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Synod and Sanity: A Reliably Catholic Priest Weighs In


No, I’m not referring to myself in the title, though I would bristle at the accusation of heresy, or even theological imprecision. The forthcoming (November/December 2014) edition of The Catholic Response magazine features this cool-headed commentary by its founder and editor, Father Peter Stravinskas, on the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Because it generates more light than heat, I enthusiastically share it (having obtained Father’s gracious permission).

I wish to offer some reflections on the Synod, given as “bullet points” in no particular priority order. I would also encourage readers to refer to my May/June editorial, in which I anticipated some of the problems that I thought might emerge and which, unfortunately, have emerged.

•  The shroud of secrecy surrounding the presentations by the bishops and various lay presenters was most regrettable and most unnecessary. Never before in the modern history of synods have the media and the Catholic faithful been shut off from the conversations occurring in the Synod Hall. It is passing strange that this should happen during the pontificate of Pope Francis who has consistently talked about the need for transparency and openness, causing none other than the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, to raise this very objection, noting that the Christian people have a right to know what their bishops think and say. If a bishop (or any other speaker) is afraid to attach his name to his intervention, that may be a sign that he shouldn’t be saying it, to begin with. Furthermore, the Church has consistently – and rightly – complained that the secular media hardly ever get Catholic stories right. This time around, the media had an honest reason for any failures in that regard. It would be less than forthright of me not to mention that media confusion has also been fed by inexact papal utterances and by not a few Vatican spin-doctors. UPDATE — See HERE and HERE ]

•  There was apparently significant concern raised that we should not employ “offensive” or harsh-sounding language to describe certain life-styles. While there is no need to go out of one’s way to be hurtful in discussing morally problematic matters – and it can even be counter-productive to do so – one cannot resort to sugar-coating behaviors which have eternal consequences (presuming we believe that). There is no easy, palatable way for an oncologist to inform a patient that he has a malignant tumor and what the remediation process involves. Similarly, people who engage in sexual intercourse outside the bounds of marriage – and especially those who do so habitually (whether heterosexual or homosexual) – face the prospect of eternal punishment, so say Jesus and Saint Paul and the entire Christian Tradition. The fact that there is no “nice” way to issue the wake-up call is proof positive of the seriousness of it all. The stark language is, as a matter of fact, an act of charity, saying, “I love you so much that I don’t want you to spend eternity in Hell.” The physician who would refrain from offering an honest and forthright diagnosis would be deemed a bad physician, derelict in his duty. No faithful believer – and surely no loving one – can stand by and watch those he loves head toward damnation.

•  Back in May, I warned our readers that this Synod had the real possibility to be hijacked by special interest groups, rather than being a presentation of the life- and love-affirming teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage and the family. Particularly neuralgic has been the push for admittance of the divorced-remarried to Holy Communion. As I noted in my earlier remarks, any sin can be forgiven; however, there must be repentance, which automatically means a firm resolve not to commit the sin again. Our Lord is eminently clear that one who marries a divorced person commits adultery. Therefore, every act of sexual intercourse in that relationship is adulterous and thus mortally sinful. How can such a person believe that he does not come under Saint Paul’s strong condemnation of those who “eat and drink” the Lord’s Body and Blood unworthily (1 Cor 11:27-29)? Yet again, the Church’s wise refusal of the sacraments to such people is a preeminent exercise of pastoral charity. As I shared with readers in my May editorial, my parents were in an invalid marriage; it was precisely the Church’s seriousness about their “living in sin” (yes, that’s what it is) and their inability to receive Holy Communion that moved them to commit themselves to live as brother and sister. And I have known many other couples who have embraced that noble mode of living – the very form of Christian heroism which Cardinal Kasper (who, incidentally, has just made some shockingly racist remarks about African bishops) has condescendingly said that the laity cannot embrace! It is also worth recalling that the Eastern Orthodox synod interventions indicated that even their praxis does not regard the second union as sacramental or valid.

•  Much vaunted by some at the Synod was the principle of “gradualism.” This is certainly a valid moral approach, but what does it entail? Gradualism is common sense put into a theological and spiritual framework. Rare is the person who can move instantaneously from habitual sin to perfect virtue. For example, someone who has become addicted to pornography can rarely go “cold turkey.” Such a person first comes to the conclusion that his reliance on pornography is sinful, that he sincerely wishes to give up this attachment, and so confesses his offenses against holy purity and resolves – as far as any human can do – not to commit that sin again. Being human, however, he may lapse from time to time on his way to recovery. If the person using pornography ten times a week has gotten it down to twice a week, genuine moral progress is being made, which rejoices the loving Heart of Christ. On the other hand, the contracepting couple, the divorced-remarried couple, or the same-sex couple who do not intend to give up the sinful behavior are not engaging in moral gradualism since they lack repentance, as well as even the attempt to reform their lives.

