“Deacon Digest”: Check it Out!

Deacon Digest CoverThis afternoon I received the current issue of Deacon Digest (November 2014), the only national magazine dedicated to the ministry of deacons.  Every November issue is provided to every deacon and deacon candidate in the United States.  This year, Silas Henderson, the Managing Editor of the Digest, writes that this national distribution is not only a chance to connect with the diaconate and formation communities in the country; “it also gives us an opportunity to say ‘Thank you’ for the important ministry you are doing for and with the Church.”

silas henderson

Silas Henderson

This November’s issue is a double issue, with columns and articles by an impressive list of contributors, lay and clergy, on the theme of “Reflecting the Love of Christ the Servant.”  Included are: Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Bishop Richard B. Higgins, Fr. James Martin, SJ, Deacon Bill Ditewig, Sr. Honora Werner, OP, Mr. Jeff Cavins, Deacon Joseph Ferrari, Deacon Steve Swope, Deacon Kevin Bagley, Deacon Guadalupe Rodriguez, Deacon Louis Malfara, Bishop Robert Morneau, Patti Normile, Johanna Gurr with Marcia Romanansky, Cynthia Geisen, Elizabeth Boo, and Deacon Ralph Torrelli.

Deacon Sam Taub

Deacon Sam Taub

The history behind this remarkable journal goes back decades.  Shortly after the diaconate was renewed in the United States, the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the national episcopal conference began publishing a quarterly journal.  Critical to that effort was Deacon Sam Taub who eventually headed the Secretariat for many years.  (Sam is a true pioneer of the diaconate in this country, and all of us serving today owe him an immeasurable debt. I hope to write much more about him in future entries.)  In 1984, as the diaconate continued to grow rapidly, Sam asked Mr. Jim Alt, a respected journalist and editor, if he would take over responsibility for a national journal, Jim agreed, and Deacon Digest was born.

Jim and Audrey Alt

Jim and Audrey Alt

Jim and his wife Audrey, joined by their daughters, edited and published the magazine until a couple of years ago when they “retired.” Although the Digest is now published by Abbey Press at St. Meinrad, Jim remains a very active editorial consultant to the magazine.

I can’t imagine there are many Catholic deacons out there who are not already subscribers to Deacon Digest, but if you want to find out more, please visit their website here.  You can also sample a lot of past articles at their online archive here.

Check it out!

The Synod on the Family: Curtain Up on Act II

Beatification Paul VIToday we experienced the ringing down of the curtain on Act I of the synodal process on the Family.  Pope Francis closed the Extraordinary Synod today with Mass in St. Peter’s Square and the beatification of Blessed Paul VI.

But the process has only just begun!  Perhaps the best road map to the future is found in the Pope’s speech on Francis at SynodSaturday closing the final work session of the Extraordinary Synod.  In fact, I believe that this beautiful speech deserves to be read in its entirety; you may find it in English translation here, and if you read Italian you can read it as the Pope delivered it, here.  It is spiritually rich, and it also gives us wonderful insights into the Holy Father’s dreams for the next steps in the process.

Act II, which has now begun, takes place over the next twelve months.  Act III will be Ordinary Synod on the Family to be held in October 2015.  Here’s how the Pope explained it in his speech:

Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.

One year to work on the “Synodal Relatio” which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as “lineamenta” [guidelines].

US BishopsUsing the Synod’s Relatio, the various bishops’ conferences around the world will be discussing its contents and mapping out their specific courses of action for their dioceses.  For example, here in the United States, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will have it on their agenda next month at the Fall Meeting in Baltimore.  We can expect that individual diocesan bishops will then develop ways and means of encouraging further conversations within their own dioceses over the coming year.  Keep in mind, as the Pope says above, that the current Relatio is merely a starting point, a kind of rough draft, for the work that lies ahead.

Then, next October, Act III will begin as the Pope opens an Ordinary Synod (not an Extraordinary one such as just ended) on the Family.  At that time, more discussions will be held by the Synod Fathers, many of whom will be different bishops than the ones who attended this one, and a final document will be prepared for the Holy Father.  It can then be anticipated that the Pope will take all of these results and draft his own Apostolic Exhortation in which he charts the course ahead.

I think there are several important things to keep in mind.

