Synod 2015: The Language Event That Keeps on Giving

[NB: To understand why I refer to the synod as a “language event”, please refer to this post of mine from a couple days ago, which presents remarks made by Abp. Mark Coleridge in a press conference at the synod.]

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Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak […]. Like various words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

— George Orwell, 1984, Appendix

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The bishops and archbishops at the Synod in Rome have by now mostly all returned to their dioceses, and their first order of business is to unpack the conclusions of the Synod relatio until Pope Francis issues his own definitive judgment of the synodal proposals. Widely touted as a conservative victory (by conservative commentators, at least), the true impact of the synod—as Steve Skojec recently argued here—is turning out to be as polyhedral and contested as the pope who called for it.

A Rashomon synod for a Rorschach pope, if you will.

Indeed, Francis himself expressed his desire for this messy, gerrymandering (if not to say hydra-like) process in his closing address to the synod:

“[W]hat for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.”

Translated out of Well Meaning Modernese, and applied to the synod, Francis is saying something like this:

“What for some bishops in the synodal conclusions supports freedom of conscience (and therefore pastoral creativity!) is for others simply confusion. Dioceses are quite diverse, after all, and the Church’s general (or, “ordinary”, “universal”, one might even say, “catholic“) teachings need to be localized, if they are to be respected and applied.”

How a general principle does not by its very nature command respect and admit of application in all specific sub-cases, is beyond me. I suspect the problem is that the Bishop of Rome is committing a fallacy of equivocation, whereby in some cases he admits truths and morals are generally qua universally true for all specific cases under the same general heading (such as the immorality of defrauding laborers, sodomy,1 I say, “sodomy,” you say, “soda me”? Inculturation, you see. abortion, or that of rigging papal conclaves), while in other cases he means that some practices and values are only generally qua merely conventionally true in diverse times and places.

The problem, though, is that Francis claims that “each [as in, every] principle needs to be inculturated,” which is either a tautology, along the lines of saying that “each universal principle needs to be universalized in all cultures,” or a grave error, along the lines of saying that what is universally true is only a widespread convention which admits of exceptions in ‘special’ or ‘hard’ cases (much as some pro-choice advocates admit infanticide is immoral except in ‘hard’ cases like rape or incest).2 I wrote “pro-choice” instead of “pro-life,” because that’s what hard-case exemptions from absolute morality amount to, even for pro-lifers. (“I’m generally pro-life, except when I’m not.”)

In any ‘case’, I offer three snapshots, from three countries, of what adapting the synod is very well going to look like.

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¡Hagan lío! (Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)”

Case Study 1: It’s Always Sunni in Germany

The indefatigable Cdl. Kasper, representing the Germany hierarchy, says of the synod:

“I’m satisfied and happy with the work of the Synod. The final report (approved by a two-thirds majority) is a good text. Now it’s up to the Pope to make a decision. … I’m satisfied; the door has been opened to the possibility of the divorced and remarried being granted Communion. There has been somewhat of an opening, but the consequences were not discussed. All of this is now in the Pope’s hands, who will decide what has to be done. … The indissolubility of marriage is not in question, but there is [also] no opposition between mercy and the Truth of the Gospel.”

Perhaps “conservative victory” translates differently into German? Perhaps “Quietscheentchen“?3 I can explain the joke meant by linking to this video, but we all know that explaining a joke kills it.

Case Study 2: The Land of Anglicans Welcomes Home Roman Anglicanism 

Speaking to journalists on Sunday, October 25, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who is president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the following:

[T]he synod had “quite deliberately set aside the question of admission to the Eucharist, because that had become a yes-no issue. And the very nature of this is that it’s not as simple as yes-no.”

Or, as we read in the Gospel of St. Murk, “Relax, and believe the Good Maybe!”

Kidding aside, Scripture is clear about the gravity of yes and no: “But let your speech be yea, yea: no, no: and that which is over and above these, is of evil.” (Matthew 5:37)

Yet Nichols quacks on:

“It’s a pathway,” he added. “And it is not for me or for the priest who is doing the accompaniment to pre-empt or foreclose that pathway.[Under no circumstances?] … [T]he synod had been “decisive” [Wait, aren’y firm yes’s and no’s taboo?] in saying: “what the Church needs developing now is its pastoral pathway. Not everything is a matter of doctrine; not everything is decided by doctrinal dispute.”

But I thought “dialogue” and “lively debates” were panaceas! In any case, the appearance now is that not even Catholic doctrine is a matter of doctrine anymore!

Back to Nichols’s duckspeak:

I think this synod will prove to be a very important moment, when definitively [that crude word again!] the Church has said: our response to all sorts of difficult situations is not … simply to repeat doctrine, but to pick up a pathway of accompaniment, with discernment and listening, and trying our best to walk with people on paths that have become smoother [and thereby slipperier]….

In other words, as (Buddy) Christ said in the Gospel of St. Yawn, “I am the pathways, the authenticity, and the lifestyles; no one comes to the Politically Manageable Consensus but by me.” Broad is the pathway indeed that leadeth to destruction, and many there are that accompany the lost over those mitered-skulls.