•  There is also an interfaith/ecumenical dimension to this entire concern. Many Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Evangelicals look to the Catholic Church for support for traditional family values. Not a few of my acquaintances in those communities feel let down by what looks like the abandonment of the fight. Their logic is simple: If the worldwide Catholic Church of over a billion members is acquiescing, is there any hope at all for the struggle? Ironically enough, while some of “our own” are turned off by our adherence to the natural law and Divine Revelation, innumerable Evangelicals have come into full communion with the Catholic Church, precisely because of our proclamation of Gospel morality.

•  We have also heard a good amount of talk about mercy. Mercy means that something wrong has been done, meriting a just punishment. If a husband has hurt his wife, his request for mercy rings hollow and is impertinent if he shows no sign of repentance and does not promise never to offend in that way again. God’s justice is offended by sin and the clarion call of Jesus at the outset of His public ministry was very direct: “Repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). There can be no legitimate claim to the good news of the Gospel without a prior commitment to repentance – and it is a particular duty of Christ’s ministers to call all the faithful incessantly to such repentance. Only then does mercy mean anything.

•  Christians today in most parts of the world find themselves in a world much like the one inhabited by the first Christians – rampant sexual license, abortion, contraception, family break-down. Those early Christians took a counter-cultural stance, echoing Gideon: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!” (Josh 24:15). The Church’s pastoral workers – teachers, preachers, counselors – have the grave responsibility to provide families with the encouragement to live counter-culturally, never succumbing to the decadence and depravity which surround us. Caving in to the moral degradation harms the people we should be serving and likewise deprives society of an antidote to the negative spiral into oblivion. From the dungheap of ancient Rome rose, Phoenix-like, a glorious Christian civilization, which flowered in a most impressive way in the Middle Ages – often dubbed the “Age of Faith.” How did that happen? By believers saying “no” to the “mainstream” culture (or anti-culture) and saying “yes” to genuine love and life.

•  While Pope Saint Pius X’s encouragement for frequent reception of Holy Communion was a welcome development to counter the Jansenists, Catholic practice has now gone to the opposite extreme, so that it is presumed that everyone will receive Communion all the time, often resulting in unprepared, unreflective and even grossly unworthy receptions of the Blessed Sacrament. Something mentioned at the Synod was the revival of an appreciation for “spiritual Communion,” whereby one acknowledges his unworthiness to approach the Holy of Holies and has recourse to prayerful sentiments of adoration, contrition and longing. This mode of communion brings grace and, where needed, the actual grace to turn one’s life around so as to accord with genuine Gospel living. Several years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger suggested that even those properly disposed to receive Holy Communion abstain on occasion from Eucharistic Communion as a way of standing in solidarity with those who cannot properly receive for any number of reasons (lest such a person be the only one left in the pew as everyone else goes forward to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood); this practice would also aid in catching a person from falling into an unthinking or rote manner of coming to the Sacred Mysteries.

•  A tendency seemed to be reflected in some of the synodal interventions to collapse the “normal” (in the sense of commonplace) into the “normative.” As a young seminarian working in an inner-city parish school, I had to learn how to negotiate that minefield. Most of our children did not come from intact families, and most never knew their fathers. That was the “normal” pastoral situation in which we worked, but we had to make sure that our students never got the notion that their experience of family life was “normal” in the sense of correct or normative. Although never condemning their mothers or fathers, we made it clear that God’s plan for human flourishing was something other than what they knew and lived. The abnormal (from both a human and Gospel perspective) can never be conflated into acceptable life-styles. Presenting the beauty of a Christian understanding of marriage and the family is challenging, no doubt, but it is also enlightening, invigorating and uplifting. Truth be told, no one living an unevangelical existence is truly happy.

•  Cicero warned us two millennia ago that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Although the holy tag-team of Pius IX and Pius X took on “modernism,” it never really died and reared its head again at the dawn of the Second Vatican Council. For the past three and a half decades, the equally holy tag-team of John Paul II and Benedict XVI worked feverishly to rout out the resurgence of modernism which came in the guise of “the spirit of Vatican II.” Now we find Synod participants appealing exactly to that elusive and damaging “spirit.” Some of us are also old enough to remember the lead-up and follow-up to Humanae Vitae. With all the good will in the world, Pope John XXIII sought out wise counsel on how the Church should respond to the then-new phenomenon of “the pill.” Pope Paul VI expanded that commission, again with good will. The result, however, was ten years of doubt about just what the Church thought and taught about the regulation of birth. When Paul VI issued his brave and prophetic document in 1968, the world was stunned, for the very reason that the vast time-lag had given the impression that a change in doctrine was in the offing. Many Catholics of a certain generation – both clergy and laity – are still reeling from that period of doubt, confusion and ultimate disappointment. We cannot afford to have such a crisis occur today. Which means, at a practical level, doubts raised during the Synod cannot be allowed to germinate for a whole year until the Ordinary Synod of 2015. Clear, unequivocal teaching must be offered immediately, starting from the Pope.