1) To speak of the current Relatio as anything other than a working document is a mistake.  It does not constitute in any way “official teaching.”  Rather, it simply recounts, as the Pope says, the various elements which were discussed during this first stage of the process.  So, for people to be upset over what the document currently says, or doesn’t say, is very inappropriate and unnecessary.  The various topics for FUTURE work are all there; what final forms may come in the year remain to be seen.

2) This is why the Pope directed that even those three paragraphs which did not gain a 2/3 majority vote would still be printed in the text.  He also directed that the voting results be included so that everyone (and not just bishops!) could see how the voting went.

francis at synod 23) I would strongly recommend that people spend more time on the Pope’s speech at this point, because it gives the clearest indication of how HE is seeing things.  Consider just two tantalizing tidbits.

  • When the mid-point version of the Relatio was released last week, much attention was given to the language of “welcome” that used with regard to homosexuals, as well as the gifts that they bring to the Church.  In fact, some in the blogosphere complained about that translation of “welcome”.  The Italian verb used was “accogliere”.  According to Italians I’ve asked, the best English translation for that verb is “to welcome.”  Still, the English translation was later changed to “provide for” — clearly not an accurate translation.  Now look at the Pope’s speech from Saturday.  He’s not talking specifically about homosexual persons, but more generally, and he uses “accogliere” again.  He reminds the bishops that there first duty is to “feed your sheep, feed your sheep.”  He then tells them that they are to:

Seek to welcome [“accogliere”] – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome [“accogliere”]: [rather] go out and find them! [“Ho sbagliato, qui. Ho detto accogliere: andare a trovarle.”]

I find it interesting that he takes the time here to use the very verb so many were fussing about earlier in the week: and then he plainly says that even as “welcoming” it doesn’t go far enough!  We’re not merely to welcome those who come to us who are lost: we are to go out and find them.

  • The Pope also reminds us that, as a Church, we are already to be open to all who seek.  In a particularly beautiful passage, he teaches:

And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.

So, however Act II and Act III develop over the next year, the vision of our Holy Father Francis is quite clear: the Church as “field hospital” for all in need is open to receive patients; in fact, we’re supposed to be out in the streets and the fields and the back alleys finding those in need.  Brother deacons, this message is particularly apt for us!  If the whole Church is a field hospital, we deacons should be the EMTs.

Stay tuned.  This is going to be quite a year ahead!  And, as the Pope requested, pray for him.  He has set us on a challenging course, but one that will, with God’s grace, bear much fruit.

Moon Over St. Peter's

Synod 2014: Lessons on the Process from Vatican II

Pope at SynodSo much hyperventilation!  Bishops fighting bishops!  “The press is out of control!”  “Translations are all messed up!”  “Release the information!”  “Don’t release the information!”  “This is bringing scandal to the world!”

After more than a week of living in the breathless world of exclamation points, it’s past time for everyone to just calm down.  In terms of the process, there is absolutely nothing new here.  This is how these things work, and we just need to take a deep breath (as I suggested yesterday) and exhale slowly.

During Vatican II, we saw analogous happenings.

  • The Roman Curia had announced that the working language for the Council would be Latin.  Therefore, the CardinalArchbishop of Los Angeles at the time, James McIntyre, offered to provide a simultaneous translation system for the Council. (Some sources maintain that the offer was made by Cardinal Cushing, but several bishop-participants later reported that it was McIntyre, with his Hollywood connections, who offered first.) Regardless, the offer was refused by the curia because the General Sessions of the Council were to be secret and there was concern that word would leak out. Did the sessions remain “secret”?  Of course not!
  • Vatican II Presser

    Vatican II Presser

    Many countries held daily press briefings, in addition to the official Vatican briefings.  For the United States, these were often held at the Pontifical North American College.  Other countries held frequent press briefings, just not on a daily basis.  Frequently these “pressers” contained information that was at odds with the official press offering, or they provided additional details.

  • Early on, the US bishops’ conference (then known as the National Catholic Welfare Conference), began assembling daily summaries of key events, interviews and interventions (speeches) from the day’s activities.  These were eventually put together as “Council Daybooks” and were published by the NCWC.  The Foreword gives some insight into the process.  I apologize in advance for the length of the quote, but read this in light of current events at the Synod,  I’ve highlighted certain interesting passages:

Council DaybookFrom various sources requests have come to the NCWC to gather as soon as possible into one volume whatever information is available covering the day-to-day proceedings of the Second Vatican Council.  One of the distinctive features of the present council in contrast to all preceding ones was the prompt reporting of each day’s activities, including a summary statement of each speech delivered in the aula of St. Peter’s.  The correspondents of the NCWC News Service had access to the official press releases each day by early afternoon, and were able to supplement the record by the discussions which took place at the meeting of the daily press panel.  The representatives of the various international news media, especially those from the United States, queried the “periti” or experts who had been present at the morning congregations of the council, and were in consequence able to fill in any lacunae which might have occurred and also to clear up any obscurities in the official releases.

