The Monday Morning Brass Spittoon: Roundtable on The Synod on the Family



The idea of the family has, since our inception, been one Porchers are particularly keen to defend. The family is a natural, integral, and inviolable unit whose very existence points to the centrality of place and, as much as any social entity, suggests the limits of state power. That the idea of the family needs defense is one of the central issues, one might say crises, of our day. One of the larger debates of the contemporary west involves disagreement over what a family is.

While the entertainment industry has been the main driver for an alternative version to the traditional, conjugal one, other social institutions have not been far behind in promoting the idea of family life as affective. Of particular interest in this regard is the role of churches, for the formation of families has typically taken place within churches. Regardless of whether one sees marriage as a sacrament, it was long thought that marriage itself was a religious ceremony which received public sanction and was thought to advance a public good. While the ceremonies took place in church, they typically involved the signing of legal documents. As a result, the interrelationship of ecclesial and civic authority has been especially pronounced as regards marriage.

The strongest defender of the conjugal view of marital and familial life, most would agree, has been the Roman Catholic Church. The recently held Synod on the Family has many observers wondering if the Church is wavering in its defense. Our first roundtable brings together Elias Crim, a non-profit organizer and editor at Solidarity Hall; C.C. Pecknold, Associate Professor of Theology at The Catholic University of America; and James Matthew Wilson, Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities at Villanova University, to discuss this issue.

What was the main emphasis, or take-away of/from the Synod?

Elias Crim: We can’t truly say what the Synod’s main emphasis will be until its work is finished, of course. In the meanwhile, the question of how best to defend the family clearly elicited a wider range of contributions and opinions than ever before. So possibly the main takeaway is the perceived extremity of the family crisis, as demonstrated by these wide-ranging and controversial proposals.

Chad Pecknold: It’s important that we not simply call this last meeting in Rome “the Synod.” The Council Fathers at Vatican II desired to have a synodal process which could inform the teaching of the Holy Father on pressing matters. This last meeting was the “Extraordinary Synod” which is really a preparatory meeting for the main event, the “Ordinary Synod” which will meet next Fall. Most people have not even read the final report of the Extraordinary Synod, and we have another year before we will know the outcome of the discussions of the Ordinary Synod. The Council Fathers designed this process to allow the bishops of the Church to think together over a longer period of time, and to present that thinking to the Holy Father as collegial counsel for his teaching office. Since the pressing matter is the nature of the family in the context of the new evangelization, I would say that this first phase of the synodal process sought to expose the most controversial proposals concerning irregular unions first, so that the Ordinary Synod could focus on the traditional family, and to assist families to become “domestic churches” that participate in the new evangelization wherever they are planted.

James Wilson: Marriage requires the kind of discussion one finds in the Relatio. Catholics know, and the rest of the world senses, that marriage is a natural, pre-political institution that makes society possible and that has taken many forms in history. We know that along the way of the groping development of every human thing towards its perfection, the grace of God has come into the world and lifted this natural institution up to the Sacramental fullness that it had also possessed, before the advent of sin, in the beginning of the world. It is a natural and a supernatural reality. Marriage is an icon of the love of God—and an icon everyone can read because it was first written into our natures. The Relatio helpfully notes that because of its natural reality, the romantic love whose end is marriage can be a pathway through sin for some into full communion with the Church. It also notes that many times such features of modernity as serial cohabitation instance a deadening, a withdrawing, of love, rather than a mere partial failure to fulfill love’s conditions.

Indeed, from the outset, the Relatio indicates how disordered is the eros of our age: we direct it toward a buffered, individualistic, unleashing of the will in search of its own pleasures, rather than discerning in the hunger with which we are born a goad to move in an orderly fashion toward sacramental union with a spouse and, ultimately, into union with God. The Relatio takes account of social and economic conditions to explain the fragmentation, individualism, and loneliness of our age, but it insists that these conditions ultimately depend upon Christian faith. Where faith is strong, all else will be reordered to conform to it; for, the form of every society is an expression of what it most loves.

