On October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. I still remember that historic moment and especially these lines from his opening address:
“In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.
“We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world was at hand.
“In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by human efforts and even beyond human expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”
Pope John’s words, over the years, have animated and encouraged me in my educational ministry. I have never felt at home with the prophets of gloom, who “have learned nothing from history.” Jesus brought good news. The church too should be about good news.
As I continue checking news updates about the Synod on the Family now meeting in Rome, what strikes me most is the developing polarization — often fierce — that is reflected in the remarks of some influential Synod “fathers.” (What a sad commentary on church leadership and what an irony for a Synod on Family Life that there are no mothers who are high level participants in the discussions and no mothers who can vote about synodal decisions. Does Father always know best?)
It was certainly refreshing and hopeful to read about Quebec Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher’s intervention at the Synod on Octber 6. He noted the “sad and dramatic reality” that women “continue to suffer discrimination and violence at the hands of men, including their spouses.” He asked the bishops to state clearly that there is no scriptural justification for such a bias; and noted as well that New Trstament passages in which the Apostle Paul speaks about wives submitting to their husbands “can never justify the domination of men over women, much less violence.”
Archbishop Durocher, who recently ended his term as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, then asked that the Synod recognize that women can and should be given “decision-making” posts in the church, and in the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy. Finally, he said the Synod should establish a process for opening the diaconate to women. Encouraging indeed.
But then, a few days later, we began to hear strong (overly exaggerated) reactions from the other side of the hierarchical divide.
Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, and head of the powerful Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Vatican’s top liturgical post, told the Synod that divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage in the West, and Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and elsewhere, both had a “demonic origin” that the Synod had to combat. Adding more emphasis to his remarks, he stressed that “What Nazi-fascism and communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion ideologies and Islamic fanaticism are today.”
As Robert Mickens reported in his Octber 14 Letter from Rome, “It has been known for quite some time that a number of cardinals and bishops, both in Rome and abroad, are—to put it mildly—uncomfortable with the way Pope Francis’s pontificate is unfolding. Well, this week it all spilled out into the open when it was unveiled that several cardinals—including three top Vatican officials (Cardinals Pell, Müller and Sarah)—wrote a letter to the Pope that basically criticized the way he is running the Synod of Bishops.”
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who signet the letter, is also one of those “uncomfortable” with Pope Francis
I really have no idea what the Synod will end up saying. Regardless of the synodal outcome, the contemporary Roman Catholic leadership divide is serious, deep, and very real. This is a major turning point for the church. If no good news comes from the Synod, the Roman Catholic exodus will accelerate for sure.
While the debates continue in Rome, the Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Myers, has already made up his mind and has given his priests strict guidelines about refusing Communion to Catholics who, for example, support gay marriage or whose own marriage is not valid in the eyes of the church. In a two-page memo, Myers also ordered parishes and Catholic institutions not to host people or organizations that disagree with church teachings. So much for being merciful and inclusive in encounters with the other. Myers is obviously an “uncomfortable” archbishop.
We have a polarized Roman Catholic climate for sure. One can survive in a such a polarized climate, however; but only by observing some spiritual survival strategies:
(1) Truly believe and act on the belief that the Spirit speaks to and through everyone in the church, and that the hierarchy must listen to more people than just themselves.
(2) Be anchored in contemporary life not in an antiquated vision and cultural understanding of the human person that is more medieval than modern.
(3) Continue to educate yourself and insist on continuing education for everyone in the church, starting with your local bishop. Everyone needs a better understanding of Sacred Scripture, of Christian tradition, and contemporary psychological and socio-cultural understandings of the human person in all its variety and richness.
(4) Practice the way of Jesus that calls us to mutual respect for everyone in the church. At the same time, dialogue, question, and challenge perceptions and beliefs that appear to be unfounded, antiquated, or simply wrong.
(5) Understand that the old RCC status quo is finished. The church is headed down a new road; and there will be bumps along the way.
(6) Realize that being critical is also the way to be constructve.
(7) Realize that speaking the critical word is not enough. We need to be prophetc change agents, or just keep quiet and let those who have learned nothing from history take control.