On the synod, Catholic conservatives fear worst is yet to come

Print More
Icon of St. Basil the Great from the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Public Domain

Icon of St. Basil the Great from the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Icon of St. Basil the Great from the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Icon of St. Basil the Great from the St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

It could have been worse. Among the conservative Catholic scribbling class, that’s the consensus on the bishops’ synod that wrapped up its business in Rome last weekend. After all, the Final Report made no explicit mention of a path to communion for the divorced and remarried, much less sanctioning “artificial” contraception or living out of wedlock. Same-sex relationships got a peremptory thumbs down.

But the sequel has them scared. Pope Francis took the tiny opening that last year’s synod gave to annulment reform and pushed through new canon law. Who knows what he’ll do with the openings he’s been given now?

“What would be uncharted territory,” writes the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat, “is if this pope decides to act on his irritation with conservatives and/or his vision of decentralization, and use his post-synodal exhortation to make the crack that liberals see already wider, undeniable, visible to everyone.”

“The Final Report is a tolerable text, especially for something produced by a committee of 270,” writes the Catholic Thing’s Robert Royal. “If it had been passed under the papacy of John Paul II, it would have raised little, if any, alarm. But in a context of mutual suspicion and anger, what is tolerable may become intolerable.”

As is usual at moments of impending institutional change, the casus belli acquires a symbolic importance far beyond its specific effect. That’s the case with communion for the divorced and remarried, which reformers wish to permit by drawing on the patristic principle of economia. Advanced by the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, economia constitutes a recognition that living in this world sometime makes it impossible to follow the ideal spiritual path.

Understanding that valid marriages sometimes have to be ended by divorce, Eastern Orthodoxy permits sacramental remarriages; however, these have to be conducted in a less celebratory way than first marriages — indeed, penitentially. Such a violation of the principle of the indissolubility of marriage is considered intolerably lax by Roman Catholic conservatives. But in disdaining this mote in the Orthodox eye, they fail to see the beam in their own.

The Orthodox hew to the ideal of the indissolubility of marriage by requiring widows and widowers to take a penitential path to remarriage. Yes, the death of a spouse is generally unavoidable. Nevertheless, second and third marriages, albeit licit, do violate the principle of sacramental marriage as a one-time thing that effects a permanent change in the person.

By contrast, the indissolubility of marriage for Catholics is just “till death do us part.” Then it can be on to the next marriage, and the next one, so long as the present spouse predeceases us.

While I’ve got no dog in this fight, the Orthodox view makes more sense to me. Given the metaphysics of sacramental marriage, how can the Catholics be so blithe about the remarriages of widows and widowers? It must be because it never occurs to them that there’s a problem. It’s always been that way.

  • Betty Clermont

    Traditionalist prelates aren’t “scared,” they’re angry. First, as the letter signed by 13 prominent cardinals pointed out, the synod was rigged against them. In his opening speech, the pope stated there were only three official documents from the 2014 synod: two were his own speeches and the Final Report which included issues not receiving a consensus, i.e. a two-thirds vote. The commission formed to help draft the 2015 Final Report had 10 members. Only two were elected by their respective episcopal conferences. The rest were appointed by the pope. In his closing speech, the pope referred to traditionalists as “closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.” Before the synod closed, the synod fathers elected 12 men to the new synod council. Most were those who signed the letter and their supporters.

  • Steven Barrett

    If the Synodal recommendations are written in such way that a reasonably minded Catholic who’s married to a Protestant and wants to receive communion in her respective church, which happens to be Episcopalian, he ought to be able to esp. if the Church allows for divorced Catholics who remarried w/o a valid annulment of the previous marriage. To read the conservative American catholics comments one would think Francis was pushing wide the doors to Hades all by himself with the help of some liberals.

  • I’m afraid of a hierarchy who doesn’t realize that gay marriage and climate change aren’t the most acute problems facing our Church. I’m afraid of the same effete, exclusively male club who lives a life of enormous comfort and counsels its charges to sacrifice and turn hard-earned wages over to the government. I’m afraid of a marginally intelligent ruling body (as we have now in the US) who feels confident in their petty, partisan opinions. The Synod’s rulings will affect generations so their “suggestions’ and the Pope’s decisions should be of a theologically sound nature. They better realize how quickly Rome is burning while they fiddle.

  • Arneson

    Seriously, Mary. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Taxes are the price of civilization. As for climate change, I suggest that you take the time to read Laudato si’.

  • Jim Lee

    Interesting comment which I am in agreement. The Lord told us to help the poor, the sick, and the less fortunate to serve God. Modern translation” get off your butt and work with these people. Spending a day or week or month serving your fellow man or contributing to charity on a weekly basis is not tremendously hard to do and I must say is greatly rewarding. I also must say that many do serve and are generous with their time and money. The Lord never said give Caesar your money and let him serve the poor. The main message from the teachings and the history that followed is that only a personnel sacrifice to serve is in the vision God as his son showed us. Political solutions have not been very kind to people over the centuries. If fact it has created and generated extreme misery for man as the driving greed of power dominate their goals. Supporting political solutions today appears to be extremely misguided and naïve.

  • cjones1

    I guess the New Testament references in Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 16, and 1 Corinthians 7 must be given priority over later Church Fathers. Remarriage after adultery was discussed by Jesus and widowhood apparently was OK although Paul seemed to think that remaining unmarried for God was the ideal. I suppose remarriage under a form of sacrificial forgiveness might be explored, but I recall that even Martin Luther thought it easier to justify polygamy than divorce and remarraige.