles over both doctrine and practice. It is sometimes amusing to look back on those episodes now, but they were not pleasant at the time. They are not pleasant this time either.
Who Is Loyal To The Pope?
The battle over marriage has highlighted an interesting dimension of the pontifi cate of Pope Francis. Catholics like to make their arguments in line with the pope. Pope Francis is massively popular with sectors of public opinion that are usually rather distant from the Catholic Church, as the recent papal visit to the United States demonstrated. Among Catholic progressives — those who would prefer to remake the Catholic Church more along the lines of mainline Protestantism — there is euphoric giddiness that Pope Francis is their man.
To cite just one example of "giddiness" — to use the author's own description — over Pope Francis, listen to a self-identified blogger of the Catholic left, flying high on the cassock-tails of his new champion. This is what Michael Sean Winters, an American, wrote at the beginning of this year: "2015 began the way I should like every day to begin, with a great sermon from the Holy Father. And, I think his sermon has a lot to say to those of us who range ourselves on the Catholic Left and hope that we shall take up the challenge."
Those familiar with English Catholic history will hear echoes in that of the famous line attributed to 19th century Catholic man of letters William Ward, who said that he wished to have "a new papal bull every morning with my Times at breakfast." The daily sermons of the Holy Father in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae are not papal bulls, but they do come daily, so Mr. Winters now has, after a fashion, what Mr. Ward desired.
Ward's ultramontanism was thought then to be a phenomenon of the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum; now it is the Catholic left that delights in ultramontanism for breakfast, to say nothing of lunch and dinner. So we are undoubtedly in changing times, perhaps even destabilizing ones, and it is not rare to hear senior cardinals and bishops say just that.
Is the Pope Catholic?
Newsweek put that question on the cover of its September 18 issue, raising the curtain on Pope Francis' American tour. "Of course he is," the cover itself stated. "But you wouldn't know it from his press clips." It's not just the press clippings. There are many at the heart of the Church who worry that Pope Francis wishes to advance teachings and practices contrary to Catholic doctrine. They see him as a figure of discontinuity with his immediate predecessors, Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
The argument for continuity is made by Austen Ivereigh, author of the sympathetic and respected biography, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. It is very helpful in understanding Jorge Bergoglio's life and vision, shaped by a set of
Argentinian circumstances that are, if not unique, at least unusual. Ivereigh writes the following about Pope Francis' visit to Assisi on the feast day of his eponym on October 4, 2013. It is worth quoting at length:
"What people loved about [Pope] Francis — just as they had about the man from Assisi — was precisely his Christ-likeness: his authenticity amid phoniness, his simplicity in a world of materialism, his spontaneity amid the stuffed cassocks, his preference for the poor in a world vying to be rich. He was humble in a world of celebrity, a sinner in a world of self-justification, a leperkisser in a world obsessed with beauty.
"That made him — although this didn't suit the media narrative of rupture — a direct successor of Benedict XVI. The more astute observers could see that Francis' freshness and honesty and directness rested on something solid and unchanging, that he was, in a sense changing everything at the same time as he was changing nothing. What he had succeeded in doing was making the delivery of the message match its content. The syllabus — humility, prayer, dependence on Christ — was the same, but Benedict's finely honed, crystalline texts, delivered in a quiet voice by a remote figure, were now being spoken and acted by a man who jumped out of a chair to make off-the-cuff remarks in physically affectionate encounters. Benedict clarified who was Christ, what it meant to live in and through Him; Francis recalled Christ. The widespread attraction to him showed that even inside the staunchest Western agnostics there lurks a longburied remembrance of the God-made-man.
"It was like Francis' friars in the 1300s reaping what the monks had sown over the previous seven hundred years. As G.K. Chesterton's much loved biography of Saint Francis describes it, referring to the sixth-century founder of Western monasticism, 'What Benedict had stored, Saint Francis scattered… what had been stored into the barns like grain was scattered over the world like seed.'
