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The Synod: Is the sky falling?

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

I confess I marvel at how many people assume that conflict among bishops at the Synod on the Family must mean that the sky is falling. If one side or the other in a particular dispute employs strategies that seem more appropriate to politics, the fear is that they are evil geniuses destroying the Church from within. And perhaps above all, if what “we” most want to hear in every session is not at the top of the news report, then the whole process must be a disaster!

Let me speak frankly here: A great many of us who constantly offer our two cents on Catholic affairs need to grow up.

Any reasonably introspective person who has experience with committees, faculties, membership groups, boards of directors, or legislative bodies—where there are conflicting ideas about the best way to proceed—knows what I am talking about. Anyone involved in collective deliberations, if he or she has a strong opinion about the best way to go, will argue strenuously to make his case in the formal deliberations, will work constantly behind the scenes to forge alliances, and will spend enormous amounts of time and energy devising and executing strategies which are most likely to bring the desired result. Not to do so, in fact, is a dereliction of moral duty.

A Personal Example

When I was at once a board member, an administrator and a faculty member at a small, young Catholic college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to joke (and lament) that we spent fifty percent of our time on politics. This was both enormously draining and enormously important. And on every side of every question we had nothing but Catholics who believed everything the Church teaches. At the worst times, some of us accused others of sneaky behavior, or even of lying. Sadly, animosity could run pretty high.

During that particular period of my life, I was between the ages of 29 and 36. This means, as I know now but did not know then, that I was far more of an idiot than I am even today. But, by God, I was an orthodox idiot, and I knew that all of my own ideas were the best ideas. As time went by, of course, I realized that this sort of wrangling was endemic to human affairs. It is so endemic, in fact, that now I have just two things to say about it.

The first is that such disagreement, maneuvering and controversy has been a feature of every Church council and significant synod down through history, beginning with the Council of Jerusalem. It always amuses me when people argue, for example, that Vatican II was fundamentally flawed because of all the machinations behind the scenes. Oh, you mean like Trent, Chalcedon, and Nicaea? Wherever bishops gather to discuss tough questions and decide on the best doctrinal formulations or pastoral policies, they are going to divide up into camps based on their leading ideas, and they are going to launch into public argument, behind-the-scenes activity, strategies…yes, and even news conferences.

This may be news, but it is not new. The difference is that we now have extensive information networks and social media to shatter the post synodal illusion of benign cooperation.

Wrangling Not Evidence of Evil

The second point is that the largest share of all this wrangling can be explained without attributing evil to any side. Yes, some bishops may be wrong about some things; that is certainly true. Some bishops may be working for a fundamentally unfaithful result; that is also sometimes true. That they may be doing so knowingly is surely rare, but still a possibility. But the main thing, by a very long country mile, is that we all perceive reality only partially, and therefore differently, because of the weaknesses of our fallen nature.

Think of passionate family arguments. When tempers cool, how often do we find that person A was convinced that person B was saying X when person B could swear he was intending to communicate Y? Or that the two of them were actually addressing different legitimate aspects of the same question? Or that one person’s background and interests led him to profoundly misunderstand the way another person, with a different personality, posed the argument?

Or that person A was primarily concerned with problem C while person B was primarily concerned with problem D, and after they were done being at loggerheads, they realized that they were talking about two different things? Or even that it did not make as much difference as we thought whether we chose course Y or course Z?

None of us sees reality whole, and none of us sees even what we do see with perfect clarity. Each person’s perceptions are imperfect. In consequence, even with the best will in the world, we end up working passionately at cross purposes, entangled in controversy, and formulating all kinds of strategies…in order to win the final vote.

Conclusion

Does this mean that nobody is ever just plain wrong? No. Does it mean that nobody is ill-motivated or resorts to tactics that are ultimately dishonest or otherwise unacceptable? Certainly not. But it does mean that disagreement, controversy, wrangling, lobbying behind the scenes, and executing particular strategies to achieve victory is a normal outcome of accepting the validity and importance of our own conclusions—without at all being a proof of evil intent.

When these things happen, it does not mean we will not find ourselves on one side or the other. But it does pretty much mean the sky is not falling. Within the Church, it also means that Christ’s promises give us good reason to proceed with a sublime peace rather than a compulsive fear.

One thing the current Synod on the Family proves—again—is that we really do need to get a grip, beginning with a serene confidence in prayer.

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: John J Plick - Oct. 18, 2014 9:59 AM ET USA

    Your minimization of the situation in Rome & eagerness to "move on" to the next issue is somewhat disconcerting. It is reminiscent of the priest & the Levite passing by the man in the ditch, "Nothing significant here, just another fool in a ditch!" Homosexuality is not a matter of debate & is currently a confrontational issue as evidenced by your own stories. As such, the Church's teaching needs to be strong & concise. Deliberate sabotage with a diabolical undergirding? Very possible.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Oct. 17, 2014 8:16 PM ET USA

    I remember, years ago, Pope JP II prayed that Jesus would keep His promise to His Church. At the time I thought it was rather weird that the Pope would be concerned that Jesus wouldn't keep His promise to the Church and would need to pray about it. Today I am wondering if perhaps Jesus is allowing His Church to be corrupted from within just as God allowed Old Testament Israel to become corrupt. Human nature hasn't changed down through the ages. Perhaps Pope St. JP II was on to something.