William Shakespeare's Final Thoughts on the Synod on the Family

Well, it's over.  Everyone has gone home, and the pundits--amateur and professional--now get to dissect what has happened and What It All Means.  I continue to maintain that we should not be distracted by the shiny object that is the final document produced by the Synod, and instead focus on whatever Pope Francis ultimately says or does with regard to divorced and remarried Catholics.  Still, I think that the Synod made a number of advances from a process standpoint, even if the product that was generated is not as important as it might seem.  And, inspired by Cardinal Marx's impressive use of Shakespeare to make his points, I too will draw from the The Bard.

"This above all- to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."  Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3.  
With the possible exception of the handful of heads of religious orders, everyone who attended the Synod of Bishops was put into a high office in the Church (if not their current office) by either Pope John Paul, or Pope Benedict, or both.  It seems weird to think about it now, but three years ago it was reasonable to conclude that the overwhelming majority of the Catholic hierarchy was more or less in lock-step agreement about the direction and agenda of the Catholic Church.  Sure, one could certainly see stylistic and tonal differences between different bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, but the conventional wisdom was the Popes John Paul and Benedict had weeded out everyone who did not embrace their program and agenda, or at least everyone of importance.  One could reasonably believe that the institutional apparatus of the Catholic Church consisted of a vast majority that basically thought similarly, and a few scattered dissenters who were on their way out.

That would have been a reasonable conclusion, but it is clearly an erroneous conclusion.  What has become clear to everyone with eyes to see is that the unanimity that Popes John Paul and Benedict tried to create and project was an illusion.  What John Paul and Benedict managed to do was to snuff out public disagreements and public disputes, while smart (and, frankly, careerist) clergy simply learned to keep their views and opinions to themselves.  Some of them did this because they viewed their job as following the lead of the Pope and trusted his judgment on these matters, some of them did this because they really wanted to become a bishop and a cardinal and knew what to say to achieve those goals, and some of them decided that resisting the unspoken gag orders coming from Rome was futile and saved their energies, and some did it for some combination of those reasons.

Whatever the reason, Pope Francis has clearly lifted the gag order, and bishops and cardinals are now free to speak their minds.  And they did so at this Synod.  We have Cardinal Sarah saying that "gender ideology" is an equivalent threat to ISIS, we have Archbishop Bonny of Antwerp uttering the uncomfortable truth that divorced and remarried couples have been going to communion in Belgium for 40 years, and we have Archbishop Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia becoming a blogging star.  Different people in the Church have different opinions, which wouldn't be much of a surprise if we didn't go through a period when some tried to convince us it was not true.  In any event, it is all out on the table now, for everyone to see.

All of this is a positive development.  Catholicism has a language problem and a listening problem, and this problem cannot be solved unless people are honest about what they think and what they believe.  Listening is pointless if the person you are speaking to is not telling the truth about what he or she thinks--all you are listening to is the distorted reflection of what the other person thinks you want to hear.  It is particularly important, I think, for the laity to hear that the issues and debates that they are having are reflected in the bishops who are in charge of the Church.  The fake unanimity of the John Paul and Benedict years created a sense of despair and resignation among the moderate and progressive ends of the Church--why bother slogging through all of this when there is an unbreakable ceiling over your head?  That despair is gone now, and that is a good thing for the diversity and future health of the Church.

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."  Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2.

Pope Francis's summation of the meaning and purpose of the Synod, delivered on Saturday, was a stem-twister:

[The Synod] was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others.

It was also about laying closed hearts, which bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.

It was about making clear that the Church is a Church of the poor in spirit and of sinners seeking forgiveness, not simply of the righteous and the holy, but rather of those who are righteous and holy precisely when they feel themselves poor sinners.


It was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian Newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.

To summarize, there are a group of people who like to hurl dead stones at others, sit in judgment of others, believe themselves to be righteous and holy, and hide behind rules and archaic language.  And the Synod is about affirming none of this behavior, but indeed the opposite.  As far as Francis is concerned, detatched, objective law is out and individualized accompaniment is in.

It is difficult to overstate the tonal change that this represents.  If you were an ambitious clergyman under John Paul or Benedict, you did not pursue advanced studies in theology, or church history, or Scripture, or philosophy, or (God forbid) some secular subject; you got a degree in canon law.  Think about that for a moment--having an in depth knowledge of the Bible or the teaching of the Church was considered less important than knowing the procedural rules in depth.  Because the rules were seen as where the action was in the Church.  Indeed, theologians were seen as problematic, a source of confusion and dissent, problems that could be remedied through the application of clean legal rules.

All that seems, at least while Francis is the Pope, to be at an end.

The previous emphasis on canon law to the exclusion of (and in some respects in opposition to) theology explains the most interesting subplot of the Synod, and that is the role of the German-speaking delegation as thought-leaders.  The German delegation, loudly and despite their own internal differences of opinion, made a point of emphasizing the need for greater theological reflection, as opposed to simply talking about the rules and what the rules should be.  Once Pope Francis de-emphasized the rules, the Synod fathers needed to do theology, a task that many of them were unprepared to handle.  Unprepared, that is, except for the German-speaking bishops, who are mostly theologians by training.  So, when the Germans unanimously agreed to the "internal forum" formula, everyone else followed along, in a sense recognizing that the Germans were the only folks trained to swim in these waters.