"Now another Francis was taking another Benedict on the road."
That might be too lyrical an argument — that Pope Francis after Pope Benedict is like Assisi after Montecassino — but there is something appealing in it, because there is something true. Re-read Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) or the book-length interview Light of the World or Benedict's addresses to the Catholic Church in Germany, and one finds, albeit in less direct prose, the same devastating indictment of a bureaucratic, managerial Church lacking in missionary drive and evangelical joy. Consider the teaching of Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, his first encyclical letter:
"The Church's deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the Word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being."
Remember that Deus Caritas Est began life as a draft of an encyclical for John Paul II, who wanted to address charitable service as part of the mission of the Church. At the end of his life, John Paul was returning to Christian fundamentals; his last encyclical letter was on the Eucharist. That he wanted to do something on the Church's diakonia tells us that it was important, and perhaps neglected. Benedict took that up and spoke of its centrality, alongside the proclamation of the Gospel and the worship of God
We might think, for simplicity's sake, that John Paul taught the Church how to proclaim the Gospel — the truth about God and the truth about man — with courage and confidence in a confused time. Benedict extended that and gave new emphasis to the Church's leitourgia. Francis now highlights the diakonia.
If you prefer a Biblical image instead, consider the wise men from the east who brought gifts to Bethlehem. We might consider the gold of the Magi recognizes that Jesus would challenge the kings of this world — as Saint John Paul did; that the frankincense signifies that Jesus would teach the world to worship in spirit and truth — as Benedict XVI did; and the myrrh as the anointing that Christ, a sacrificial victim, would bring to all those touched by the mystery of evil in the world, not only injustice and poverty, but sickness, suffering and death. Pope Francis, who speaks of a Samaritan Church, pouring oil and wine on the wounds of the beaten man by the side of the road, shows us the way here.
That's not only an argument that Pope Francis is Catholic, but a celebration of the many gifts that make up the Body of Christ. One might go further and suggest that only after John Paul attended to the kerygma-martyria and Benedict to the leitourgia could the Church give renewed energy to the diakonia. In such a light, we see a rather remarkable continuity
To speak of continuity defies what Ivereigh calls the "media narrative of rupture." Those words — rupture, continuity — bring to mind Pope Benedict's address to the Roman curia in 2005. Benedict, there, contrasted an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that emphasized "rupture" against the authentic interpretation of "continuity and reform." It is a critical judgment to be made, for that which is genuine reform, even though it may be painful, is to be received. That which is a rupture needs to be resisted. Catholics ought to enthusiastically receive the genuine reform of Francis, in continuity with his predecessors, even if the world is pleased to call that "rupture." That is a plausible reading of the Holy Spirit's work in the Church, and ought to be the preferred reading of the Holy Father's pastoral program.
Is there rupture?
Having established the general lines of continuity, the question returns about Synod 2015 and the issue of marriage. Does the pontificate of Pope Francis raise the possibility of rupture? It is certainly true that much of what Francis is alleged to have said, he has not said. Francis' approach to evangelization is to emphasize the mercy of God before the moral consequences of following God's will. This is widely interpreted as Francis making his peace with the sexual revolution, of which Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried is only the premiere issue — meaning both the most prominent issue now, but soon to be followed by others. Yet despite the best efforts of Cardinal Kasper and his allies, it is not at all evident that Francis intends to fly the white flag of surrender to the sexual revolution from the cupola of St. Peter's basilica.
There are others who are keen to do so, some of whom Pope Francis has entrusted with guiding both Synod 2014 and Synod 2015. We should not close our eyes to the fact that a majority of synod participants last October voted in favour of examining the mechanics of a rupture in the Church's pastoral practice and, therefore, doctrine about Holy Communion for the civilly remarried. This touches marriage and sexuality, grave sin and Holy Communion, and even more, the nuptial dimension of the Incarnation and the Church. They did not commit themselves to a change but did declare themselves in favour of examining the options. That is deeply worrying, and the intervening year has brought an avalanche of theological and pastoral analysis demonstrating how worried some of the most vibrant sectors of global Catholicism are.
