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Synod hopes and fears: The difference that matters

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 29, 2019

I hope that all serious Catholics who have begun reading about the results of the Amazon Synod are concerned about the outcome. But I want to caution against premature panic. I also want to clarify the issues. And I even want to help get everyone into the right Spirit.

The news report by the National Catholic Register, to which we linked, did a very good job of providing the basic information we can use to make important distinctions. I recommend that everyone start there. It goes without saying, perhaps, that Phil Lawler has already done a good job of calling attention to the desired final outcome, when Pope Francis issues the official post-synodal apostolic exhortation next year.

Clarifying the issues and avoiding panic are, in this case, pretty much the same thing. When the Synod called for married priests to serve in the Amazon, it may have been grossly imprudent, but it was not calling for anything that the Church cannot implement if she deems it prudent. In the early days, St. Paul laid down the viri probati (men of proven virtue) criteria advocated by the Synod, applying it to bishops, in his first letter to Timothy. Paul stated that they should be men of good repute who (if they have families) should have only one wife and whose children should be well disciplined. That, by the way, is challenge enough for any man, and only a fool fails to see the many reasons for the strong tradition of celibacy that has grown up since apostolic times, along with all its advantages.

My point is only that, in this matter, the Synod has not placed itself beyond the pale.

Similarly, when the Synod called for a discussion of female deacons, we must acknowledge a certain possibility. There were women in the early Church who were referred to as deaconesses, though the practice died out quickly. Note also that terminology was quite fluid in the early years, used in different ways in the different Christian communities. It was only over time that standard terms were applied. The Church has not ruled definitively on the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate, but the case is very similar to that of the priesthood, and there is good reason to expect that it will be resolved the same way—finding that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the diaconate.

As the Register story points out, Pope Francis has been studying the problem. He expressed his willingness to intensify that study, but he also reported not long ago that as far as we can tell so far, in the few instances for which we have evidence, the ceremonies after which women were called deaconesses were not, in fact, ordinations.

My point is this: What we are likely to face if these controversial desiderata are brought to fruition is not a crisis of Church teaching, nor even in the formal sense a rebellion against Church discipline. What is far more likely is that either adaptations will be made formally within the limits of what is doctrinally possible or, as is common in this pontificate, they will be somewhat slyly permitted. In either case, such adaptations will likely further confuse the faithful both as to what is and is not essential to the Faith and as to what is and what is not most representative of authentic apostolic zeal.

Worst case: Same old same old

As everybody knows by now, the Church in the West is old and tired and has lost not only its zeal but its grasp on what is essential and non-negotiable: The proclamation of the Gospel, which brings us into a mutually willed union of sacrificial love with Christ, a union which leads through the cross in this life to glory in the next. That, quite simply, is the core of the Good News, and it is the great mark of the spiritual lethargy of the Church in the West that it cannot consider the Faith for more than two minutes without introducing worldly concerns to help us forget it.

Hence, for example, so much talk about ecology and so little about reclaiming souls for God. If we want to understand why the Amazon (along with much of South America) has drifted away from Catholicism and into various Protestant sects, we need look no farther than the difference between Western Catholics who adhere to a comfortable, mainstream form of liberation theology—call it secularism—and “pentecostal” Protestants who can still preach at least a recognizable variant of the Gospel that Christ and the apostles proclaimed from the first.

On this reading, the two possible outcomes I have mentioned will in all likelihood simply continue the same old pattern which has gripped Catholic academic institutions in the West for almost a century now and the rest of the Church for at least fifty years. We will urge married clergy on the Amazon—despite all the inescapable problems—not primarily because those who live there cannot understand sexual abstinence but because the secularized affluent West cannot understand it. We will urge some form of formal female ministry in the Amazon not because it would be impossible to call, inspire and send zealous males to serve there but because the secularized affluent West demands—even as it insists on sexual activity—the destruction of distinctions between male and female.

“Male and female He created them” has become just one more hard saying!

Insofar as such trends toward married clergy and female quasi-sacramental ministries develop out of the Amazon Synod, they will not be new but a continuation of the same old malaise. Yes, such implementations would further demoralize priests and, in fact, would further demoralize men who are almost never any longer called to make manly apostolic sacrifices, in challenging and even dangerous positions of leadership, a call to which they are fitted by God and nature to respond. We will continue the feminization of the Church. We will continue theologically and pastorally to emasculate men, and we will accelerate the downward spiral of the affected cultures.

God’s folly

But my point here is that this will not be something new. Nor will the crisis it exacerbates be new. It will be simply a fresh aspect of what we have been facing in the quest for authentic renewal over the past two generations or so, a quest that—for all its ineffectiveness however viewed—has already been set back significantly during our current pontificate, as compared with the positive directions charted by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (though not without the human weaknesses which dog all pontificates, and indeed all times and places).

Thus just as before, those who take Catholicism seriously will be asked to suffer more, to tolerate more, and to remain spiritually grounded in the midst of far more chaos than is healthy for the Church to absorb under any circumstances. We will wonder when a new low will come that might trigger a turning point, and we will learn repeatedly that it takes a long time for once robust civilizations to lose their grip. We will be regarded as outsiders in the larger culture, obstructionists in academia, and regrettable nuisances even in many Catholic circles.

Now, if all of this gets worse—and, after all, it may not—then in order to have a correct faith and avoid rash judgment of situations and of others, we will continue to make the necessary distinctions. Such care is needed in every age of the Church. We can let events prove our more secret thoughts right or wrong. But I trust we will all recall that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.

This recollection is vital. Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul fairly warned that Christ had sent him first and foremost “to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 17). He continued:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men…. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” [1 Cor 1:18-31]

I have grave doubts about how often the recent synod debates sounded anything like St. Paul, mired from the first, as apparently they were, in a Western cultural agenda, addressing global material issues, and tinkering with policies and procedures. Parts of these concerns are good. But none of them can bear fruit without a new spirit—and it is neither the spirit of fertility goddesses, nor of transgenderism, but of Christ. Regardless of whether things get a little better or a little worse in the coming year, we can be sure of facing the same old problem in new forms, and we should not be dismayed if nothing fundamental changes.

Why? Because St. Paul had it right: It is only God’s foolishness that can save the world.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Oct. 30, 2019 8:30 AM ET USA

    The attendees were so focused on their desires that they missed a couple of very good ideas that might have been pursued. One; there is more than likely an overabundance of priests in the Vatican. Perhaps they could be transferred to the Amazonian region. Second; how about making married elders in the region Deacons, not priests? Just saying!