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Synod 2014 on marriage: Lots of smoke, but hardly any mirrors

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 17, 2014

In my last Insights message, I prophesied that the media furor over divorce, remarriage, and the sacraments in the Catholic Church would not result, at the 2014 Extraordinary Synod and thereafter, in the same sort of breakdown in Catholic discipline that followed Vatican II (closing in 1965) and Humanae Vitae (promulgated in 1968). One reason I gave is that it is not the 1960s any more.

This was shorthand for saying that the world and the Church are no longer teetering over the same precipice. The world has already fallen over, and the Church—in the light of Christ—is slowly mapping out a safer and surer path. People in the world are no longer all warm, fuzzy and excited about liberating mankind to enjoy paradise on earth. They’re now in this paradise of their own making and, while not all that happy with it, they are afraid to give it up. People in the Church are no longer all warm, fuzzy and excited about making the Church relevant to the surrounding world by adopting the world’s values. Huge numbers of those who thought they succeeded in that gambit left the Church anyway. The rest are groping their way back to a deeper, richer and authentic Catholicism which actually has something very different to say.

That’s true also of the Catholic authority structures. Yes, there is a long way to go to get past Modernism and secularism in Catholic universities and some very sick religious communities. But the episcopate in general, around the world, is no longer formed by or held captive to the “intellectuals” and their training, nor are most bishops surrounded any longer by staff cut from the same secular Modernist cloth. Moreover, quite a few religious orders have found true renewal and rekindled zeal.

Are there trouble spots? Certainly. But the trends are clear. Bishops are even starting to put pressure on the universities again, not very effectively yet, but the will is growing. And at least some of the remaining trouble spots can be attributed in part to the super-sensitivity orthodox Catholics developed back when they could not trust anybody. Some of us are still learning how to trust again, and that takes not only discernment but humility.

One index of growing health in the local churches is the rise of public recitation of the Rosary and, above all, renewed Eucharistic adoration—not to mention increasingly stable, predictable and reverent celebration of the Mass. Catechetical programs are improving, including RCIA, which was such an enormous scandal a generation ago. Most teachers now defer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Good Catholic publishers are also on the rise; the others have been progressively (no pun intended) failing over time. Catholic-produced films and websites are overwhelmingly orthodox. A whole generation of JPII priests, both home-grown and missionary, have shored up the sagging ranks of the clergy in secularized nations such as the United States, Canada and Europe. The clerical flower children have left the priesthood, have retired, or are on the verge of retirement.

It goes without saying that the Church is never perfect in her members, and we will always have enormous challenges of Catholic renewal before us. Our own time is no exception, and some of our problems are holdovers from the unfortunate era through which we have so recently passed. Nonetheless, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is not your father’s Church.

Two Decisive Points

That’s a good thing. But there are also two additional and very important points to consider:

First, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the desire to change the Church’s teaching on marriage (had it been a cultural flashpoint at the time) would have been echoed widely around the Western world, by the intelligentsia and even the episcopate in nearly every country. Bishops would have been either in favor or suspiciously silent, while employing and protecting many dissidents among their staff and advisors. But what do we have going against the Catholic grain on this issue now? We have some bishops and a bunch of self-appointed experts in Germany. I am sure that there are revolutionary cells elsewhere, but there is nothing like a Catholic groundswell.

So the first additional and very important point to consider is that it does not matter much what the press says, and it even matters relatively little now what the usual academic suspects say. What has always mattered in the Church is what the bishops and their priests say, and what the bishops and their priests do. Even in Germany, the dissident bishops are being taken to task by their peers.

Second, think again about the German situation. I would never be cavalier about the loss of the Faith in any country or region, but we must also be realistic. How important is Germany to the universal Church? Are we still in an era when we can gather bishops from around the world into a Synod and have it swayed primarily by what Europe says—let alone Germany by itself? Hardly. Even the Western bishops as a group are not lining up with the Germans, and it is an enormous fact of Catholic life that the rest of the world is not focused on the same set of problems that afflict Western Catholicism. The rest of the world has problems enough of its own. But the rest of the world also sends rock solid missionaries to the West.

Again, it is not your Father’s Church, and it is not Europe’s Church, and God knows it is not America’s Church, or Canada’s, or Australia’s or New Zealand’s. I suppose it is easy enough to stake my reputation on this, because I am old enough to retire gracefully if I’m proven wrong in two or three years. That is about how long it will take to know if anything momentous emerges from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in late 2014, because this assembly is going to be followed by a regular ordinary synod late in 2015, and the ordinary synod will also be devoted to the family.

Whether it is easy to stake my reputation or not, I am not worried. Pope Francis has requested prayers for these synods in his recent Letter to Families. If we want something to worry about, it will be enough to worry about fulfilling our own part in that regard each and every day. Shame on us if we constantly worry and do not pray! But for the rest, we can trust a good deal in the Pope’s stated theme for the Synod: “Pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.” This is simply not a train wreck waiting to happen.

Since 1985, the ordinary and extraordinary synods have been a significant force for renewal within the Church. This use of the synod to address the family is good; and though the good is always contested, it is very good. We must always be vigilant, but we must also remember that the Great Oz was exposed last time around. I no longer fear the charlatans behind the media curtains. Sure, they can still produce plenty of smoke. But most of their Catholic mirrors are gone.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 18, 2014 7:30 AM ET USA

    Very possible, but there is concern not simply that there will be an overt departure. There is concern that more subtle statements or definitions might not prove adequate to prevent the "spirit" from once again animating abuses. Many abuses have cropped up not from major overt actions but from more subtle interpretations or misinterpretations of documents that provided openings for progressives. Phil's concerns are legitimate, and polls demonstrate that churchgoers hardly toe the party line.