We’ve heard it before: universities have changed. Professors no longer teach “Shakespeare 101,” but “Shakespeare and Gender in Multimedia” or “Elizabethan Bard Culture.” And poets like Milton and Crashaw have been “canceled.” The classics aren’t just too dead, too white, and too male — they’re too elitist now, too. To delight in the grandeur of their language is classist bigotry. Analyzing comic books is far nobler, a celebration of the proletarian spirit.
As you walk through the halls of a liberal arts building, instead of hearing rousing classroom debates about the objective merits of historical texts or works of art, you’ll hear “dialogues” dancing around relativist interpretations. “Well, I feel that Van Gogh’s being a bit aggressive in this piece,” a student might say. (No, kid, he chopped his ear off just for fun.) And papers won’t address beautiful versus ugly or up versus down. They’ll just explore alternative horizontal “pathways” for “reinterpreting” art and literature in “subversive” new ways.
These changes are driven and sustained by university administrations — which have become increasingly bureaucratic. And the “bureaucratic turn” makes sense if you think about how the courses operate. After all, it requires multiple lateral “pathways” in order to sustain exploratory “dialogues” about “building campus culture,” when you could instead have vertical command chains that simply execute effectively. (But why pay a starving adjunct professor a decent wage when you could be paying the campus’s new fleet of “diversity officers”? And besides, hierarchies may be effective, but they’re also inherently patriarchal, and we can’t have that.)
The seeds of change within the university were planted decades ago, with “folks” like Michel Foucault dismissing entire artistic movements as simple power struggles between oppressed and non-oppressed. The new “folks” are the students themselves, who scour textbooks looking for reasons to be offended before running off to bully campus leaders into action, whether it’s covering murals, razing statues, or banning books.
So too with the Vatican. For decades now, Rome’s faithful have been subjected to the low rumble of intensifying drumbeats — and I’m not just talking about the bongo drums that replaced Gregorian chant and Palestrina at Mass. These are the drumbeats of change — and with this month’s Amazon Synod, they’re coming to the end of their crescendo.
How best to foster Catholicism among the Pan-Amazonian region is a valiant pursuit, to be sure: Christ commissioned the faithful to spread the Gospel across the Earth, and the Amazon presents evangelization challenges that warrant attention. For example, lack of priests means administration of the sacraments in some areas is devastatingly scarce.
In the past, when similar obstacles presented themselves, the best missionaries doubled down on virtue, calling on Christ to strengthen them in compassion, chastity, and humility so they might best serve their flocks. Many even shed their blood, dying as martyrs and saints. One imagines that a renewed emphasis on such heroic selflessness could help the Vatican fulfill its goal of spreading Catholicism in the Amazon. After all, we’re seeing evidence that young people in the Church are responding to challenges that entail rigor, intensity, and zeal. They like the traditional Latin Mass, incense, and veils. They’d probably like legendary missionaries like St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, too, if they had a chance to get to know them.
Only the Vatican doesn’t see it that way. “The subject of the Synod we are inaugurating is, ‘Amazonia: New Pathways for the Church and for an integral ecology,’” said Cardinal Cláudio Hummes during introductory remarks on Oct. 7. “The theme addressed follows the broad pastoral guidelines characteristic of Pope Francis for creating new pathways.” Ah, pathways! Got it.
Among key topics to be addressed, the cardinal listed the role of women, support for the Earth and the poor, and “the Church’s Amazonian face: inculturation and interculturality in a missionary-ecclesial context.” Huh?
The number of social justice buzzwords alone is enough to trigger PTSD in those who survived “first-year experience” programming at their universities. Is the Amazon Synod just one big diversity workshop, swarming with its own version of obsequious campus bureaucrats in matching collared shirts, armed with PowerPoints, clipboards, and “swag giveaways” galore?
Only time will tell, but traditional Catholics, many already feeling burned from the last two synods, were already raising alarm bells when they discovered some of the ideas in a working document that circulated earlier this year. The events that have unfolded since the synod kicked off on Sunday have done nothing to allay their fears.
