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Entries from February 2022

The Synodal Pathway—Not only Pastoral but also Doctrinal Change?

We were chatting over the coffee trolley at a mid-morning break. The bishop was telling me about a conversation he had with a woman in his diocese about LGBTQ issues. He was gratified to discover that they shared a lot of common ground. But then—he spread out his hands as if to say “what can you do”—she said, well, the only real solution is that the Church changes its teaching.

I told him about the piece I’d read by the late Jesuit theologian Philippe Bacq (En Question, 2014). Bacq elegantly and succinctly outlines how for almost two thousand years the Church, in line with secular society, taught that there was a natural hierarchy within the family, according to which the husband ruled over the wife, whose duty it was to obey. Appeal was made to various Scriptural texts to support the teaching—Genesis 2 and 3; Pauline texts like I Cor 11:3 and Ephesians 5: 22-24, and there was ample patristic and scholastic corroboration in the tradition. The teaching was undisputed up to the 1940s. Then, in the light of the post-World War II societal evolution, Church teaching too evolved. By the time of Vatican II, the Church was stressing the equality of both partners in marriage, founded on a relationship of mutuality and reciprocity, without reference to the traditional scriptural texts but now, instead, quoting the Song of Songs and I Cor. 7: 3-6. And then, to complete the evolution, in 1988 in Mulieris Dignitatem Pope John Paul II reiterated the teaching of Vatican II, and reinterpreted the traditional scriptural texts to accommodate the new teaching.

The bishop and I parted then, both of us, I suspect, with food for thought. For my part, I was struck by how many such conversations, formal and informal, are now taking place along the “synodal pathway” initiated by Pope Francis. And I reflected how tricky it is for bishops, brought up to instinctively exercise a conservative function in preserving the “tradition,” to think outside the box, not least when they read this from the Pope himself: “It’s important not to confuse Catholic doctrine and tradition with the Church’s norms and practices. What are under discussion at synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. The Synod is concerned mainly with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our times” (Let Us Dream, 84-5).

But this is the Pope who also said, “Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops” (Let Us Dream, 57). And it is the same Pope who stated in his Motu proprio entitled Spiritus Domini (15 January, 2021) that the change in Canon Law permitting women to be lectors and acolytes represents a “doctrinal development…arrived at in these last years that has brought to light how certain ministries instituted by the Church have as their basis the common condition of being baptized and the royal priesthood received in the Sacrament of Baptism.” In an accompanying letter he noted that this development occurred due to a number of Assemblies of Bishops, and cited in particular the Final Document of the Amazon Synod.

In truth, we know that from earliest times and throughout history—think of the outreach to Gentiles in Acts 15; the consubstantiality of Nicea; the attitude to slavery; the shift from “error has not rights” to the Declaration on Religious Freedom—church teaching has changed, due not least to the sensus fidei fidelium, which is at the heart of the vision of Pope Francis in commending synodality as the way forward for the Church in this third millennium. And often this change is far from a smooth, almost linear-like development: rather it bears the bumps and bruises of dialectic, the change through “anomaly” described by Edward Hahnenberg in his notes on a theology of ministry (A Church with Open Doors, 2015). Viewed in this light, terms like “orthodox” and “tradition” assume new meanings. Any bishop who wishes to be ‘orthodox’ in today’s ecclesiological context needs to listen carefully to the ‘sense of faith of the faithful’ in his own diocese and represent this faithfully to the rest of the Church. Otherwise, a mere repetition of teaching that has not been received runs the risk of becoming ideological, in that it systematically screens out what we now understand to be a vital source of evidence. This too often creates the effect of teaching without learning, which is no kind of teaching at all.

In a divided Church, as Robert Mickens put it so well in his blog last month, synodal conversation will require that at its core is the prayer of discernment and contemplation, that encounter with Jesus which brings conversion. This is especially true if we dare to broach doctrinal and not just pastoral issues. The Pauline reminder (2 Tim 1: 7) that God has given us a spirit of power and not timidity is apt for us all, bishops and faithful alike.

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.

Dispatch from Ottawa

As this goes to press, we enter day 21 of the unlawful siege of Ottawa’s parliamentary precinct and downtown core by a rag-tag group of protesters. Local, provincial and national governments have invoked emergency measures.

A peaceable town, in normal times Canada’s national capital plays host to as many as three million visitors each year. Its citizens are accustomed to protest groups from many horizons who come to the seat of government seeking to exercise their right to free expression. Most law-abiding demonstrators return home peacefully to pursue their various causes through the channels of Canada’s democratic institutions.