A lot of Catholics are concerned that the Synod is taking the Church in a dangerous new direction. Is it being taken in a new direction, and if so, what is it and how dangerous is it?

Elias Crim: Again, the Synod has taken no clear direction at this early stage but surely something new is likely to emerge from its conclusion. This new thing will indeed seem dangerous to some, especially those who view evangelism as an activity best conducted from a comfortable suburban couch, you might say. This new direction will and should prick their consciences as it reminds them of, for example, the strains of poverty on marriage, even its very possibility of occurring except for the more well to do.

Chad Pecknold: Everyone compares this synodal process to the one which led up to Humanae Vitae, a process which created a great deal of disruption, and permitted people to think about a possible change in discipline on the question of contraception.  This was rightly seen as a dangerous new direction, but then Pope Paul VI surprised everyone with Humanae Vitae which essentially confirmed the traditional teaching, and made natural family planning the norm.  For years following, we saw many Catholics confused about the Church’s teaching because the headlines had been about the Church changing her teaching on contraception — when in fact, the teaching was not changed, but bolstered. The same danger exists today. There are differences though: (1) Humanae Vitae followed a period of post-conciliar confusion around the implementation of the Council, whereas this synodal process follows two papacies that sought and largely achieved stability, and a healthy implementation of the teaching of Vatican II; (2) Though they have different governing styles, Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis were and are both deliberative and decisive, and both were popes capable of real surprises.  But Francis seems crystal clear that he wants reforms, and is unlikely to produce a status quo ante exhortation. Other differences can be noted, but these give the sense that this Synodal deliberation on the family will be about as dangerous as the process leading to Humanae Vitae. A third difference, however, makes me think that (3) the dangers and risks could be lower this time round: the divorced and remarried seeking communion, and those who struggle with same-sex desires, represent a very small percentage of Catholics.  Contraception was an issue which made a practical difference for a much greater percentage of Catholics, and the sacrifices required were at least as personal as the ones being discussed today. Of course, the only thing that will really matter in the long run will be the apostolic exhortation (or encyclical) and that’s well over a year down the road. So buckle up!

James Wilson: Like everyone who depends upon the Church for instruction in the way of Christ and who recognizes its majesty and beauty are founded in its apostolic authority to proclaim the Gospel and its sacramental prolongation of Christ among his people, I read the news reports of the Synod with apprehension. The news did not sound good. Quotations from the Relatio sounded, indeed, preposterous. I heard of political gamesmanship, insincerity, and contempt among the bishops of the Church.

Ours are trying times, and when one hears stories like those to which I refer, one begins to see the world as divided among those who have no hope, but a craven lust to tear down everything in the path of their own self-creation and the extension of their will, and those who despair even as they hope, fearing by what new machine man will find occasion to crucify Christ once again, and wondering if they have the strength within them to pass their hope onto their children. What darkness lies ahead, they ask? In reading the early and final drafts of the Relatio as well as Pope Francis’ homily at the conclusion of the Synod, I found hope springs eternal in the breast of the Christian. I set aside the context of the Synod’s procedures and how it was reported in the press, and I look at the work of the Synod, and I see our Bishops and our Pope preaching with joy, seriousness, and mercy the truths they have received from our ancestors in faith.

I see, in Pope Francis’ final homily in particular, a consciousness of how the world wishes to interpret him, to harness his preaching of a Church of mercy for the use of what we might call the antinomial dispensation of therapy required for our culture of “atomic eros” (as I have called it elsewhere). His response? It is the Holy Spirit who guides us, and the Pope who is the “guarantor of it all”—of obedience “to the Will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church.” The Pope tells us we must be willing to be “surprised by God, by the God of surprises.”