The bishops of the United States had the benefit of receiving each evening or early the next morning a mimeographed copy of these reports.  It was the general, one might say even the unanimous judgment of the United States hierarchy that this was an invaluable service.  It enabled the bishops to review in substance the speeches or the interventions made each day, with more leisure to evaluate the various contributions made to the subject under debate. . . .

I would also point out that in interviews I conducted with several bishops who attended the sessions of the Council, they remarked that almost no Council Father from any country knew Latin sufficiently to follow the actual Latin interventions as they were being given.  The bishops noted that they knew Latin well enough to celebrate Mass and the sacraments, but not well enough to follow particular speeches in real time, especially when the Latin was spoken in such a variety of different accents from around the world!  Therefore, these daily working translations and summaries were invaluable.

  • Bishops disagreed frequently and in public on the matters under discussion.  This was helpful in sorting out the nuances of every position being taken.  It was unusual to see such things, but I don’t recall anyone being scandalized by it.  As I’ve blogged before, the almost violent disagreements that most of the world’s bishops had with the way Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani was running the Holy Office (the precursor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) were quite open and frank.  They were not unlike the public disagreements now seen between Cardinals Burke and Kasper.
  • John in TimeLong debates were held, often in public, over the meaning of specific words and passages in the the draft documents, and sometimes parts of those drafts were available to the public.  Robert Blair Kaiser, the Rome bureau chief for Time Magazine during the Council, recounts the many cocktail and dinner parties he and his wife hosted in their apartment for the Council Fathers and the periti.  He loves to tell of the conversations groups of bishops would have, debating and arguing over the text they were considering, and sometimes even going into a room and finding a group of them drafting a revised text.
  • The speeches at the Council were only the tip of the information iceberg.  For more bishop submitted their own interventions and emendations to the draft documents in written form, and so just listening to the speeches alone would never give the full story.  That would only be known sometimes days later, when all of the written interventions had been studied.
  • Just as now, people around the world could not get enough news about the Council.  The fact that the Council had been called specifically to “update” the Church (St. John XXIII’s aggiornamento) was exciting in itself!  How would they do this?  What would they do?  Writing from Rome, an American professor of Moral Theology shared his behind-the-scenes experiences with family and friends back home.  They encouraged him to submit similar accounts to the The New Yorker, and they became regular columns known as “Letters from Vatican City.”  To protect himself and his family, he wrote under the nom-de-plume “Xavier Rynne”.  For years the real identity of Xavier Rynne was as much an exciting mystery as the identity of “Deep Throat” would be years later during the Watergate scandal (Many people who knew him, however, had little trouble figuring it out: Fr. Francis X. Murphy used his middle name Xavier and his mother’s maiden name Rynne.) Many figures at the Council, particularly among the curia, were not amused by his writing, since he pulled no punches about the inner workings of what was going on.

There are countless other examples, but these make my point: RELAX, people!  This is all part of the process, warts and all.  We have the “benefit” today of instantaneous communication via electronic media to a level unknown during the Council, and we have the “benefit” of so many “experts” who really are not, except in their own minds.  Everyone has opinions; few have the facts.  And what is most important: this is only the beginning of the end of Act One of the overall synodal process initiated by Pope Francis.

“Pace, pace”: Peace, my sisters and brothers, peace!

“In medio stat virtus (et synodus)”: What if the OTHER side is correct?

santa-teresa-de-avila-12sept2012In honor of the great Saint Teresa, whom we remember today, and before reading what follows, take a deep breath.  Exhale s-l-o-w-l-y.  Repeat several times.

Now, given all of the extreme positions being taken by some people in response to Synod 2014’s Relatio post disceptationem, we should all be asking ourselves two questions:

1) Do I find myself agreeing with the extremes on either side?  Do you side with Muller/Burke or with Kasper?  Are you demonizing “the other side” as you define it?  Now, few people may answer that question directly, preferring to say, with St. Paul, “I stand with Christ.”  Honestly, though, every Christian will say that, won’t they, even when they take contradictory positions?