Upon their arrival, leaders of the “freedom convoy” presented a “Memorandum” calling upon the Governor General and Senate of Canada to force the resignation of a duly elected government and accept its replacement by their self-appointed citizens’ committee. Their charter reflects the values of the nationalistic, racist and anti-democratic movements to which they belong. Parliament Hill has been draped with the flags and insignia of right-wing extremists, Trump 2024 regalia and the vulgar taunts of “F--- Trudeau,” shocking the staid sensibilities of decent Canadians. Money is pouring in from crowd funding sites, more than half of it from anonymous or pseudonymous American sources.

Make no mistake, while co-opting the sympathies of antivaxxers and the waning trust of the COVID-fatigued, the hard core of this band is bent on disrupting the peaceful democratic process and weakening Canada’s democratic institutions. Ostensibly, they represent truckers opposed to vaccine mandates for entry at the Canada-U.S. border. Yet, from the outset, Canada’s Teamsters Union and the Canadian Trucking Alliance, over 90% of whose members are vaccinated, have distanced themselves from the movement and its message. Unions on both sides of the border have denounced the recent escalation of illegal blockades erected at border crossings and disrupting the free movement of goods.

Back in Ottawa, citizens are at their wits end. Road closures and unruly demonstrators ostensibly fighting for “freedom” from public health measures hinder the most basic freedoms of city residents. Ironically, the convoy arrived just when many health restrictions were being relaxed, thanks to the subsidence of the most recent wave of COVID-19. Businesses and schools were re-opening. Workers were returning to their offices. Yet health-care workers, mask-wearing shop keepers, and area residents were systematically harassed by unruly unmasked protesters to the point that restaurants, shopping centers, offices, schools, libraries, theatres, museums—and even city hall, were forced to close. Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica cancelled its Sunday liturgies after “ugly” encounters with disruptive visitors. Residents no longer feel safe going outdoors, their neighborhood transformed into a raucous carnivalesque encampment.

Sadly, some Christian groups have chosen to identify with the cause of “freedom” and its claims of victimhood, underestimating the extremist elements at play. Preachers give succor, organize prayer meetings, or recite rosaries to nurture the religious zeal of a defiant cult. Online “news” outlets abet a hyper-scrupulous resistance to Vatican-approved vaccines. They promote the views of discredited Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, long given to conspiracy theories, as he denounces Canada as a country “infiltrated by globalists” and praises protesters’ opposition to “the establishment of the New World Order.” They welcome Bishop Joseph Strickland’s (Tyler, Texas) support for the occupiers’ defense of the “basic values … of individual freedom.”

Those claiming to fight for “freedom of choice” are, in fact, quite free. There are no “forced” vaccinations here. But choices have consequences. Individual freedoms have limits and must be balanced by social responsibility. Science has shown that the unvaccinated and unmasked are far more likely to become ill and spread COVID-19 to others. Public health measures aim to reduce such consequences until the pandemic has well and truly ended. Governments and health care professionals have sought to persuade, not coerce, people to protect themselves, their families, their communities. Their overall success has led Canada to have among the highest vaccination rates and lowest death rates in the world.

Similarly, in a free and civil society, those who exercise the right to free speech and public protest must do so in a responsible manner, one that respects the rights of other citizens, the rule of law and the role of public institutions. Failure to do so has consequences. There are no absolute freedoms in Catholic social teaching, no individuals unaccountable to the wider society. It ought to trouble us when the common good is portrayed as an un-Christian value. Even more disturbing is the uncritical support of forces actively seeking to undermine the institutions that serve it.

Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.

The Do-It-Yourself Schism

Is a schism in the Catholic Church on the horizon? That was the question posed to several of the writers at this blog in the first of a series of webinars planned to allow contributors to debate pressing ecclesial questions of the day and to interact with our growing audience. This inaugural topic certainly raised a few eyebrows: SCHISM! Are things really that bad?

For many on the Catholic right, the answer is yes, and has been almost since the start of the Francis pontificate in 2013. Already in 2014, New York Times columnist and resident exponent of Catholic conservativism, Ross Douthat, was suggesting that Francis’ pastoral ways were threatening “a real schism” by pushing the most faithful Catholics (i.e., conservatives like himself) to the brink of a break. Douthat continued to push the idea that Francis would “break the church,” as he wrote in an Atlantic cover story in 2015, and others on the right have carried that message forward ever since: “We are the loyal Catholics,” they say, “and Francis is creating the schism.” It’s a bit like conservatives who blame liberals for turning them into Trumpist authoritarians.