Meanwhile, what does the Word of God say?

Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the [path]way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat.” (Matthew 7:13)

And as for ‘simply’ repeating doctrine in the face of a changing world?

Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

Case Study 3: Americanism: The Heresy That Never Sleeps, or, “We’ve Always Been At War With Eastasia” 

In our own land of the free and home of the brave, still glowing with the after-effects of the pope’s landmark visit, Cardinal Wuerl is on the job, carving out a pathway for implementing the synod. On October 27 Wuerl made the following remarks in an exclusive interview with the Vatican Insider:

I think it is an opening to a new direction. I think the new direction is in complete continuity with the Second Vatican Council. [Full stop.] It’s just taken 50 years [so what’s another fifty gonna hurt, eh!], good years [doubleplusgood years, in fact!] in between where there was, sometimes, a lot of upheaval and then the consolidation of John Paul II. We wouldn’t be here today if it were not for John Paul II. But now we’re at a point where the openness that the Council asked for, taking the Gospel in all of its integrity, in all of its truth and trying to find how does it actually reach and touch and change the world today. I think that’s where we are but in a whole new mode. Pope Francis has said you can’t sit behind closed doors and do that. …

I think the genius of connecting the two synods [is] to say … [that the synodal process is] ongoing. You can’t come together in two weeks’ time, in three weeks’ time, and arrive at pastoral decisions that truly impact the world. But if you start talking about it, and invite the larger Church into it as he did from before the first synod, through all the consultations, the episcopal consultations, then you’re on the road. Pope Francis basically said we need to discuss these matters openly and in the light of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think we can go back on that in the future.

That was then… the future is now. So much for ressourcement.

In a similar vein, in an interview he held with Religion News Services on Sunday, October 25 (and which was released in an edited form on October 28 at Crux.com), Wuerl made the following remarks:

What Pope Francis has done in these two years, and these two synods, and all the collaboration in between — and we can’t forget that — he called for a process, not a synod. You had all this open discussion about issues the Church is struggling with. You are not going to be able to close that door in the future. …

Yes, we have a very clear teaching and yes, we announce that teaching. But at the same time, that teaching includes the mercy of God and the care of the individual believer. Those two elements of the same reality are what the pope has lifted up and made visible in a way they haven’t been in a long time.

How long, exactly? Perhaps we can ask Herr Doktor Luther for his insight?

The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. [When was it ever, Cdl. Wuerl?] The frame of reference is now going to be, “What does the Gospel really say here?” …

I think part of the genius of this synod was the opening of the Church in her discernment process to include these types of conversations going forward. We don’t have to wait for another synod.

In other words, the balkanization of the Bride of Christ can be inculturated with even greater pastoral creativity! Quack quack!

How do you continue the spirit of the Second Vatican Council [sic] unless you actually bring people together to talk to one another about the Church’s needs?

The Spirit of Vatican II is dead—long live The Spirit of Vatican II.

After all, as our first parents know so well, nothing does so much good as a lively and open conversation! Quack!

adam and ever serpent wuerl
“Catholicism: Ha(l)ve It Your Way!”

A Coda from the Bleachers

Dr. Jeffrey Mirus has made no secret that he likes going out of his way to defend Pope Francis’s leadership style and theological vision. Interestingly, though, on October 27, he published a piece admitting that there’s one thing he dislikes most about Pope Francis: the Bishop of Rome is a name-caller. “It is especially unfortunate,” Mirus argues,

when someone in authority appears to be speaking negatively about a certain group, but gives no examples of the specific persons or particular behavior he is criticizing. Unfortunately, I believe Pope Francis himself has a tendency to do this, and it is the characteristic I like least about his very interesting and often inspiring pontificate. …

[W]hen he fails to identify clearly the cases to which he is referring—choosing instead to allow his audience to interpret his words according to conventional cultural prejudices—Pope Francis offers criticisms that can do more harm than good. As I said, I am perfectly willing to apply everything to myself; I know I will find in the application some cause for painful growth. … But this tendency to denounce publicly in general terms, and to accuse without sufficient specificity, is still Pope Francis’ least attractive characteristic as the Vicar of Christ.

Given what Pope Francis said at the close of the synod about inculturating general principles, I find this quite amusing. Perhaps piously looking down one’s nose is a “general principle” he believes works in every culture.

If only his penchant for “the synodal process” were as reliable a principle for the Church, and if only the Pope Rashomon Effect weren’t so disorienting.
But hey, it’s a process, built on cheerful consensus; a pathway, paved with good intentions—who am I to judge?
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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I say, “sodomy,” you say, “soda me”? Inculturation, you see.
2. I wrote “pro-choice” instead of “pro-life,” because that’s what hard-case exemptions from absolute morality amount to, even for pro-lifers. (“I’m generally pro-life, except when I’m not.”)
3. I can explain the joke meant by linking to this video, but we all know that explaining a joke kills it.