George Weigel’s essential essay on the Synods of 2014 and 2015

"[T]he Catholic Church is proposing the path to happiness and human flourishing, not the road to repression and misery."

George Weigel’s essay, “Between Two Synods”, for the January 2015 issue of First Things is an important piece for at least three reasons. First, he masterfully summarizes what happened at the Synod, without recourse to tired clichés and simplistic “left v. right” banalities. Readers of CWR will be familiar with nearly everything Weigel covers, but his chronological, thematic, and contextual synthesis is quite helpful. For example:

Thanks to the passions aroused by the extraordinary synod itself and the confused and distorted reporting on it, there is going to be considerable air turbulence in the Catholic Church in the coming year. That turbulence might be abated, and some pastoral progress made, if the serious issues that underlie (and hinder) the Catholic Church’s attempts to wrestle with postmodern culture, especially its normalization and ideological justification of the sexual revolution, are seen for what they are. Only then can they be discussed in a calmer spirit than that which prevailed in Rome and around the world in mid-October 2014 and the weeks immediately following. …

It was always the pope’s intention that the 2014 extraordinary synod be a wide-ranging discussion of the crisis of marriage and the family. For he believes that only if the nature of the crisis is understood in full can the Church proceed to think about how it can propose its understanding of marriage in ways that can be more readily heard and lived in today’s Gnostic culture. That thorough examination of the crisis, and the celebration of Christian marriage as the answer to it, didn’t happen to the degree one might have hoped. And that was in no small part the doing of German bishops led by retired Cardinal Walter Kasper, in league with the synod general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who seemed determined to push the question of Holy Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to the front of the line in the synod’s debates.

The German fixation on this issue was in one sense an expression of self-absorption with the pastoral problems of a sclerotic German Church, which are indisputably grave. In another sense, however, the “Communion ban” issue (as it was vulgarly described in the press) is a stalking horse for a much larger argument about the nature of doctrine and its development. And this, in turn, reprises the long-running debate over the meaning of Vatican II and its relationship to Catholic tradition that Kasper and his allies seem determined to reopen.

It is readily evident that a significant number of clerics and prelates (along with quite a few laity) are not only willing to capitulate in part or completely on the sexual revolution front, but some are even actively pursuing it. There is, in short, a strong push for the legitimization of adultery and homosexuality (and more) that is rooted in obvious ills—personal weakness, arrogance, lack of faith, cynicism, greed, lust for power, etc.—and is built on the claim that Vatican II ushered in a new Church, hence a completely new way to understand, well, everything: God, man, etc.

Secondly, Weigel examines and evaluates some of the key arguments or approaches used at the Synod, including the activities and proposal of a certain Cardinal Kasper:

During the synod itself, Cardinal Kasper gave a lecture in Vienna, in which he located his position on marriage and the family within his understanding of Vatican II as a council that had opened a new era in Catholic life, one in which all the old verities are now subject to reexamination, and perhaps even reconsideration. Here, too, one wonders just what information has been reaching Germany in recent decades. The vibrant parts of Catholicism in the developed world are those that have lived the dynamic orthodoxy displayed in the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI; the crumbling parts of European Catholicism—which is to say, most of western European Catholicism—are those that have bent to the winds of the zeitgeist and have fudged the Church’s doctrinal and moral boundaries, imagining that to be the “spirit of Vatican II.” Yet there was Kasper, in league with synod general secretary Baldisseri, promoting a further fudging of the boundaries, and doing so in ways that seemed to the majority of synod fathers (the media spin notwithstanding) to be in flat contradiction to the teaching of the Lord himself.

Exactly right. Perhaps one of the most surreal things about the Synod was the constant depiction of those upholding perennial and clear Church teaching as being out of touch and even contrary with the real heart and mission of the Church (which was Point #5 of my pre-Synod editorial, “Spinning the Synod”).

