What is most frustrating in reading the media mutterings about the synod is the superficial experience of church life that most journalists have.Christina Odone is one who should know better. She is a lifelong British Catholic, a former editor of the UKs Catholic Herald and a longtime commentator on church matters. Nevertheless in this article she falls into the trap of clichés that every other journalist seems to be parroting.It is the false dichotomy between the so-called Franciscan reformers and the old timers in the Vatican who are hide bound and resistant to all change.Francis is portrayed as the smiling, warm hearted, merciful and compassionate pope who simply wants to open up the church to welcome all.His enemies are the legalistic old men who are going to resist all change no matter what. This false narrative is simply not the church I know as a parish priest on the ground level, nor does it represent the make up of the synod fathers and the reasons for the clash of the last two weeks.To characterize those who resist Francis’ reforms as hardhearted, Pharisaical legalists are a complete travesty. These are wise, learned, intelligent and sensitive pastors. They are not grumpy old men in frocks who are hung up about sex.They have a clear and coherent theology about God’s relationship with humanity. It is interlocked with a clear and coherent anthropology and understanding of human sexuality, marriage and society. Their complementary theology and anthropology is clearly integrated with the historic teachings of the Catholic faith and the history of the Church.They are also very well aware of the tensions in modern society. They, like all of their parish priests, know first hand the difficult cases of divorce and remarriage, the heartbreaking struggles of people with same sex attraction and their families, the difficult choices faced with couples who are co habiting, couples who are struggling with artificial contraception, in vitro fertilization, sterilization and all at the other seemingly impossible moral choices ordinary Catholics face. All we can conclude from Odone’s false dichotomy (and she is simply voicing the same sloppy thinking and easy stereotyping of most of the rest of the mainstream media) is that she is either ignorant of the reality or intentionally slanting the story to drive an agenda of change. Since she is an intelligent and informed Catholic woman we must assume the latter rather than the former.
The reality is far more complex and subtle. Those in the media who are predicting or calling for radical change in the Catholic Church never go so far as to suggest what, specifically, they actually want. Do they want the Catholic Church to endorse homosexuality as a positive alternative? Do they expect the Catholic Church to suddenly say divorce and remarriage is okay? Do they expect the Catholic Church to condone co habitation before marriage, artificial contraception, abortion, the whole secular progressive agenda? If not, what exactly do they think is going to happen? Is it simply that they want Catholic priests and bishops to be more easygoing, compassionate and kindly? How many Catholic priests or bishops do they actually know? How many have they met who are the hardhearted, harsh and condemnatory legalists that they hold up as typical? The synod fathers are not hardhearted legalists laying down the law ruthlessly. There may be some priests like this, but I have met very few. Far more priests are likely in everyday practice to already exert all the pastoral flexibility that the liberal synod fathers are asking for. Most priests I know–and I am one of them–are far more likely to err on the side of mercy, pastoral concern and tenderness towards those in difficulty than to lay down the law. Most of us already bend over backward to welcome all, make allowances for people and work with them to be full members of the church if that is their desire. The fact of the matter is that the majority of synod fathers understood that their primary purpose is to speak clearly to the faithful and to the world about the unchanging teachings of the Catholic faith. Their main job is not to bring about a major change in doctrine or moral teaching. They do not have that power since they are the guardians of the faith that has been once delivered to the saints. They know they cannot change the core teachings even if they want to. This is where secular journalists too often have not troubled themselves to understand the Catholic faith. We do not believe that these core teachings are simply something somebody made up long ago because that was then and this is now. We do not believe that our core doctrines are simply the result of various historical circumstances and cultural conditions and that they can therefore be changed according to other historical circumstances and cultural conditions.For better or for worse we believe them to be divinely inspired. That is why the synod fathers, even if they wanted to, were not going to make any radical changes.They can adjust the pastoral application of those teachings, but the problem with the synod was that the fathers of the synod felt that adjusting the pastoral applications of church teaching was not actually what they were being presented with.
A clash therefore erupted which is outlined by Damian Thompson. The progressives, who appear to be supported by Pope Francis, moved forward with proposals that gave considerable alarm not only to Catholic traditionalists, but many mainstream Catholics including the synod fathers. Sensing “reform” that was reaching beyond pastoral adjustments to matters of essential church teaching there was a revolt in the synod against Pope Francis and his appointed lieutenants. The synod fathers put the brakes on hard. SandroMagister’s analysis of the proceedings fills out the details. Magister is one of the most respected and experienced Vatican insiders and in this article he paints a picture of a synod that was hi-jacked by radicals on the inside. They are the ones who forced into the mid term report the radical thinking on homosexuality and treatment of divorce and remarriage. Once these matters were opened up the synod was no longer about adjusting things pastorally to help the people of God, but it became a matter of core beliefs being undermined. If Magister’s assessment is correct, then Vatican insiders (according to Magister appointed by Pope Francis himself) sabotaged the synod–forcing the synod fathers to revolt and stand up to defend the core teachings rather than focus their attention on pastoral adjustments. Thompson says “this was not Francis’ finest hour”, while Odone’s reporting uses stereotyped and cliches categories, she is correct in discussing a matter which will come up increasingly in the weeks ahead, and that is the question not whether Pope Francis’ papacy is now seriously compromised.For Francis, sexual mores are not at the heart of the Gospel – and they should not be at the heart of his Church’s ministry. The time had come, he believed, to lower the temperature around these issues. If he could persuade the Church to adopt an attitude of compassion towards divorcees, gays and members of other “irregular” unions, he could shift its focus to what really mattered.Alas, the Pope chose the wrong vehicle to effect his changes. The Extraordinary Synod not only torpedoed his hopes for a more inclusive Church – it may have derailed his entire mission.”
The Synod will therefore not only have disappointed Francis, but may have discredited him in the eyes of liberals and conservatives alike, weakening his leadership at a crucial time for the Church. The confusion over his true intentions and factional allegiance has only intensified: the briefings spoke of a liberal reformer of whom the final report bore no trace. If SandroMagister’s version of events is correct, then Pope Francis may have lost the support not only of more conservative Catholics, but also of a considerable number of his bishops and Cardinals. Once trust has been broken it is very difficult to re-build. I am convinced that Pope Francis wants the best for the Church. He wants us to be more like Jesus–not to be bound by legalism on the one hand, nor driven by sentimentality and naive ideology on the other. His excellent speech at the end of the synod expresses his wish for a balanced and Christ centered reform that ministers mercy while upholding the authority of the papacy and the timeless truths of the faith. He wants us to use the laws of the church for the cure of souls, not for their condemnation. The synod was the tool he wanted to bring about those reforms, but it looks at this stage as if it may have backfired and that his agenda of reform may be far more difficult to usher in than he first anticipated.