Some Scattered Thoughts on the Synod So Far

Another winsome, handsome, and latesome (is that a word?) edition of "Carl’s Cuts"!

• As expected, there is no end to the flood of news flowing out of Rome about the Synod. Some of it is helpful, much of it is conflicting in content, and most of it is about conflict over divorce, remarriage, and Communion. Frankly, I have to take several deep breaths before reading many pieces, such as a recent report from NPR, which leads off with inane observations such as: “The meeting, called a synod, opened on Sunday and is seen as a test of Francis’ vision of a more merciful Church.” By who, exactly? And what is “a more merciful Church”? How confused is it with a “more lenient Church”? And, of course, the first “Catholic” group featured in the piece is “Catholic Church Reform International, an umbrella organization of progressive groups from all over the world”—a group that I warned about in my September 19th CWR editorial, “Spinning the Synod”. The spin is in, it is ongoing, and it will take a fair amount work in days and weeks to come to sort out the nonsense from the reality, the silliness from the facts, and the hot air from the cool voices of reason.

• It has become fairly obvious, I think, that far too many people cannot distinguish between mercy and license. The prevalent mentality in the West, even within the Church, is that people are consumers who have a right to consume nearly everything they want—including relationships, pleasures, passions, etc.—without much, if any, consequence at all. In truth, what is the difference between women wanting free contraceptives and “reproductive health coverage” and men wanting to be able to divorce, remarry, divorce again, and remarry/co-habitate—and then act as if nothing of any consequence has transpired?

• The content of what comes out the Synod—rumors, soundbites, statements, reports, actual texts—really does need to be seen in the broader, deeper historical and theological context. Some of that is addressed in a short amount of space by Dr. James Hitchcock in his recent CWR feature, “Old Liberals, Young Liberals, and the Breakdown of the Family”. And some of it mentioned by Cardinal Burke in his recent interview, also posted on CWR: “Christ’s truth is at the heart of marriage”.

• Fr. Raymond J. de Souza provided some important context and background in a recent National Catholic Register article, “Ratzinger-Kasper Rivalry Revisited”. After looking at some of the history involving John Paul II, Kasper, and Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, de Souza writes:

What might Benedict himself think of all this? He likely would be surprised — perhaps rueful? — that the long Ratzinger-Kasper theological rivalry has followed them both into retirement. In a peculiar symmetry, the role that he played before the 1985 synod in advancing John Paul’s agenda is apparently now being done for Pope Francis by Cardinal Kasper. The synod of 2014 marks just the latest twist in the intertwined careers of him and Cardinal Kasper. In 1993, Kasper, like Ratzinger, a gifted academic theologian appointed a diocesan bishop in Germany, issued a pastoral letter advocating admitting the divorced and remarried to Communion. Ratzinger, then doctrinal prefect, rejected Kasper’s claim in no uncertain terms on behalf of the Holy See.

In 1999, Pope John Paul appointed Kasper as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. When, during the Great Jubilee of 2000, Cardinal Ratzinger published the declaration Dominus Iesus, teaching that Jesus alone is the unique Savior of mankind and that the Catholic Church alone is the fullness of the Church he founded, Kasper was publicly critical. So great was the criticism, fanned by then-Archbishop Kasper, that Pope John Paul took the unusual step of voicing his support for Dominus Iesus at a Sunday Angelus address, making it clear that in the sharp conflict between the two German Curial cardinals, it was Ratzinger who spoke for the pope.

It is within that context, de Souza notes, that the selection by Pope Francis of Cardinal Kasper “to address the consistory of cardinals, wherein he reiterated his 1993 proposals” must be seen. Kasper’s strength as a theologian is not in the realm of family and marriage (de Souza notes that Cardinal Ouellet is far more qualified in that regard), yet “Cardinal Kasper was given the podium alone, and, after his proposals were resoundingly rejected by the vast majority of the cardinals who spoke, Pope Francis came to his public defense the next morning, inviting Cardinal Kasper to address the consistory again. Again, not a few cardinals present were curious as to the reasons such papal favor was being bestowed on a retired cardinal most famous for public clashes with Francis’ predecessor.”

• Much can be said, and has been said, but my take (building on my May 10th piece, “The Confounding and Curious Pontifications of Cardinal Kasper”) is that Cardinal Kasper is seizing his last and best opportunity to obtain what he could never get off the ground during the past two pontficates. And that his push to change Church teaching regarding Communion for those who have been “remarried” (who are not, in fact, remarried, in the eyes of the Church) is a direct assault on the many and profound teachings of St. Pope John Paul II on marriage, sexuality, family, and the “theology of the body,” especially as found in Familiaris Consortio (see par. 84), which flatly states: “Daily experience unfortunately shows that people who have obtained a divorce usually intend to enter into a new union, obviously not with a Catholic religious ceremony. Since this is an evil that, like the others, is affecting more and more Catholics as well, the problem must be faced with resolution and without delay.” And was it faced with resolution and without delay?

• Overall, the answer is, “No, not really.” Certainly not nearly as well as it could be. And, in some ways, there has been a monumental failure on the part of clergy and laity alike to present, uphold, and proclaim the truth of the Church’s teaching on these matters. Which is why, in part, Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius Press, wrote an important essay, “It’s time for the full Gospel of the Family”, published recently by CRUX. He says, ”

The change many of us want is the change of a deep implementation of Pope St. John Paul II‘s teaching on marriage and family life. We want Evangelical Catholicism. We would like to see a profound imbibing of the vision of Pope St. John Paul II and a soul-searching acknowledgment by pastoral leadership that for much of the last three decades, Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching and insights as presented in Familiaris Consortio and the Theology of the Body have been minimized, ignored, and even opposed by many Church leaders.

