The Pope is not the problem

Originally at:

by Phil Lawler

Thoroughly rattled by the stories that emerged from the October meeting of the Synod of Bishops, many faithful Catholics are now worried that Pope Francis is leading the Church in a dangerous direction—and perhaps even doing so intentionally. Their fears are understandable, in light of some confusing messages from Rome. But like my colleague Jeff Mirus, I am confident that those fears are misplaced.

Believe me: I understand the concerns. Regular readers will recall that while the Synod meetings were taking place, I produced a four-part series on “What’s Wrong with this Synod.” I voiced my own concerns about the bishops’ apparent unwillingness to address fundamental questions about the meaning of marriage; the censorship that produced a badly skewed public understanding of the Synod’s work; the fixation on issues of interest to the affluent secularized nations, where faith is on the wane; and the massive failure of marriage-preparation programs. Some commentators have sought to reassure worried Catholics that nothing untoward happened at the Synod—that the Barque of Peter is sailing on smooth seas, under favorable winds. I disagree. With this Synod the Church ran into a serious squall.

The efforts to manipulate the October sessions were blatant and unrelenting. Under new rules, adopted for this meeting (and cynically justified by the claim that they would encourage open debate), the speeches of the Synod fathers were not made public. The world heard only driblets of the bishops’ conversations, filtered through the Vatican press office. A preliminary report on the discussions—which, in the opinion of many prelates, was not an accurate summary—was released to the public without formal approval. When the Synod fathers voted not to approve several paragraphs in a final report, those controversial paragraphs were included anyway, with the negative vote noted, so that they could remain under discussion.

Predictably that preliminary report, with its controversial language, has received far more public attention than the final Synod document. It is virtually impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Synod’s main organizers wanted this result. Consider this: the preliminary report, the relatio post disceptationem, was released immediately in several languages; the Synod’s final report is still not available in an official English translation.

So naturally the secular media fastened on the relatio as the main story of the Synod, to the exclusion of what the Synod fathers actually said. “No Consensus at Vatican as Synod Ends,” read the New York Times headline. Of course there was plenty of consensus: on an entire document, with most of its passages approved by lopsided majorities. But that message—the message of the full Synod assembly, rather than a handful of organizers—has not reached the general public.

Russell Shaw, an acute analyst of Catholic affairs, observed that the tumultuous proceedings of the Synod could be attributed to one of two possibilities. Either the organizers did not realize the strength of the forces they were unleashing, or they were attempting to present the full assembly with a fait accompli. Shaw concluded: “In charity, I favor the first explanation—culpable naïveté—but others will see it differently.”

In a strained effort to make the argument that the Synod was not manipulated, the Jesuit columnist Father James Martin, writing in the Jesuit magazine America, said that the assembly benefited from “a rather ‘Jesuit’ model of decision-making.” There is considerable irony in that claim, since the most controversial passage of the relatio, on the acceptance of homosexuals, was evidently written by Archbishop Bruno Forte with a substantial assist from another Jesuit journalist, Father Antonio Spadaro. My friend Robert Royal reported from the scene that Archbishop Forte and Father Spadaro exchanged a very visible thumbs-up sign when that passage was read aloud.

Yes, there were unquestionably some serious machinations at the Synod. But then, as Jeff Mirus has also observed, there are always machinations at any assembly in which strong-minded people try to advance their own ideas. Far more troubling, to faithful Catholics, is the abundant evidence that Pope Francis was a party to the manipulation.

It was the Holy Father, after all, who gave Cardinal Walter Kasper an opportunity to present his own favorite proposal to a consistory of cardinals in February. The Pope praised the German cardinal’s presentation, and then remained silent as Cardinal Kasper repeatedly hinted that he was speaking for the Pontiff. The Pope appointed the committee of prelates who drafted the relatio, and anyone familiar with the Catholic hierarchy, looking down the list of names, could have guessed what was in store. Pope Francis reportedly saw that final report before it was made public, and made no move—then or later—to block its release or distance himself from it.

Any one of those papal moves—all of them, really—could be explained. But Catholics of a conservative or traditionalist bent were not inclined to listen to explanations. They had already seen what they interpreted as clear indications of the Pope’s own views, ranging from his damaging “who am I to judge” comment to his shocking demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke. When Pope Francis told an Argentine reporter that he enjoyed debating conservative bishops, that seemed to clinch the point. Insofar as such labels are useful in Catholic affairs, the Pope thinks of himself as a liberal.

