A Difficult Feat (at the Roman Circus)


Joseph Keppler. “Difficult Feat in the Republican Circus” [American satirical cartoon on the political balancing act performed by the Republican Party on the issue of Prohibition at the 1886 Republican National Convention] Puck Magazine, September 29, 1886

Hilary White —artist, journalist, and keeper of the weblog, Orwell’s Picnic emailed from Norcia to ask if I would contribute thoughts on the Synod to her new project on that topic. I really was not sure I had any thoughts. But her request left me wondering if perhaps I should.

Truth to tell, I have not been keeping track of the fluctuations of the Synod all that closely. For one thing, we are really not following the proceedings; we are following only selective comments made to the media. There is something of a dog-and-pony show about it. Francis has already short-circuited it with his motu proprio—placed grandly under the protection of the Mother of God, we are told. And there is little doubt Francis already knows what he will do.

At the end of the day, Francis is the final arbiter of whatever comes out of this Synod. Participants and procedures have been selected to give the pope the advice he wishes to follow. Disclosure of Francis’s peremptory rejection of a cautionary letter, signed by thirteen cardinals and delivered by Cardinal Pell, has spurred dark speculation on the outcome, already seen as a done deal. (That four of the supposed signatories now deny their John Hancocks lends a bit of drollery to the “hermeneutics of conspiracy” decried by the conspirator-in-chief.)

Reactions to what is revealed in the media will be useful to Francis in crafting his response. However reassuring the conclusion—and I expect it will be—the substance of his intentions will have been given an airing for all the world to see. And to cheer. (He has made the papacy popular with secularists. What subsequent pope will be inclined to reverse that?)

The Synod is not a boxing match. Trying to follow it blow by blow gets us nowhere. This is a chess match being played with generational pawns on a board that extends beyond your lifetime or mine. Leonardo Boff’s love letter to Francis, Francis of Rome, Francis of Assisi, makes a crucial point that applies here. He says that Francis knows he will not be able to achieve all that he wants to achieve in his tenure, but he will have planted seeds.

Precisely so. The Church has time on her side. No need to rush. One Synod is no more than a first, tentative turn of the screw. Traditionalists like Pell and Burke, thorns in the papal side, will die off. Younger men will come from a generation already primed to assent to the ethos of their times. Eventually, those seeds will bear the wanted fruit. This is a waiting game.

Predictions are risky things. They are often wrong. So I should be very brief in hazarding my own thought on how this Synod will end: I do not expect any bombshells. I expect orthodoxy will prevail. But it will be tainted by the perception that it is fungible.

We will breathe our sigh of relief, bask in a sense of victory: There, you see, the Spirit was with us all along! Our prayers were answered! Meanwhile, Laudato Si will worm its way through Catholic pulpits, agencies, and press. Take, as one example, Catherine Woo, head of Catholic Relief Services. She is on the stump to universities with her talk, “I am climate change. I am the cause. I am the solution.” The message goes out to 93 client countries and a near-100 million people. CRS is only one of scores of world-wide Church service organizations evangelizing for a green faith.

However this Synod resolves itself, the world will be the worse for this pope. Ignorance—ideological fixity—and cunning are a dangerous combination. Francis embodies both. He is too sly to trigger schism. All will be resolved to the satisfaction of orthodoxy. And all will stink of sulphur.


A version of this essay appeared first at What’s Up With the Synod.

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