Many of us remember how some leaders opposed or dragged their feet on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A universal catechism, we were told, was impossible today. They fought to limit laity’s access to the Catechism. Some still do. They opposed John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor and they supported dissent in moral theology. Is it surprising they also fought John Paul II’s teaching on marriage and family?

Are we really supposed to believe this teaching has been thoroughly implemented and the present situation represents its failure? The truth is otherwise.

Exactly right.

• Speaking of Cardinal Kasper and context, do read Amy Welborn’s October 4th blog post, “Kasper, German Bishops, and the Church Tax,” which is just as disturbing as it is detailed. Amy writes:

Obviously, there is a lot of discussion regarding the Synod, much of that discussion being driven by Cardinal Kasper of Germany, who is just going on and on and on about compassion and mercy and such.

Plenty of people are talking about all of that.  What hardly anyone is doing, however is even trying to move beyond the ideological narratives, and raising questions about  the German church tax.

For that is really the most pressing issue facing the German Catholic Church.  And I really wonder why any of our highly-praised religion journalists are completely ignoring this issue and don’t even seem interested in connecting the dots or even asking Cardinal Kasper directly about how the Catholic Church in Germany understands and practices issues related to Church membership and the sacraments. And taxes.

She provides a wealth of links and material, and then says:

The German Catholic Church is a big business (the country’s second-largest employer) and it’s income is considerable.  There are various sources for that income, but a huge part of it is the church tax.  Fewer registered members?  Less income.

That’s one thing But here’s the other thing to keep in mind as you hear Cardinal Kasper talk. And talk and talk.

(Well, first you should be wondering why the head of a national church that is dying should have this constantly-turned on microphone on this issue.  Why are we even listening to him?  Aren’t we supposed to be listening to the Church from places where it is actually alive and growing? What happened to We’re-not-a-Western-European-Church-We’re-a-Global-Church?)

In other words, stop swallowing the “mercy” spin and follow the money:

Money is pivotal to this discussion. In 2013, the German Catholic Church collected a whopping 5.2 billion euro in church tax, in addition to 100-200 million euros per year in State subsidies from a still-valid 1803 agreement. Other income was derived from multiple sources, including Church ownership of no less than ten banks, several breweries, a mineral water company, and multiple insurance companies. 

Unlike the beleaguered German taxpayer, the Church does not pay tax on Church property. Nor does it pay corporate or capital gains taxes.  Everything it does as a public corporation in Germany is considered charitable and tax-exempt and guaranteed by the German constitution.

Also, unlike other public corporations like universities, the Church is not subject to any state supervision of its finances. 

As for German bishops, “Most Americans would be a bit shocked to learn that German bishops make between €8000 ($10,965) and €11,500 ($15,763) a month, depending upon their seniority. That comes to between $131,000 and $189,000 a year…. In short, the German clergy may have a real financial interest in keeping the flock happy so they continue to pay that tax and not drop out.”*****

Sour grapes? Or solid facts? Hmmm.

• This is the sort of Synod-related stuff that makes me wonder, not what people are thinking, but if they are thinking at all:

The Pirolas also told the story of devout Catholic friends whose gay son wanted to bring his partner home to a Christmas gathering.

“They fully believed in the church’s teachings and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family,” they said. “Their response could be summed up in three words: ‘He’s our son’.”

[Cardinal] Nichols said the synod gave them a round of applause.

What if their devout Catholic friends had a daughter who was a porn star, and wanted to share a bit about her life as an adult movie star at the Christmas dinner? How would that go? Would it be enough to say, “She’s our daughter?” Would there be any concern or qualms involved?

No one, including myself, is going to fault any parent for saying, “I love my son, even if….” On the contrary, I applaud and encourage such authentic love. But love for a person does not make necessary or mandatory the acceptance of disordered inclinations or openly sinful actions. However, it goes to show how confused people on this point, as if we Catholics, because it is the year 2014, must capitulate to the Reign of Gay, just like everyone else. Would we, in fact, applaud porn stars, or proud adulterers, or public polygamists, just because they are our sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and neighbors?

• And then there was this bit of head-scratching silliness:

As the Synod of Bishops entered its second day, more than one participant zeroed in on the negative language the Catholic Church sometimes uses when it discusses marriage and family issues.

In particular, one bishop said, terms like “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered” or “contraceptive mentality” do nothing to draw people closer to church teaching. It’s a form of labeling that can turn people off, he said.

Yes, just like telling my 6-year-old son that calling his siblings names is “mean” can “turn him off”. It’s a pretty strange thing, isn’t it, when the simple truth about the objective nature of things is considered too strong and painful for grown people to handle. The infantilization and victimization of nearly everyone and everything has made it nigh impossible for adults to talk like adults about real, adult problems and issues.

Father Rosica, quoting one synod participant, said the church needs to work to find a language that embodies its theology and invites people to embrace it. To many people, the participant said, marriage seems to be “filtered in harsh language through the church.” The challenge is to make that language loving and appealing, he said.

And yet most Catholics, frankly, have hardly ever heard a homily or talk at their parish about co-habitation, homosexuality, adultery, and such being sinful. I’m all for a presentation of the joy, beauty, and truth of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, marriage, and family, but the light of that teaching has to be seen against the backdrop of the Fall, sin, failure, selfishness, and lust. Otherwise we are not being true to the Gospel, which is both about salvation from sin and damnation, and salvation into light, love, and communion with God.

• More soon! 

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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.