So, law is out and pastoral theology is in.  At least during Pope Francis's pontificate.

"Heaven take thy soul, and England keep my bones!"  The Life and Death of King John, Act IV, Scene 2.
Here is the truth.  English speaking Catholics, including those in the United States, including me, are all crypto-Protestants.  The dominant religious culture is Protestant, and the way in which Catholicism gets lived out is always colored by this religious culture.  As such, all of the obsessions and dysfunctionalities of the Protestant world--the obsession with parsing the meaning of "real faith" to the nth degree, a focus on external manifestations as tribal markings, the tendency to look to split at the first sign of disagreement--find there way into English-speaking Catholicism in weird and mutated forms.

If anyone had any doubt about the truth of this thesis, the Synod put it to rest.  It is hard not to see the pattern here--the group of people most opposed to Pope Francis and what he is about speak English.  Chaput, Pell, DiNardo, Dolan, Burke, Collins of Canada, Kurtz--all English speakers.  Sure, there are counter-examples such as Cupich, but the basic pattern is pretty clear.  You have a set of conservative bishops who are devoted first and foremost to the culture war, and insofar as Pope Francis is interested in something else (let alone possibly undermining their agenda), he is their enemy.  They have complained about him, in increasingly public ways.  They and their fellow-travelers (like the increasingly unhinged Ross "Own your heresy" Douthat) are not interested in any reflection or reinterpretation.  It is all war to the knife.

This is not to say that only English speaking Catholics are conservatives.  It is just that the way that English speaking Catholics are conservative appears to be more toxic and corrosive than other forms.  More than anything else, we see in the Chaputs and the Dolans and the Kurtzes of the world an obsessive, even monomanical, focus on who is having sex with whom, and more importantly on maintaining an inviolable barrier of separation from those that are doing what to whom in an unapproved manner.  This war against the idol that is the sexual revolution is primarily an English speaking war, one that has been successfully exported to Africa by its (primarily American) combatants.

The rest of the world, it seems, has a more balanced perspective on these fights.  This is why the concerns that the Catholic Church will go the way of the Anglican Communion seems somewhat misplaced.  The English speaking Catholics are, indeed, indistinguishable from the Anglicans, but fortunately we have the Latin Americans and the Asian churches to provide some ballast.  The English-speakers' War over Sex will hopefully be appropriately sidelined to some degree.

"When could they say, till now, that talked of Rome, That her wide walls encompassed but one man?  Now is it Rome indeed and room enough, When there is in it but one only man."  Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of a slave who ran away to join the Union army.  One day he found his former master among the Confederate prisoners he was guarding.  "Hello, massa," he is said to have said, "bottom rail on top dis time!"

During the time of Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict, all one heard from conservative elements in the Church was the absolute necessity of supporting and defending the Pope, the need to defer to him in all religious matters, etc.  There were websites created with titles like "Protect the Pope," designed to counter the supposedly anti-Papal slant, especially among so-called "dissident" Catholics.

Well, whose the dissident now?  As "@RelapsedCatholic" on Twitter memorably remarked "Petrine Primacy is a bitch."  All of these people that spent 30 years scolding us for not sufficiently toeing the line and keeping quiet are the loudest voices criticizing Pope Francis.  It is especially rich for them to criticize the process of the Synod, when every prior Synod for the past 30 years has been staged managed to the level of a Soviet legislature.  Plus, now all of the sudden they are concerned with the appropriate scope of the Pope's power?  Where was that concern during the height of the "creeping infallibility" period of Wotlyja and Ratzinger?  The temptation to schadenfreude is difficult, if not impossible, to resist.

This phenomenon ties in directly with the crypto-Protestantism discussed above.  As long as the Pope was saying what they wanted to hear (or could easily be spun into representing what they wanted to hear), ultramontanism (the idea of total Papal control of the Church) was swell.  The moment it became inconvenient, it was dropped like a bad habit.  It was all fun and games when the Pope was a regal anti-communist fighter, or a conservative academic; now that he is a Spanish-speaking grandpa who likes to lecture El Norte on its faults, they have no time for the Pope.

Bottom rail on top, indeed.

"Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be."  Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5.

This Synod is not the end of the process, but only the beginning.  The failure of the Synod to address key topics, like LGBT issues for example, does not mean that they will never be addressed.

Along this line, I felt that the statements of two African archbishops, Charles Palmer-Buckle and Peter Turkson, were interesting and constructive.  In essence, they both said "look, if you make us take a position on LGBT issues now, we have to go hard on the anti-side because that's where our people are.  So, don't do that; give us time to work through these issues."  The time was not right for a direct intervention on the topic.

But it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the "internal forum" for divorce situations could easily be similarly applied to LGBT relationships in a quiet and low-key way (which, of course, is the status quo in many places already).  Sure, there will be some parishes and some priests and some dioceses that will be unwelcoming.  But the seed for a change of attitude on LGBT and other questions has been planted by beginning to swap out a legal model for a pastoral model.  That will create room for the temperature on the culture war, hopefully, to be lowered enough for people to work out these issues together.

Where that will lead is unknown, and unknowable.  But I think the possibility of that happening without a fractious schism is greater now than it was four weeks ago.  And that is cause to celebrate.

"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.”  The Tempest, Act III, Scene 2.

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