On our webinar, Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter noted that he had used the “s-word” in a 2018 column, but that he had rightly put the onus for such a break on the modern-day Jansenists who are placing their own beliefs and ideologies above the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church itself.

Other colleagues weighed in with equally important insights: Christopher Lamb, Vaticanista for The Tablet of London, said that the synodal process launched by Francis is key to heading off a schism. And Tina Beattie, emerita professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton and a popular writer on all things Catholic, said that the future of Catholic unity will depend on how much Francis can get done while he is pope, and who comes after him: someone who can continue to push for change and reduce the schismatic, culture warrior class to a negligible splinter, or someone who will reverse the legacy of Francis and the Second Vatican Council.

The discussion continued in this vein, with many pointed and a few hopeful observations. But a central theme of the conversation was trying to define what counts as a “schism.” It was a question I pondered as I prepared for the webinar.

A schism of the sort we normally associate with that venerable word to my mind connotes a genuine separation into competing entities, complete with papal bulls and mutual anathemas. There is a juridical threshold but also per force a geographical element to what we tend to think of as a schism: the Eastern Church and the Western Church divided in the Great Schism of 1054, for example, and the Reformation enshrined the principle of cuius regio, eius religio–the religion of the ruler is the religion of the ruled.

Catholicism is so connected to a physical sense of space and worship and community and tradition that it’s hard to launch a wholly new church. If you’re a Baptist all you need is a Bible to preach from, a river to baptize in, and maybe a tent to shield the revivalists from sun and rain. A Catholic church needs altars and priests to serve at them, and bishops to ordain them, and other bishops to consecrate new bishops, ad infinitum. Plus, people in the pews. That’s a lot of ecclesial infrastructure.

At the same time, as I looked into what a schism originally meant I learned that it had less to do with setting up a rival church than it did with breaking the bonds of charity, or what Pope Francis has called the “affective and effective communion” that the church is based on. As Fr. John Hardon, SJ, wrote in his venerable Catholic Dictionary, the early church was careful to distinguish between heresy and schism, both of which plagued Christianity. “By false doctrines concerning God,” wrote Saint Augustine, “heretics wound the faith; by sinful dissensions, schismatics deviate from fraternal charity, though they believe what we believe.”

In that sense, schism has arguably already happened. Those opposed to the direction that Francis and Vatican II are moving the church are fighting tooth and nail and fomenting all manner of dissension. And this sin against charity is harder to quantify and identify, and probably harder to heal, than a juridical or geographic split. In today’s digital world, would-be schismatics can follow the priest or bishop or cardinal of their choosing, whichever one makes the most noise from the biggest Internet platform–and there are plenty to choose from.

As the preacher of the papal household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, said in a powerful Good Friday mediation last year, “Fraternity among Catholics is wounded!” The division is not over dogma or the sacraments or ministries, but “stem from political opinions that grow into ideologies after being given priority over religious and ecclesial considerations.”

“Pastors,” Cantalamessa said, “need to be the first to make a serious examination of conscience. They need to ask themselves where it is that they are leading their flocks–to their position or Jesus’.”

Will it all end in schism, or someplace else? In 2019, in response to a question about the Catholic right in America, Francis said that he is “not afraid of schisms” but that he prays it does not come to that. Then again, in a general audience talk this month, he stressed that for him, even if some Catholics may break communion with the church, the church will never give up on them. Referring to “those who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the church, who have denied their baptism,” the pope asked: “Are these also at home? Yes, these too. The blasphemers, all of them. We are brothers. This is the communion of saints.”

It’s an expansive vision of the church but, paradoxically, so generous that for some Catholics it’s a reason to split the church.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 

Crossing the Line

Recently, it seemed as if a strong wind was rising and trying to refresh the faith environment. It came in the form of a series of articles and quotes by individuals of substance and reflection.

Robert Mickens, a regular contributor to this blog, described in La Croix the turbulence in Catholicism—at least in Europe—and changes in the old order; James Keenan, SJ, called on the hierarchy to learn humility and listen; Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the European Bishops’ Conference, noted that “The Church has the image of an institution that knows everything better than others” and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark in looking for dialogue added, “My favorite definition of heresy is a refusal to deal with complexity.”