•  Some of the faithful have expressed shock and dismay over statements of dubious orthodoxy being made by some of the Synod Fathers. Once more, a knowledge of history is useful and salutary. At every council and synod in history, there have been bishops who were not on the side of the angels – from Nicea to Vatican II and all the local synods in between. Individual bishops and even groups of bishops with aberrant opinions do not constitute the living Magisterium of the Church. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are the unfailing guides for the Christian faithful. Furthermore, we must never fail to recall – and to lay hold of – Christ’s promise that “the gates of Hell will not prevail” against His holy Church. It is also important to recognize with deep gratitude the strong stances on behalf of Catholic truth taken by key cardinals like Carlo Caffarra, George Pell, Gerhard Müller, Christoph Schönborn, Angelo Scola and Raymond Burke. In this regard, I want to thank Ignatius Press for publishing the block-buster book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church.

Our cover art is Lorenzo Lotto’s depiction of the Holy Family’s rest on the flight into Egypt. Mary and Joseph had to take the Christ Child out of their homeland into a foreign land to assure His safety. In many parts of the world – and especially in the moribund and decadent West – the Christian family (the domestic church) must have the confidence that the Church, which is the household and family of God, will provide it with a safe haven. The Church – at her highest levels – must take seriously the warning uttered by Saint Paul: “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8). The truth, spoken out of and in love, is what is needed at this moment.

The lay faithful need to inform their shepherds of their intense desire to live the Gospel message with fidelity and to beg their shepherds to assist them in doing just that. We all must also pray that our priests, bishops and Pope have the faith and courage to give a clear signal and unflagging support. If you do this, you will duc in altum.


21 thoughts on “Synod and Sanity: A Reliably Catholic Priest Weighs In”

  1. Yes, this is all so true, and so obvious. It is almost impossible for me to understand how anyone could believe otherwise. But, it is becoming apparent that Pope Francis sees things very, very differently. We need to start thinking about what we are going to do when he imposes Kaspar’s proposal on the Church. I don’t know that I can believe in a Church that clearly contradicts it’s own 2000 year teaching on marriage.

  2. I’ve been glued to twitter for the last 24 hours and I largely agree with this column, but I want to say a word or two about characterizing Kasper’s remarks about the African Bishops as racist. In my opinion, this is a big mistake. Kasper may be guilty of being dismissive and condescending, but there was nothing in his comments that referenced or even hinted at race. In fact he mentioned that his criticisms applied widely to all non-Western-European cultures.

    Politically speaking, Kasper is vulnerable to accusations of racism because he is German. The same line of attack was used against Ratzinger, bringing up his conscription into the nazi youth and so on. It’s an attack of opportunity, and a cynical one.

    In American politics, it is par for the course that when someone says something unfortunate about the black community, they get accused of racism, and they have a “race issue”. Basically it is form of political gotcha. The left plays it because they believe that all conservatives are secretly racist, so it’s a form of confirmation bias. The right plays the same game (less successfully) because they think the leftists are hypocritical and deserve to have to live by their own rule book. On both sides, these accusations come from a place that can be characterized like this: “Oh boy, my opponent said something vaguely offensive and now I get to call him racist!! It’s like Christmas and my birthday all at once!!” Hey, it’s politics, and to be successful in politics you have to play for keeps. The ends justify the means, etc etc.

    What is cynical and truly unfortunate in American politics is monstrously libelous within factions of the church, and it must be stopped. There is absolutely no justification for calling Kasper a racist, or even characterizing his comments as racist comments. Please, please do not fall into this trap. Traditional Catholics have an easy win here, using legitimate lines of criticism. If you get a double because an outfielder drops the ball, and the third baseman now has the ball, there’s no need to suicidally attempt to steal third. But that is what people are doing on the internet — trying to steal a base and referring to Kasper as “the racist German Cardinal”, as if it isn’t transparently obvious that they are desperately hoping it catches on.

    This is not politics. Kasper is a human being and a Prince of the Church. I couldn’t disagree more with his proposal about remarriage and communion, but that’s no justification to assasinate his personal character.

      • Do you really believe that Kasper doesn’t have exactly the same arrogant attitude towards _all_ who disagree with him, regardless of race?

        • Perhaps, but I doubt he would be as cavalier to characterize white westerners in the way he characterized the Africans. I had the pleasure of knowing some African priests for an extended period of time. That they were able to successfully navigate the chancery politics of a very liberal diocese was impressive. Cardinal Kasper I think, did underestimate the African bishops, and not simply because they are conservative.