Fair enough. Pope Francis will often make statements—has often made statements—that unsettle those of us who are ordinarily classified as “conservative” Catholics. He will urge us to take a different perspective. He will criticize us for refusing to accept new ideas. Criticism is often difficult to accept, especially for those who have been fighting intellectual battles for decades. But if we cannot accept correction from a pastor, we are treading down a very dangerous spiritual path.

In the past week I have been dismayed to see some “conservative” commentators write about Pope Francis with the same sort of vitriolic disdain that Father Richard McBrien showed for St. John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s. If that contempt for the Vicar of Christ was wrong then—and it was—it is wrong now.

Outside the tight circle of opinionated Catholics, and in spite of the confusion caused by the Synod, Pope Francis retains his phenomenal popularity with the general public. It is significant, I think, that his fiercest critics use this popularity as part of their indictment against him. Yes, I realize that our society has trouble distinguishing good from evil. Yes, I agree that playing to the crowd—demagoguery—is dishonorable. But popularity in itself is not a bad thing! If he is encouraging the world to look upon the Catholic Church with fresh and even sympathetic eyes, Pope Francis is doing an immeasurable service.

The Synod fathers—including, I assume, those who were angry about the attempted manipulation of the meeting—reportedly gave Pope Francis a long and loud ovation after the address with which he closed the session. I strongly recommend a careful and dispassionate reading of that remarkable speech. In it, the Holy Father helps us all to understand why this Synod meeting was so contentious, and why we should not be overly troubled by the turmoil.

In that speech Pope Francis warns against some of the temptations that afflict Catholic prelates—and, I would add, by extension, Catholic commentators. He warns that some Catholics concentrate on the letter of the law, to the exclusion of the spirit, while others extol a “a deceptive mercy that binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them;” some want to turn stones into bread, and others want to come down off the Cross. All of these warnings echo the words of Jesus.

If there is one clear theme in the teaching of Pope Francis, it is the demand for Catholics to go out to the “peripheries,” to draw people closer to Christ. Unfortunately we are lazy creatures, and we give ourselves excuses for avoiding this evangelical duty. As I read the Pope’s closing address, and especially that section on the particular temptation that different sorts of Catholics face, I saw him attacking those excuses, prodding us to recognize how we are failing, even sometimes when we think we are doing our best.

Some Catholics—call them conservatives if you like—have a healthy desire to fight against the destructive ideas that are steadily gaining ground in our society. But we (and I put myself squarely in this group) may not take into account that when we attack the ideas, those who hold them recoil, take a defensive posture, and draw further away from the truth. Other Catholics– call them liberals—profess more sympathy toward the people who follow destructive ideas. But by failing to correct them, they allow those poor people to continue injuring themselves.

To put it a bit differently, conservative Catholics tend to slip into the belief that we can convert people by arguing with them, while liberals believe they can convert people by agreeing with them. Both are wrong. To bring people into the Church we need to meet them, befriend them, listen to them, accompany them, evangelize them. That is the fundamental message of Pope Francis, and to drive home that message he is willing to tolerate—perhaps even to encourage—a raucous Synod meeting.

Yes, the October session of the Synod was messy, confusing, and contentious. But lively debates can be healthy, especially when there are real disagreements to be aired and resolved. The history of the Church is dotted with heated disputes. Often—as with the Council of Jerusalem, the earliest such episode—they are preludes to new bursts of evangelical activity.

To be sure, the October session of the Synod left important arguments unresolved. During the coming year those arguments will be hashed out, thoroughly but not always decorously. Inevitably there will be more attempts to manipulate the media, more inaccurate reports, more charges and countercharges. The process will be frustrating for those who believe that the life of the Church should always be placid and quiet. But the Church is more interested in seeking the truth and presenting it in new ways to a new generation than in maintaining a smooth public façade.

The coming months and the continuing debate will also be frustrating for those who, like myself, want to see every argument resolved, every intellectual enemy defeated. We may need to remind ourselves frequently that the work of the Church is not to win arguments, but to win souls.

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