That has been my experience throughout my life: discovering with surprise that a little boy who hated sitting through Mass would crave it like nothing else before he reached manhood; a man who thought his faith could only be maintained through the aesthetic, discovering that the Church alone had a tenable account of reason; an often broken man who was welcomed by his pastor one winter night with the words, “You know the name of the Church: the Refuge of Sinners.” The wisdom of the Pope’s words and of the final Relatio, which modifies very little of the controversial first draft, is a surprise and consolation to me. I see no dangerous new direction in the Church, certainly not one coming out of Rome—though I see dangers on every side and dangers within the Church, dangers which mount daily. The Synod is not their cause, but their antidote.

Is the Synod an important correction to the pastoral function of the Church, or is it elevating pastoral concerns over more fundamental things?

Elias Crim: Let us hope the Synod is an inspired development of (rather than merely a correction to) the Church’s pastoral function. I think Dr. Jeff Mirus has done a fine job here explaining why the Synod is considering new interpretations of sacramental discipline, as the Church has done in regard to the sacraments of communion or penance at various times, as opposed to any changes whatsoever in doctrine.

Chad Pecknold: I am not sure I would frame the question quite this way.  Doctrine and discipline can be distinguished, but they cannot really be separated.  Similarly with the pastoral.  It is an application of the teaching of the Church.  If the question is whether the Extraordinary and Ordinary Synods on the Family will detach discipline from doctrine, or detach the pastoral from the deposit of faith, or as Pope Francis has cautioned, bandage wounds without healing them, then I think the answer must be No. Again, it is important to appreciate the status of the Synod of Bishops. It’s purpose is pastoral.  It is possible that the Synod of Bishops itself is an institution in need of reform, so as to build in more safeguards for the unity of doctrine and discipline – but it is not as if the synodal process does not have many of these safeguards built-in. The working document is designed to make this connection explicit, and the working groups constantly debate the implications of disciplinary reform as a reflection of the Church’s teaching.  It is certainly possible that this Synod could be different from all previous ones, and unhinge the intrinsic connection between “pastoral concerns” and more fundamental things,” but if it did so it would simply amount to a failed Synod.

James Wilson: This is an important question and leads me to speak of what I see most important in the Relatio.  I know more about how individual Catholic parishes actually work than I do about the specific canons that formally govern them.  In every parish where I have heard Mass in my life (and that’s quite a few, since unlike many conservative Catholics, I was born this way!), there has been formal outreach to the divorced and separated; the pews have been full of the demented, deformed, hungry, homeless, aged, and sick.  So, also, have they been filled with every manner of sinner, including those weak-willed pietists shacking up together and coming to Mass together, unsure of how to work out the contradiction.

Every parish I have known has been manned by pastors who want all these people in the Church, because they want everyone in Church, because everyone needs the Church, because the Mass is the center of human life.  And with discernment, those men have not only welcomed sinners to Mass, but gone out and found them as they could, if less than they would, if they were not the few serving the many and often overwhelmed just by the demands of the day.  Because so few people have homosexual desires, I can say much less about the efforts of parishes to reach these people, and I know of instances where the pastoral care of such persons has been troubling because complacent and sentimental.  But, there is the Courage Ministry as one public instance, and I am conscious of other individual missions to such people—the more quietly undertaken, on the whole, the better.

The Church in its hierarchy and in its parish priests bears a very poor witness in our day, and some of this has to do with the heresies and abuses of power of some of its personnel.  There have been—for decades—instances of sentimentally heterodox priests opting in preference for the “pastoral” over the “doctrinal” as if the two were in tension rather than—as they must be—inseparable.

The Church will be better able to ensure a soundness of doctrine in its teaching and public witness if the dependence of the pastoral work of the Church upon that teaching is formalized.  The Relatio moves us a good deal in that direction.  This needs to be formalized precisely because, too often, members of the Church have made a preference for the pastoral over the doctrinal; that is, they have perceived themselves, rightly or wrongly, as sacrificing the truths of the Church for the sake of their roles as care givers, healers, and models of accompaniment and mercy.  In doing this, they confuse the pastoral with the modern understanding of the therapeutic.  They diminish the reordering of our ourselves to conform to Christ until it become the mere acceptance of ourselves as we are.