What some are proposing is a rupture, and therefore calls for resistance. Those advocating the rupture do present themselves as arguing for what the pope wants, even if he has not said so. That puts those who resist the rupture in a difficult position, as no Catholic wishes to resist the pope. In principle, if resisting rupture means resisting the pope, then fidelity to the words of the Lord Jesus in the Gospel requires resisting the pope. No Catholic would ever wish to be in such a situation, and we trust that the Holy Spirit's guidance of the Church means that such a stark situation would not actually come to pass. Yet in the messiness of the synod process, it can certainly feel as if one is resisting the pope. At least those advancing the agenda of rupture are not reluctant to say just that about those defending the gospel tradition.
An African Moment
One of the most fascinating dynamics of the twin synods is the resistance of African Catholic leaders to the liberalizing agenda of the dying churches of the German-speaking countries and their European allies. Consider one of the most courageous voices in Africa, that of Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, a man who regularly witnesses the martyrdom of his own flock at the hands of Islamist terror.
"For a long time, all Christians had a common position on the main attributes of Christian marriage," Cardinal Onaiyekan writes in a new book (Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint, edited by Winfried Aymans) released on the eve of Synod 2015. "Neither the great schism that gave rise to the Orthodox churches nor the Protestant Reformation that gave rise to the many Protestant churches tampered with the essential properties of marriage. All agreed that marriage is between a man and a woman, in unity and indissolubility. It is only recently that we have begun to see major shifts on the part of many Christian bodies. In the last couple of decades, it is as if a doctrinal earthquake had overtaken the Christian churches. It is difficult to explain the calamitous changes that have taken place without reference to the strong influence of the evil one."
Strong words from a courageous man; clear words of battle from a continent where the faith is often under violent attack. Cardinal Onaiyekan speaks for more than just Africa in issuing a trumpet blast against rupture. His words find strong echoes in all those parts of the Catholic world where growth and dynamism are more present than decay and decline.
Resisting Rupture but Receiving Reform
Resistance to rupture cannot be the fundamental pastoral orientation of a priest or a prelate, or the fundamental attitude of any disciple of Christ. It should not be the fundamental disposition toward the Holy Father. Surely Catholics are called to work for the reception of his genuine reform, even if, on specific matters, there is a need for resistance to ruptures being advanced in his name. It is a delicate balance, and perhaps a difficult one. Certainly the freedom to speak openly that Pope Francis encourages makes it easier. In his own interventions on various topics, he himself is willing to correct himself if he gets something wrong. Frankness in speech is always complemented by humility.
Francis and the New Evangelization
If one were to randomly survey students on the campus where I work about what it means to be Catholic, the answers would not be comforting. There would be some generic acknowledgement that Christianity means being a good and kind person, but soon enough you would hear that to be Catholic means to be against gay people, to be against abortion, to be against sexual freedom and that to do all this is rather contradictory to Jesus, who was a nice person who above all said not to judge. Few would mention the invitation to Trinitarian love or life in Christ. Almost no one would mention the Resurrection, the triumph over sin and death, or the blessedness of eternal life in Heaven. Even among Catholics, how many would know that the Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus throughout time and space, a mission of bringing the Father's love and mercy to a fallen world?
That is a big problem. It is at the heart of the challenge we call the new evangelization. Benedict outlined this challenge with great elegance and insight. Francis almost bursts with energy to confront it. It is the reason that John Paul wrote his first two encyclicals on the merciful Redeemer and the Father who is rich in mercy. To accomplish that task in every age, the Church reforms herself — ecclesia semper reformanda! We dare not miss out on the kairos of this moment, resisting rupture only, necessary as it is, when the Christian mission requires receiving the reform being offered to the Church.