2) IF you find yourself on one of the extremes, I’m curious: what will you do if the “other” side (whichever that is) should become the preferred position taken by the Church?  What if the Church adopts positions which do not precisely correspond with your own?  What will you do?

As a followup to yesterday’s blog post (here), I just hope and pray that ALL of us can find the virtue that stands “in the middle.”  What is necessary now is a proper sense of reason and balance.  Aristotelian ethics, which would later influence St. Thomas Aquinas, held that every virtue is a balance between extremes: courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness, for example.

Please, fellow Catholics, take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and pray.  As a people of faith, we believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge; we should all act like it!

Holy Spirit


Earthquakes and Tremors: The “Relatio” in Context

Synod2014Yesterday, very early in the morning here in California, my cell phone alerted me to a new message.  My first reaction was to ignore it and go back to sleep, but curiosity won out.  This was when I found out about the just-released Relatio post disceptationem from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  As the Catholic blogosphere exploded into comments, analyses, cries of outrage, prayers of thanksgiving, “sighs, mourning and weeping” and then the inevitable calls for clarification, I thought I might blog something as well.  By the time I had the time to do so, however, I felt like I was standing in front of a fire hose shooting often conflicting information at full force onto a hot fire of feelings.  What could I possibly add to this maelstrom that could be helpful?

Context.  Every text has a context.

1) Keep the big picture in mind!  Remember that this Extraordinary Synod is only the first step in the process initiated by Pope Francis.  This Synod’s purpose is to study, discuss, debate, and question issues related to contemporary family life, and then to frame the questions to be studied, discussed, debated and questioned by the whole church throughout the coming year.  The results of the year-long process will then become the subject of the Ordinary Synod which is scheduled for October 2015.  More about that later.

Synod2) This relatio is a work-in-progress.  It is not a final document of any standing whatsoever.  It is first a status report, summarizing the conversations held thus far at the Synod.  Those conversations, of course, have been remarkable.  Following the Pope’s opening address in which he asked the participants to speak freely and boldly, they have done so, and it is thrilling to read the results of those conversations thus far.  Second, the relatio is a draft document which is intended to be revised, corrected, amended, and re-written over the next several days.  The final version of the document will be presented to Pope Francis later in the week as the Extraordinary Synod draws to a close.  Third, it appears that the hope of the Synod Fathers (the bishops together with Pope Francis) is that the final document will serve as a guide to the discussions, debates, listening sessions, research and conversations that they hope will happen over the coming year throughout every Diocese.  That is why the questions which are incorporated into the relatio are so important; it is easy to see that these are intended to be asked by every Catholic, lay and ordained, over the next year.  Then, in October 2015, the Ordinary Synod will take up the questions again, aided and informed by the work of this year of discernment throughout the entire Church.  It is, I believe, at that time that we will see certain questions and issues being addressed in more definitive form, both in terms of a final report from the Ordinary Synod and also from the papal magisterium in the form of an Apostolic Constitution or Apostolic Exhortation.  In addition, should changes be desired to the current Code of Canon Law, it is possible that Pope Francis might announce those at that time as well, although he might also choose to give the results of the Ordinary Synod to the Commission he has already appointed to study the canons related to annulments, so that the Synod’s work can inform their work.

SynodThurs23) Be prepared for unpopular changes to the current text.  Since this is a working document, synodal bishops who feel their points of view are not adequately presented will push to change that, and it may appear like a rollback of some of the ideas now being applauded by so many.  This should not be seen as discouraging OR encouraging: it will be an attempt to clarify and, in the end, reflect the complexity of the issues which remain.  It’s the way bishops tend to work.  You can see this in the press briefing offered this morning, in which Cardinal Napier of South Africa complained that the current text did not adequately describe all the positions being taken by the bishops.  He also expressed a reasonable concern that — because of the great explosion of media coverage on the relatio — bishops may now feel they are locked into the current text because any attempt to revise it will be misunderstood.  He’s right, I think: any changes now are going to be looked at very warily by people on all sides of the issues.  Still, the normal process of making revisions to a working document should be followed.

4) Keep an eye on the official synod bulletins and clarifications.  This will add additional context to the process.  John Thavis, veteran journalist on Vatican matters, reported this morning:

Today’s synod bulletin summarizes the reaction among synod participants during a two-hour debate yesterday. On one hand, it said, there was acclaim for the way the document managed to accurately reflect the speeches at the assembly and its general theme of “welcoming” as a key to evangelization. The synod should have the “watchful gaze of the pastor who devotes his life for his sheep, without a priori judgment,” was how the Vatican summarized the favorable reviews.