Weigel also spends time remarking on “Africa’s Moment” and “The Process”. From the latter:

Which in turn raised another question about the synod process: Why were no faculty members of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family invited as auditors or observers of the synod? The institute’s home base is the pope’s own Roman university, the Lateran; it has faculties around the world; Stanisław Grygiel, the Institute’s founding director, and his wife, Ludmilla, had given magnificent papers on the Christian idea of marriage at a European conference on family matters shortly before the synod. But the Grygiels were not invited to the synod, nor was the distinguished moral ­theologian who is now the Rome institute’s director, Msgr. Livio Melina. Given the ways of the Vatican, this could not have been an accidental omission. It seems far more likely that it was a deliberate decision by the synod’s general secretary, Cardinal ­Baldisseri, who was presumably uninterested in having the Kasper approach and the Kasper ­proposals challenged by the magisterium of John Paul II—even though that magisterium had shown itself over the past two decades to have been the Church’s most successful response to the sexual revolution and the severe collateral damage that upheaval had done to marriage and the family.

It has indeed, and that simply has to be said, shown, said again, and shown again—and again—in the coming months leading up to the ordinary Synod. While there has been a great deal of talk about “mercy,” much of that talk has been carried on with little or no sense of what the Church teaches and why the Church teaches it. It’s as if everything prior to October 2014 is either open to a complete reworking or can be simply tossed out of the window of the comfortable but shaky mobile home called “modernity”. In short, the Kasper proposal will not work because it marked by a failure to understand the situation at hand and it fails to have the nerve to address it.

Finally, Weigel outlines some key issues that must be addressed prior to the ordinary Synod (Oct. 4-25, 2015). This includes:

The Church’s discussion over the next year, and its interaction with the culture on the issues of marriage and the family, should be more data-driven than anecdotal. More data should be brought forward—and they are abundantly available—to demonstrate that the Church’s idea of permanent and fruitful marriage, like the Church’s teaching on the ­appropriate means of regulating fertility, makes for happier ­marriages, happier families, happier children, and more-­benevolent societies than does the deconstruction of marriage and the family that is inundating the West like a tsunami. In teaching the truth about marriage, about love, and about the complementarity of the sexes, the Catholic Church is proposing the path to happiness and human flourishing, not the road to repression and misery. It should make a bold, data-driven case in defense of that teaching, which is a defense of the dignity of the human person.

That’s a tall order, but he is absolutely correct. We must go on the offensive, because while defense might win (some) football games, it rarely wins wars, builds cultures, or expands civilizations. Besides, people deserve the truth about marriage, family, and everything related to those two foundations of culture, society, and civilization. Sure, some people don’t want to hear it; some people simply want to play with house money and pretend that everything will be just fine (others, it seems, don’t even pretend to pretend; it is all “Eat, drink, and be merry…”). But many more people do want to hear the truth; I’m convinced that most people know, at some level, that all is not well. And who is going to share the truth? Who has the Gospel? Weigel writes, in conclusion: “Finally, this entire discussion of the crisis of marriage and the family in the twenty-first century should be more closely and explicitly linked to the new evangelization.” Yes, it should. In the words of St. Pope John Paul II:

It is, in fact, to the families of our times that the Church must bring the unchangeable and ever new Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as it is the families involved in the present conditions of the world that are called to accept and to live the plan of God that pertains to them. Moreover, the call and demands of the Spirit resound in the very events of history, and so the Church can also be guided to a more profound understanding of the inexhaustible mystery of marriage and the family by the circumstances, the questions and the anxieties and hopes of the young people, married couples and parents of today. …

It should not be forgotten that the service rendered by Christian spouses and parents to the Gospel is essentially an ecclesial service. It has its place within the context of the whole Church as an evangelized and evangelizing community. In so far as the ministry of evangelization and catechesis of the Church of the home is rooted in and derives from the one mission of the Church and is ordained to the upbuilding of the one Body of Christ, it must remain in intimate communion and collaborate responsibly with all the other evangelizing and catechetical activities present and at work in the ecclesial community at the diocesan and parochial levels.

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 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.