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What Are We Doing to Become Church?

Time for Some New Wineskins

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia provoked plenty of agita on the Catholic Left. The pope’s failure to use the occasion of his exhortation to permit the ordination of older, married men for service in the Amazon as well as his discussion of women, which harkened back to language John Paul II used to employ, caused an uproar and dominated headlines. “Pope Francis Sets Aside Proposal on Married Priests” was the headline in the New York Times, while the lead story in the Washington Post was headlined “Pope Francis backs away from celibacy exception, putting off decision on allowing married priests in the Amazon.” In the fourth paragraph of the Post story we were told that the exhortation “was in turn a poetic tribute to environmental beauty and a warning about its destruction.” Then, another 11 paragraphs before the environmental focus of the document reappeared.

It is not news that we Americans are a myopic bunch, but this was ridiculous. The synod fathers last October did indeed open the door to married older clergy as well as to the restoration of the diaconate for women. As a focus of discussion at the synod, however, these issues did not make the top ten list of concerns. The pope’s text reflected the synod’s discussion in its primary focus on the challenges to the environment in the region, the importance of honoring indigenous cultures, the need for inculturation of the Gospel, etc. But, for Americans, what really mattered was the gender issues. Is it really more important that the Church start ordaining married men than that we all work to save the “earth’s lungs” as the Amazon rainforest has been rightly called? 

The Latin Church is only beginning to wrestle with synodality as a method of governance and expression of that collegiality for which the Second Vatican Council called. And, it is clear that there is the actual synod discussion in the hall, and the polarized, politicized discussion about the synod outside. The two do not always have a lot in common. It is vital that Catholics look past the headlines to see the tectonic shift that is happening as Pope Francis tries to direct the Catholic Church away from the ultramontanist ecclesiology of the past 200 years without losing the essential purpose of the Petrine ministry as a ministry of unity. It is a bit like watching a sumo wrestler shift his enormous weight from one foot to the other.

For example, the proposal on married clergy narrowly crossed the two-thirds threshold for inclusion in the final document from the synod. It was far from unanimous. At Vatican II, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, got more non placet votes than any other proposal, but it still passed by 2221 to 88. It was nearly unanimous. More importantly, Pope Francis has repeatedly told us that synodality is not a parliamentary form of government where issues are decided by a majority vote. The chief protagonist must be the Holy Spirit, and the role of synod participants is that of discerning God’s will, not promoting their own self-willed agenda. This side of the abyss, there is no easy way to draw lines between God’s will and self-will, the righteousness of God and the righteousness of self. It requires prayer, dialogue, discernment and self-abnegation.

In our time, Americans of all ideological stripes warm to a particular type of protagonist, the activist. He or she focuses like a laser on a particular issue, promotes a particular agenda, deflects challenges, impugns alternative theories, does not worry overmuch about collateral damage, reduces the claims of justice to his or her own circumstances. For the activist, myopia is not a problem but a requirement of battle.

Regrettably, and for reasons I find difficult to fathom, some in the modern academy, especially among Catholic theologians, wish to join the ranks of the activists. They wish to venture forth out of their ivory towers, take up their placards, don their sloganeering tee shirts, march on the barricades. However, those of us who may wish to promote change, within the Church or within society, do not need another person with another placard. We need theologians to bring something other than a sign to the public square, we need them to bring theology! Dear theologians: Do not think participation in a protest wearing a “Black Live Matter” T-shirt represents an apotheosis of your craft and profession. Distinctions and theories are the apotheosis of academic life and who will bring them if not those whom our society affords the time and the resources to reflect upon issues away from the tumult and noise?

How—or even can—we American Catholics come to appreciate what the pope is trying to achieve? Do we recognize that our dying Church in the industrialized world should scarcely think of itself as a model for anyone else? On an issue like married clergy or women deacons, why is there so little discussion of how these innovations for us in the Latin West have affected the ecclesial life of other churches, from our Eastern rite Catholics who have ordained married men throughout their history, and who are in full communion with us, to the churches of the Reformation that have embraced change only to find themselves further divided one from another? Not once—not once!—during the whole preparation for the synod, during the synod itself, or since, have I seen an intelligent, popular essay on how the issues discussed there might affect ecumenical relations.  

The problems facing the Church in the United States are many, but none greater than the utter intellectual exhaustion of the post-Vatican II generation. How can we use old markers of progress or decline, 70s markers, as if they are still useful? It is like possessing a map of a city that is 40 years old: There may still be some important landmarks that have not changed, but the city now has a subway, and new hotels and restaurants, none of which are drawn on the old map.

I seem to recall Isaiah sharing the Lord’s words: “Behold I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?” I seem to recall Jesus saying something about new wine and old wineskins. Alas, in our inability to get past our egos and agendas and attend to the Lord’s bidding, most of us moderns are no better than the ancients. At least Pope Francis is trying. Will we follow?

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


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