As for the objections, they were many – although it is hard to say how much support each criticism has among the nearly 200 bishops present.

The official Bulletin lists a number of the objections to the text.  They include everything from wanting a more complete treatment of traditional families to a better treatment of societies which practice polygamy.  It may be expected that the final form of the document presented to Pope Francis at the end of the week will certainly incorporate some of these items.

Empty Tomb5) Remember the distinction between doctrine and dogma.  Doctrines are the teachings of the Church; dogmas are doctrines that we believe to be part of God’s revealed truth.  Doctrines can and do develop over time; dogmas do not, although the way we attempt to express them can change as our human understanding of them deepens.  The church can have a doctrine regarding, for example, the lending of money at interest.  At one time, the Church taught that it was immoral to do this under any circumstances, fighting against the practice of usury (This is why, for example, the Christians in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” had to go to Shylock for a loan: it was illegal to do so from another Christian).  Clearly this is a teaching which has changed over time, as the context changed.  A dogma, on the other hand, would include our teaching on the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit.  General talk that we often read now concerning the Synod involves “changing church doctrine”.  Some are saying, “We can’t do that because they come from God!”  That would be correct if we’re talking about dogma, and even then the words we use can still be developed, even while the dogma itself remains unchanged.  Plus, are we talking about dogmas in every case here?

Television coverage of Vatican II

Television coverage of Vatican II

6) The Synodal Process in Light of the Second Vatican Council.  Many people have noted that the synodal process (by which I mean the entire process of preparation for this Extraordinary Synod, the Synod itself, with its working documents, then the “intersession” between the Extraordinary Synod and the Ordinary Synod next year, and its documentary results) has a tone reminiscent of the Second Vatican Council.  I would agree that there are certainly many similarities.  A popular pope who calls together bishops of the Church to discuss areas of concern, a group of bishops and others who express horror and concern that “timeless truths” risk being discarded and that the ecclesial sky is falling, other groups who predict wholesale changes to teaching as well as pastoral practice, the world’s media pouncing on every press release, statement and bulleting: ALL of these things were present during the Council.  One of the photographs I often use in teaching about the Council shows the bishops in Council in St. Peter’s Basilica, with a television camera right in the middle of it.  The entire world, still reeling from world wars, economic collapse, living under a nuclear threat and a not-so-Cold War, wanted desperately to hear Good News from the Catholic bishops of the world.

vatII-4The Council proceeded in stages, too, just like this synodal process.  There was an “antepreparatory phase” in which input was solicitied from bishops and others around the world.  There was a “preparatory phase” in which the nearly 9,000 items received were considered and placed in some kind of order, and seventy draft documents were prepared — all before the Council opened.  Then came the Council, held in the Fall months over four years, from 1962-1965.  Not only were these four sessions important: so too were the intersessions — the time between the sessions — in which much of the work continued, bishops discussed matters at home with their pastors and people, research was conducted, and preparations were made for the coming Fall Session.

While synods have been a long standing tradition in the 2000 years of church history, the Council Fathers envisioned a renewed kind of synodal process.  The nearly 3000 bishops at the Council found that the collegial work they were doing in Council was of great value, as they learned about the pastoral needs and responses of their brother bishops around the world.  How could this collegial process be extended in the future, without having to go through the expense and time to call ALL of the world’s bishops together?  Might there be a way to gather a smaller, but representative group of bishops together with the Pope to discuss specific issues of concern.  And the contemporary synodal process was born.  This was understood as a way to extend the work of the Council into the future.  There have been many synods since the Council, but none has captured the imagination of the world like the current event.  Many bishops have complained over the years that synods have not been the source of creative pastoral responses that the Council Fathers had intended; perhaps the biggest change with THIS Synod is that there is a renewed appreciation that these bishops, representing their brothers, and in full communion with the Holy Father, will be able to recommend and even to effect changes in pastoral practice in a way not done before.

There is also a “conciliar feel” to the process itself: the preparation process for this Extraordinary Synod (including the questions sent out from the Synod office, requesting wide dissemination as a way to prepare for the Synod), the fact that there are two synodal events (I do not want to refer to them as “Sessions” such as we use for General Councils of the Church): the Extraordinary Synod this year and the Ordinary Synod next year, with the period in between the Synods to be used for further research, study and development, much like the conciliar “intersessions.”

