I must admit that I am confused by Pope Francis’ closing speech to the Synod on Saturday. For me, some of the language of the speech serves only to further muddy waters that were already impenetrably murky. Many people who read the speech seemed to read it as a criticism of the excesses of both sides of synod debate and a call to find a healthier and more productive “middle ground.” Yet, looking at the words employed by the Holy Father, I am having trouble finding that middle ground.
The Pope classified one of the temptations of the Synod debate as “a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called — today — “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.”
If this was truly the case, I certainly didn’t see it. The Pope even used the unhelpful word “Traditionalists” with all its negative connotations. Were there those firebrand Vatican II-hating, Latin Mass-only types at the Synod? If so, I am unaware of it. Or are we to understand that those few bishops and cardinals who spoke out about the excesses of the interim relatio and its novel and frankly un-Catholic formulations had succumbed to “hostile inflexibility?” Are we to understand that those bishops who defended the 2,000-year-old teaching of the Church and its equally long-standing pastoral application had fallen prey to the temptations of “the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous” and thus are to be considered “traditionalists.” Are we to understand that Cardinal Müller or Cardinal Napier who spoke out against the interim relatio, and thus simply for an orthodox understanding of the Church’s teaching, are considered by the Pope to be hostile and inflexible “Traditionalists?”
Further, the Pope characterized the progressive element as having an excess of mercy and “do-goodism.” I think this is potentially media and world-friendly characterization of the so-called “progressives and liberals,” but ultimately an inaccurate one. What was contained in the interim relatio that resulted in the heated debate cannot be classified in any way as mercy. As any orthodox Catholic should know, there is zero difference between God’s mercy and His Law.
The Pope characterized this debate, a debate which unfortunately pitted God’s mercy against God’s law as ultimately healthy. This might agree if the bishops were having this conversation with the world. But this conversation is among the successors of the apostles, the defenders of revealed truth, where at least some of them advocate for what can only be classified as untruth. The middle ground between untruth and truth is just “a little untruth.”
Whatever path there might be to improve the pastoral care for those in irregular and sinful relationships, it cannot be found in some mythical middle ground between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy or between truth and untruth.
To characterize the Church’s current and timeless teaching and its current application as rigid and inflexible is to set up a pursuit of an intolerable middle ground. For nothing truly pastoral can ever be untrue. Of course the Pope knows this. I just wish he said so.