The contemporary world interprets everything through therapeutic lenses.  As such, it greets the concern and needful condescension of pastoral care as if it were a vindication of the sinner—not as a human being, but as a sinner.  I see no way around this, though of course we have to answer it with force, when we can.  In the meantime, the Church needs to formalize and theorize its pastoral work in light of its doctrinal authority.

Everything must be theorized, including the individual pastoral practices of God’s priests.  These documents attend with care to the architecture of the faith that must be accepted and understood if the Church is to continue its outreach to individuals with disordered sexual desires (which includes all of us to different degrees) and also to continue welcoming those whose families have been broken or wounded by that great superstition of our time, divorce.

How do the results of the Synod reflect on the leadership of Pope Francis?

Elias Crim: Many of those who adhere most closely to what they imagine are the Church’s traditions seem to have little interest in sending out signals to what you might call the less adhesive out there. So Pope Francis’ Synod strikes them as excessively Jesuitical, what with all this discernment stuff going on. It’s only halftime but this lobby keeps insisting the game is over.

Chad Pecknold: The synodal process is meant to be deliberative.  The fact that he has called for this Synodal process shows you that he is a deliberative and collegial pope.  He wants to hear from everyone.  He wants to show that the Petrine Office is receptive, that the pope is a listener, and one who — as the vicar of Christ — discerns the mind of the Church through such listening.

James Wilson: Pope Francis warns the “traditionalist” and the “intellectual” against a “hostile inflexibility” that refuses to be surprised by God and so may reject God in favor of “the letter.”  Catholics’ ears should perk up at such language, because of course the advocates of the “Spirit of Vatican II” used it and continue to use it to reinterpret the essentially pastoral documents of the Council as fundamental transformations of doctrine—contrary to the express purpose of the Council.  Many times during this pontificate, I have feared this sort of abandonment, and with good reason I think: regardless of the Pope’s intentions, his language has on several occasions made it harder to bear witness to the fundamental teachings of the Church on life, marriage, and the good of our sexual lives.

But, these are bad times.  Everything that is not unambiguously good seems to presage defeat, and everything in history is ambiguous.  The Pope’s homily does not highlight traditionalists as the enemy, but addresses them along with the “progressives and liberals” whose “destructive tendency” is much more severely criticized: “in the name of a deceptive mercy [they would] bind the wounds without first curing them and treating them.”  Are these not the same people who would “come down off the Cross to please the people”?  Are these not the ones who—in the “Spirit of Vatican II”—would make themselves “owners and masters” rather than “guardians” of the depositum fidei?

How deep are the apparent divisions within the College of Cardinals? What are we to make of Cardinal Kasper’s comments?

Elias Crim: A friend who once worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago reported to me an aside that came from Cardinal George on the subject of the American bishops: “Some of these guys are just crazy, you know,” he supposedly said. Since cardinals were once mere bishops, presumably they may count a few erratic types amidst their number also. As far how to understand the agenda of Cardinal Kasper, I defer again to Dr. Mirus who suggests the Kasper proposal, while not intrinsically unorthodox (now do read the article before swooning at the latter suggestion), got voted down simply as a cure worse than the disease.

Chad Pecknold: The divisions within the College of Cardinals are about how to apply the mercy of the Church to the wounds of human nature. That is, it is important to keep in mind that none of the Synod Fathers think, for example, that Jesus did not teach the indissolubility of marriage.  All the Synod Fathers believe that marriage is between one man and one woman.  So their divisions are not about these fundamental truths concerning human nature, but about how the Church is to apply the mercy of Christ who told us not only that his yoke was easy, but also that we should pick up our cross to follow him.  Many people talk about Cardinal Kasper because it appears that his controversial proposals have the support of the Holy Father.  It is possible that Kasper is a proxy for the pope, but it is also possible that the pope finds it useful to encourage a controversial proposal so that he might hear the best arguments. Since Kasper’s proposals only enjoyed the support of 3 out of the 10 working groups at the Extraordinary Synod, the weakness of Kasper’s proposals should now be clear to the Holy Father.