It is astonishing how so many Catholics justify their silence by hiding beneath the indoctrination rather than listening to the wind of the Spirit. It is not necessarily a wind calling for change as much as it is urging dialogue. Of course, in a monarchical system, “dialogue” is not in the glossary—especially for many of the American hierarchy.

Such expressions of intolerance, accountability and calls for synodal approach are labeled as crossing the line. How dare anyone challenge? How dare the people of God lead? How dare we believe that the Spirit continues to refresh the Church?

There is a generation before us hungering for meaning, not simply for rules. It is a generation that certainly believes in God but has a difficult time understanding the moralistic and monarchical deafness of many of the Church’s leaders. Yet the Spirit teaches us that hope is before us as we hear the voices of Hollerich, Tobin and, most certainly, Francis.

Now for them, I am hopeful that many others are willing to cross the line.

John J. Petillo, Ph.D., is president of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT.

Will We Allow the Truth to Set Us Free?

In the midst of the various crises in the world, are we Catholics too busy navel-gazing to be “a light for the world”? Are we trying too hard to get it right as an institution to notice that we are called to witness the journey rather than prove to ourselves and everyone else that we are standing at the “pearly gates”? Are we so convinced of our holiness that even the truth can be manipulated to serve “a greater purpose”?

In these past few weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the contrast between the Christmas message of humility and gentleness, and continued evidence of the institutional malaise of the Church: a malaise ostensibly rooted in our fear of admitting error, of blemishing “the Church’s reputation” in the world. This was brought acutely to the forefront by another sexual abuse report, this time focusing on the Archdiocese of Munich. The report highlights how prominent ecclesial reformers (Cardinal Reinhard Marx) as well as those who achieve the highest ecclesial office (Pope Benedict) erred in the way they dealt with accused priests. Sadly, the established culture within the Church continues to be one of self-validation and, when that is jeopardized, self-preservation. The focus is inward, fearful not only of how “the secular world” will penalize the Church, but even fearful of “scandalizing” the faithful—a scandalously patronizing stance. These attitudes reveal a distrust of those not in the hierarchical loop and reflect a disengagement from the world. In other words, navel gazing: justified by canon law, buttressed by superficial analysis of social currents and a moralizing disengagement from human experience. This institutional culture is so pervasive that a reform agenda only scratches the surface of the problem. Reform merely tinkers with structures. Indeed, reform is inadequate.

If not reform, then what? Pope Francis sees the synodal path as not simply a path of reform, but of conversion. How can conversion resolve deeply embedded institutional sin? In a recent Commonweal article, Austen Ivereigh turns our attention to an essay from the 1990s of then Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, in which Bergoglio distinguishes between sin (forgivable) and corruption (refusal of God’s forgiveness). Perhaps for too long what has been diagnosed as sin is corruption.

So, Church reform is insufficient. We need conversion: an admission that the institutional sin currently discussed is, in fact, corruption—an inability to admit sin and thus the refusal of God’s gracious forgiveness. Shuffling abusive clergy from one parish or diocese to another is a sign of a leadership unable to admit its inadequacies, its sins. A culture that fears to be open to the struggles of young people with their sexual identity, less it put in question teachings that have always been open to historical development, describes a culture that relies more on laws and prescriptions than divine grace and humility. When the evidence of misogyny in all aspects of Church life is undeniable, yet denied, refusing to see how Christ’s example of the treatment of all human beings challenges the way in which the Church has lived for centuries—the Church is living an untruth. Even today the truth is manipulated. In 1980, then Cardinal Archbishop Ratzinger was present at the meeting that decided to receive into the archdiocese a priest who had been convicted of sexually abusing minors. Benedict’s most recent denial of attendance at the meeting was described as “the result of an editing error” according to his personal secretary. Denials in the name of some “higher” value reject the presence of God’s grace. Such a Church does not bring light into the world.

Reform will not renew the Church. Those of us who have been called to lead must be the first to admit our errors, we must be the first to admit our struggles, we must be the first to allow our wounds to be seen, so that God’s healing power can be known not in the abstract, but as an experience. We must let go of our power. When we are open about our weakness, we liberate others from feeling shame, self-doubt or worse, self-condemnation. When we admit brokenness, we dissolve any illusion of perfection and we can be with one another as equals united by the One who humbled himself, becoming one of us, in spite of being God (Philippians 2:6). Therein lies truth and hope.

Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.