          • So you have vague feelings that he might be secretly racist and that makes it ok to smear him in a public forum? Welcome to the politicization of Catholicism, I guess. Sheesh.

          • I think it would be prudent to look at how Kasper refers to others he disagrees with — such as other conservative bishops who happen to be from western nations. Kasper was very dismissive of the African bishops, and I say it is because they are African, not just because they are conservative. His complaints about white cardinals from the west who wrote a book were very different. He attacked them by accusing them of attacking the Pope. This was an argument that shows his fear and ‘respect’ for them. He had to hide behind the Pope’s skirts. But conversely, he attacks the African bishops by mentioning “taboos” and their culture and that they have nothing to tell the bishops in the west. So, please explain the differences in approach. If it was simply about the traditional outlook, why are Kasper’s attacks so different?

          • Your assessment conflicts with his words in the very interview we are discussing, in which he applied the same criticisms to Asians and bishops from Muslim countries as he did the Africans.

            No matter how _plausible_ it seems to you personally that Kasper is animated by racism, the simple fact is that he hasn’t said or done anything that justifies taking that opinion into the public square.

          • Kevin, I personally haven’t seen fit to call him a racist, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe he is one. He has a sense of both cultural and ideological superiority, and as you say, he applies it to Asians, Africans, etc.

            You’re being obtuse if you think it’s entirely out of bounds that he thinks of the word in terms of the savages and the civilized. And racism, while perhaps not his specific primary motivation, likely plays in.

          • Steve, maybe I haven’t been clear. I have no doubt Kasper was thinking in terms of savages and civilized people. He certainly was contrasting cultures. But we all are descended from savages. Some people, if they are Greek for instance, have to look back a bit further in history than an Irishman like me, to see what they would be without the benefit of having been civilized in their upbringing. (Hopefully this website is one place where we don’t have to address whether All Cultures Are Equal.)

            The terrible poison of racism is that it denies even the possibility that certain people can be fully civilized — racism says that the Africans are savages, not because they happen to lack a civilized upbringing, but because they cannot be otherwise.

            Some cultures do have powerful taboos. If Kasper is impugning the culture of the African Bishops, he is still living in this universe, just wrong on the details, and without much faith either in our Seminary training or in the Holy Spirit’s power to guide and enlighten our Bishops.

            But if Kasper is expressing racism, that is another matter altogether. If African Bishops were unsuited to guiding the Church because their race makes it impossible for them to do better, then they should not be Bishops, should they? If Kasper’s views are based on race, they are an endorsement of religious apartheid!

            Racism is a poisonous accusation precisely because it is a deterministic viewpoint — it denies human possibility. It is a far worse accusation, and a far more serious character issue, than to say that someone is unappreciative of the culture of his brother Bishops.

            being called for breakfast, sorry if this wasn’t much edited.

          • I did not say that Cardinal Kasper was “animated” by racism, nor did I call him a racist. I believe his comments were reflective of exactly what Steve said — he has a sense of cultural and ideological superiority.

        • O, and it is not just the racism; there is the obvious rejection of the African culture even though the church is forever declaiming about the importance of culture and the “sacred space” of the other.

          In an African Prelate was so dismissive of Europeans collectively, you’d hear the point clearer

        • Yes, I think Kaspar is probably arrogant with all who disagree with him, but from experience I would agree that Germans generally are more prejudiced against Africans (because of skin color) than Americans. I would often see Africans being stopped and frisked on a busy street by police quite often.

    • Agreed. Kasper is not dismissing Africans based on the color of their skin, he’s dismissing them because he thinks they are culturally immature, and should not slow everyone else down. It is tempting, but it obscures the Synod’s doctrinal (not pastoral) disagreements to call Kasper a racist.

    • He apparently has little character being willing to openly lie about having made his remarks! Also, he allowed Planned Parenthood and government material promoting abortion, contraception, perversion and abortion to be distributed in his Crisis Pregnancy Centers (Caritas) run by his diocese of Stuttgart-Rottenburg. I saw them myself. What kind of love for women and unborn children and for Christ does such a person have?

  3. I do agree with comments below that Cardinal Kasper was not being racist per se, but instead condescending and dismissive of the Bishops of Africa. He dismisses all who disagree with him, labeling them as “unmerciful.” And he has been caught lying to the face of the Catholic faithful worldwide, and his response has been to try to smear the journalists who properly quoted him.
    Cardinal Kasper represents the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” – manipulative, deceptive and ultimately – arrogant.
    The Pope should ritually cleanse the Church in Germany, and force the Bishops and clergy off the German Church Tax payroll, demand that they sell their publishing house that produces pornography (you can’t make this up!!) and take a vow of poverty.

  4. What a refreshing, sane and insightful article! Living proof that genuine orthodoxy is the living stream of God’s surprises, ever old and ever new, as Chesterton discovered. Thank you Fr Kocik and God bless you.


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