Chief among the controversial ideas was that of married priests. Back in June, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller (one of the two remaining “dubia cardinals”) warned that the working document posed threats to the tradition of priestly celibacy. And now his predictions are proving augural. The news from day four of the Synod (Oct. 9), from Bishop Erwin Kräutler, was that two thirds of the attending prelates were in favor of ordaining married men. And where there are calls for married priests, calls for female clergy are sure to follow. “Many of the bishops are in favor of the ordination of female deacons,” Krautler told reporters.
It may be fun to debate these topics in a high school theology class or at Thanksgiving dinner after one too many brandies, but at a synod, the debate should have no place. The Church has spoken definitively on this issue for hundreds of years and has provided multiple illuminating reasons why priests are unmarried, celibate males (chief among them that they emulate Christ, Himself an unmarried, celibate male). The ruling is literally set in stone, with the stone being the apostle Peter, on whom Christ built the Church.
Another issue of concern is that of environmentalism. Yes, Catholics are called to be stewards of the earth, but their stewardship must reflect a proper understanding of nature’s place within a vertical hierarchy. Per Catholic teaching, nature is subordinate to man, and man is subordinate to God. Yet much of the synod language wants to blend (or “integrate”) the three, as if nature, mankind, and God were entities connected across a horizontal plane (as in the structure of a bureaucracy).
For a visual representation of these conflicting schemas, consider the distribution of the Eucharist. Historically, the priest, standing — and acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) — would lower his anointed hand and place the Eucharist directly on the tongue of the communicant, who would be kneeling upon the ground before the altar. So, per the doctrine, the divine was literally descending from a higher plane to the lower plane of man, who was kneeling upon a still lower plane, the earth. Today’s Eucharistic distribution, though, aligns more with the types of lateral structures advocated at the synod. A lay minister (who is not ordained to act in persona Christi) stands before the communicant, who is also standing, and the host is exchanged from one mortal hand to the other, moving only horizontally instead of vertically, from person to person (instead of from divine to person), and remaining within one plane.
Arguing about Eucharistic distribution may seem like a trifling matter of style, but as literature professors used to teach (back when they taught the classics), style informs content. Besides, the synod’s been open season for jabs against stylistic details since day two, when Pope Francis quipped against the biretta, a cap favored by more traditionalist clergy.
But such academic analyses return us to the topic of universities, and their increasingly bureaucratic administrations (with diversity bureaucrats serving as just one example). As either a catalyst or a consequence of this bureaucratic turn, their content dissemination operates bureaucratically as well. When it comes to writing papers or discussing ideas, there is no right or wrong, up or down, good or bad. There is no emulating Shakespeare or Hemingway and attempting to elevate one’s own humbler language to match theirs. There are just horizontal pathways to new interpretations (Freudian, Lacanian, or otherwise) of their work.
Now we are watching the Vatican follow suit. The pope has gathered his diversity bureaucrats to hem and haw over pathways and dialogues for achieving abstract ideals such as “inculturation and interculturality.” But they’ve made it clear that like the universities, they want to make their content dissemination bureaucratic as well. The only problem is that their content is God’s love, the apprehension of which traditionally entails embracing hierarchy and objective truth (to put it mildly). Instead, the approach advocated by the Synod is “decidedly naturalistic and horizontalist, at loggerheads with the supernatural and vertical character of the revealed religion of Christ” as Peter Kwasniewski put it.
Against this backdrop, a rumor swirled last Tuesday that Pope Francis denied the divinity of Christ in an interview with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari. The next day, instead of confirming or denying the rumor, the Vatican P.R. gurus took a page from the college-kid playbook, dutifully reciting possible “pathways” as to what may have actually transpired. It may be that Scalfari misinterpreted, or it may be that he’s fudging. It wasn’t until Thursday that another Vatican official, Dr. Paolo Ruffini, issued a heartier rejection of Scalfari’s claim.
Unfortunately, when the pope persists in granting interviews to a reporter who’s already attributed heretical statements to him in the past, and when he deploys vague responses through multiple bureaucratic channels rather than through one definitive statement, he risks grave confusion. The world may just default to the most scandalous pathway of all: that the pope doesn’t actually think Christ is divine, but just another man. You know, one of us “folks.”
Honora Kenney is a media professional who writes from Brooklyn, New York. She has a B.A. and M.A. in English literature from the University of Notre Dame.