Nonetheless, while many of us get a kind of “conciliar feel” from the current synodal process, it would be wrong to treat this like a Council.  It is NOT a General (sometimes called an “Ecumencial” (world wide)) Council of the Church.  Some have suggested that perhaps the time is right to hold another General Council, that issues such as those related to the family are too important to be left to a synodal process.  Perhaps this is true, and perhaps this could actually be a recommendation of the Ordinary Synod next year: that the Holy Father consider doing just that — although I doubt that will happen.  My own opinion is that what we are witnessing now is the synodal process as it was originally envisioned and intended by the Council Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.  Let’s see how this works out.

This is an exciting time for the Church: not only because vitally important questions related to marriage and family life are being debated and addressed at long last by church leaders, but also because we are witnessing a renewal in the leadership structures of the church herself.  As Pope Francis has repeated so often since his election, everything — including the structures we use to serve others — must be evaluated in very concrete terms: how well are we able to care for ALL of God’s people?  That is the standard to be applied.  We exist to serve others in need and, as the saying goes, “justice delayed is justice denied.”  The tradition and the history of the Church reveal that we have always had great flexibility in how we attempt to serve, while agreeing on the core truths of faith.

Keep watching!  And, as the Holy Father himself reminded the assembly at Mass yesterday morning before the relatio was released, “be open to God’s surprises”!

The Extraordinary Synod and Battling Cardinals: Perspectives from Vatican II

synod bishopsIt begins this Sunday, 5 October 2014: the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in the Context of Evangelization.  The media, religious and secular, have been all over it.  The topic itself is so broad that almost everyone can find issues affecting themselves or other members of their families, leading to the questions, “How will the assembled bishops respond?  How will this affect me and my family?”


Cardinal Walter Kasper

Much has been made of the very public debate going on between Cardinal Walter Kasper on the one hand and other Cardinals such as Raymond Burke and Gerhard Muller on the other.  “We can’t change church teaching!”, some cry,

Cardinal Raymond Burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke

“Mercy, mercy!” cry others.  “There will be no change to the teachings of the Church, because they are the teachings of Christ Himself,” report some; “we must find new ways of responding to the crises that face today’s families,” respond others.  And, at least according to some observers, all of this public debate by such high ranking prelates is simply unseemly, with fingers being pointed at the other side, saying, “Well, he started it!”

What shall we make of all this?  As the members of the Extraordinary Synod gather in preparation of the opening Mass of the Synod on Sunday, perhaps we can place all of this in some historical and ecclesiological context, using the Second Vatican Council as a guide.

Peter vs Paul_21) Kasper vs. Burke: “Cardinals shouldn’t fight in public; it’s just wrong!”  Well, prior to — and during — Vatican II, cardinals and other bishops often engaged in public debates, wrote letters, published opinion pieces and so on.  It was all part of the process, and this is no different.  Ever since St. Paul and St. Peter got into it over the question of who could become Christian, bishops have disagreed, sometimes publicly and loudly, to anyone who would listen.  Consider it part of the necessary public discourse for such important issues.  But I also invite people to avoid polarization!  When two people argue, one could be right and the other wrong, both could be right, or both could be wrong!  These issues, like life itself, are complex and demand rigorous, comprehensive argument, but no one is helped by a “white hat, black hat” mentality.

2) Even the fault lines of the arguments are similar to those surrounding the Council.  The Pope had called for an ecclesial aggiornamento (updating), and the response from some bishops was that you could NOT update the Church without weakening church teaching, giving the impression that what had gone before was wrong and now being corrected, or that God’s truth was somehow being compromised.  Other bishops responded that doctrine develops (certainly picking up cues from Cardinal Newman’s work in the 19th Century), and that the pastoral needs of the 20th Century demanded new and more pastorally effective approaches.  None of this was new THEN, nor is it new NOW.  This is what led St. John XXIII to teach, in his opening address to the Council:

John OpeningThe substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

This seems to me to be precisely what Pope Francis is asking for, and what Cardinal Kasper is attempting to do: he is not questioning “the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith,” but rather “the way in which it is presented.”  Furthermore, the framework for both content and method must be “predominantly pastoral” in character.  The pope included all of this in his opening address precisely because there had been such vehement debate on these points during the antepreparatory and preparatory phases leading up to the Council itself.  Fifty-two years ago this month, St. John was concerned that the bishops of the world be clear on what he was asking for, and what he perceived the Church and the world needed most.