James Wilson: The Relatio is especially informative regarding the challenges to marriage around the world; they are very various.  Cardinal Kasper faces a particular problem about which it is hard not to become cynical, but regarding which I am not sure cynicism is appropriate.  Germany is a frightfully secularized country in most respects; it does not wish to live beyond a century, as Remi Brague would put it.  But the Church in Germany plays a public role that far exceeds that of, say, the Church in America.  It does so in part because the State transfers tax dollars of all self-selected nominal Catholics to the Church as a tithe.  In return, the Church plays a problematic but in some ways impressive institutional role in Germany: for instance, the Church tells every woman considering an abortion precisely what an abortion will do—kill the child—before the woman may proceed to abort.

Whether Cardinal Kasper is driven by pastoral concern or greed for those taxes-cum-tithes, I do not know.  I do understand, however, that he wants to find an accommodation for nominal Catholics who are materially supporting the Church’s work by their own free will.  His proposals were greeted coolly even in the first draft of the Relatio.  I am no prognosticator, but I do not see much movement here, though I do see a continued, and now a renewed formal, emphasis on the care of broken families and those who have put their families in nearly impossible situations through their failure to embrace what this document encourages: to nourish one’s brokenness on the Eucharist and to seek no substitution for that food.

In his closing comments, Pope Francis inveighed against both the “hostile rigidity” of the “traditionalists” and the imprudence of “progressives” who “would bandage a wound before treating it.” What are we to make of these comments? Is the Pope taking sides, or is he steering a path between the fractures within The Church?

Elias Crim: I’ll go right out on a limb here. Pope Francis is fomenting, one may hope, a kind of second Franciscan revolution in understanding and sentiment, one which is arriving providentially (as did his two predecessors’ own unique contributions) at just the right moment. As a convert from evangelical Protestantism, I believe the Church is greatly in need of this new sense of mission, one which is radical and Gospel-based. It’s an important dimension of the Marian Church which St. John Paul II hoped to see replace the Petrine Church of early modern history. So we may have a Synod—and a papacy–moving toward something historic. While such things have always seemed “dangerous” to some, we citizens of the Empire of Fear should continually recall St. John Paul II’s admonition to “Be not afraid.” The next Berlin Wall to come down must be the one of the spirit, the one which we have erected internally.

Chad Pecknold: Pope Francis did receive a standing ovation after his closing comments, and that tells us something important. It is tempting to see these internal debates in schismatic terms, but I think this would be a misplaced fear and a fundamental misunderstanding.  My hope is that the Synodal process, for all its messiness, displays something of what Alasdair MacIntyre called tradition-based rational inquiry over a long period of time. That is to say, my hope is that the Synodal process displays a Church that is a Tradition that thinks, and thinks in a Tradition. The Catholic Church is bigger than the conservative-progressive poles of political liberalism.  Pope Francis inveighed principally against an overly politicized account of the Church’s process of thinking. My own hope is that this Extraordinary Synod has established an important principle for the work of the Ordinary Synod next Fall, namely that since charity cannot be separated from knowledge of the truth, so mercy cannot be given without confession of sin and the commitment to amend one’s life and sin no more.

James Wilson: That the Pope risked creating an equivalence is clear, but I don’t think there’s an equivalence, and I do not think he does either, based on the remainder of his homily. Those of us inclined to worry about such a direction are also those best in a position to drink deeply of the Church’s teaching. I am as vulnerable to the striking and scandalous tales of mass media as anyone, but we have to work through that vulnerability and—oh, say—read all four pages of a homily, before declaring that the Holy Spirit has wavered in its guidance of the Church.

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Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.

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