3) Keep the relationship of theology and law in proper perspective.  This is very important, especially in the current debates.  Theology precedes law; law is not a source for theology.  Law develops out of the theology which comes first.  It is because we believe certain things about God and ourselves that we then develop laws which reflect those prior realities.  Looked at another way, we don’t start with the law and then develop a theology — or at least we shouldn’t!  Why do I bring this up?  Because in some of the recent breathless exchanges on the issues surrounding the Synod, there have been appeals to what the law has to say, while the “other side” has been speaking theologically.  Yes, theology and law intersect, certainly!  But the law serves theology, not the other way around.  Consider a debate between a medical doctor and a lawyer over the nature of a particular disease.  The doctor is going to look at the disease from within her own framework of science: causes, methods of transmission, treatments.  The lawyer is going to look at the same disease from with his own framework of the law: actions, responsibilities, jurisprudential history.  Same disease, different ways of addressing it.


Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

During Vatican II, especially during the often fiery first session, the Prefect of the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) was not a theologian at all.  The Prefect was a respected canon lawyer, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.  Think about that: a canonist responsible for guarding the church’s doctrinal office.  This led to some fiery exchanges during the First Session of the Council, as many of the world’s bishops took to the microphone to complain publicly about the way Cardinal Ottaviani and his curial staff was dealing with theologians around the world.  It led the aged Cardinal to respond passionately in defense; he refused to stand down at the end of his allotted time and eventually one of the Cardinal-Moderators simply unplugged his microphone.  Cardinal Ottaviani left the Council and did not return for a couple of weeks in protest.

But consider this.  As I wrote above, we need to avoid a “white hat, black hat” approach to these arguments.  During Vatican II’s debate on war and peace in 1964 and 1965, there was no stronger opponent of ALL warfare than Cardinal Ottaviani.  To read his interventions on the subject, you could easily hear the voice of any number of folks “on the left” who were arguing to outlaw all war.  On this issue at least, the canonical lion was more “liberal” than almost everyone in the “progressive” group of bishops.  Just like everyone else, bishops are complex human beings who defy easy characterization.

As I also said above, public debates between bishops is no new thing.  But it is also important, when assessing an argument, to discern the frame of reference being used by the respective participants.  Theologians such as Cardinal Kasper are speaking and evaluating things theologically; canonists such as Cardinal Burke are doing the same, but canonically.

This all goes back to St. John XXIII’s point, to paraphrase: Certain points of theology cannot change, perhaps; but the way they get enshrined in practice and in law can and sometimes must change.

Vatican II

Vatican II

4) Since we’re looking at the Council, what did those bishops have to say about the current question?  You can rest assured that whatever documentation emerges from the Synod, there will be multiple references to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), especially paragraphs 47 to 52, which focus on the nobility of the family. Read the whole document here.  Many of the challenges identified in the preparatory work for the Synod were already realities identified by those bishops five decades ago: these are not new challenges.  In many ways, the work of these two synods (this year’s and next’s) can be understood as an extension or a continuation of the Council’s work.

5) Keep your expectations reasonable, and follow closely; this is going to be fun!  On the one hand we should not expect too much from this year’s Extraordinary Synod.  Its purpose is to prepare for NEXT year’s ORDINARY Synod.  The debates this year will help refine the questions and procedures to be dealt with more formally next year.  Synods like this do not hold the magisterial weight of a General Council (such as Nicaea, Trent, Vatican I or Vatican II), but they will certainly lead to significant developments nonetheless.  I would expect that no papal document will result from this first, Extraordinary Synod.  Pope and BishopsFollowing the Ordinary Synod next year, however, there should be an Apostolic Exhortation from the Holy Father.  I would also hope that, following this Extraordinary Synod, there might be another opportunity for listening sessions around the world in which experiences and opinions are sought from a wide variety of people.  And, hopefully, sufficient time will be given for the process, unlike last year in which tight deadlines prevented many people from responding to the questionnaire set out from the Synod office.  Again, our model can be Vatican II.  In between the Council’s sessions, bishops went home and consulted with many of their own experts on matters they would be discussing in the following session.  It was a graced time of mutual exchange and shared learning and consultation.

May this synodal process over the next year or so be fruitful and benefit the common good of all!

Swiss Guards