Let battle commence

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At the Extraordinary Synod on the Family last October, it quickly became evident that there are two completely opposed mindsets in the Church, which confronted each other at the synod just as they had done at the Second Vatican Council 50 years earlier. 

Pope Francis encouraged the participants at the synod, and indeed the entire people of God, to speak without fear of any punitive consequences. This was an implicit recognition that fear of being accused of infidelity, or even heresy, sometimes prevents Catholics from expressing their opinions freely and openly. Why? Largely because one group in the Church has a way of speaking darkly about certain matters having been permanently settled by “the teaching of the Church” and going on to claim that any attempt to present an alternative view would “confuse” them and promote disharmony and disunity.

There are two conflicting mentalities in the Church, and they cannot be conflated. We tend to assume that we should try to seek a consensus between the views of conservatives and liberals. In my view, that is impossible. All we can hope for is that the two sides can be induced to live peaceably and amicably together. In a body as large and as culturally diverse as the Catholic Church, discrepant and irreconcilable attitudes are inevitable. We should try to live with them, not pretend that it is necessary – or even desirable – to smooth them over. I am well aware, of course, of the frequent protests against the use of “labels”, such as “conservative” or “traditionalist” and “progressive” or “liberal”. But we should not be afraid of using these terms, or something like them, as a shorthand to describe the different positions Catholics take on controversial issues under discussion in the Church and the world. Condemnation of labels can sometimes just be a lazy way of sidestepping healthy debate. It patronises those who see an urgent need for open and candid discussion.

Sometimes, confrontation is necessary – especially, I would say, when one side sets itself up as the sole arbiter of orthodoxy, and uses power rather than respectable argument to promote its cause. Traditionalists committed to the truth of their position and willing to argue for it are altogether preferable to those who imagine that they occupy a storm-free eminence from where they can look down with virtuous pity on the combatants below.

Christopher M. Bellitto’s article in The Tablet (3 January 2015) described Pope Francis’ closing address at the first Synod on the Family as a “pre-emptive strike against the extreme wings of opposing Catholic camps”. Francis’ words, Bellitto claimed, suggested “a path of détente, maybe even disarmament, for the year ahead, as the Church prepares for the synod’s second part in October 2015”.

In my view, this would be to waste a year that should instead be devoted to the open and free discussion that Francis wishes for the Church. The truth and the will of God may actually be found in the clash of ideas and convictions expressed freely and without the threat of institutional interference.

I want to echo the eirenic intention of Bellitto’s article while questioning what seems to me to be his basic thesis. I am interested in his use of Yves Congar’s celebrated book, Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Eglise (“True and false reform in the Church”) – written, be it noted, while he was still under attack by the Holy Office – which should be read in tandem with My Journal of the Council, in which he is much more realistic in recognising what was at stake: “After the stifling regime of Pius XII, the windows were at last being opened; one could breathe. The Church was being given its chance. One was becoming open to dialogue.”

In the Journal, Congar describes the council in startlingly combative terms. He knew he was engaged in a vital contest for the soul of the Catholic Church, and he had no hesitation about saying on which side he stood. There is no question of a détente or disarmament here. This was not a time to speak about “bringing the two sides together”. It was a time for deciding which of the two sides one stood on, and fighting for it.

From the moment the Council Fathers had sight of the draft documents prepared for them by theologians of the Roman clerical universities, it was clear to all those, including Pope John XXIII, who wanted to see true reform in the Church, that these draft texts had to be completely rejected. Congar did not mince his words: “These Rome-based theologians have no respect for the Tradition. All they can see are papal utterances. That is where the great battle will continue to be waged. The truth will prevail.”

Stirring words, written, as they were, on the eve of a battle. This was true reform, and it called for military metaphors to express its urgency. “Nothing decisive can be done until the Roman Church has emerged COMPLETELY from its seigneurial and temporal pretensions. ALL OF THAT must be DONE AWAY WITH; AND IT WILL BE.” Congar, in the Journal, uses upper case to add emphasis to what he was writing.

The situation that faces us this year, as we prepare for the second Synod on the Family, can be seen as a decisive moment in the struggle to continue the programme envisaged by the majority at Vatican II. Bellitto writes: “Francis wants to split the progressive-conservative divide by mowing right over it.” Can this be done? Should it even be attempted? The contest between these two sides was, and is, predominantly about the use of power to impede the free discussion of ideas. Peace in the Church will not be brought about by trying to find a consensus between two mutually contradictory positions: either you believe, for example, that Communion should be given to partners in an irregular union, or you do not. The imposition of conditions for the reception of Communion would amount to capitulation to the rigorists.

Institutional peace can come only if the two sides agree to disagree, if they each put forward the best arguments they can for what they believe, while living and worshipping together. Above all, it is imperative that neither side resorts to coercion or punishment in the prosecution of its convictions.
Perhaps we have something to learn from other Churches. Early in his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby reflected in worried tones about the danger of disintegration in the Anglican Communion due to disagreement over such matters as gay marriage and women bishops. It was a courageous public admission of a very real and painful institutional problem.

The comprehensiveness of the Anglican Church exposes it to the charge of a lack of discipline and of having no fixed principles. This is unjust. In my opinion, Catholics have much to learn from the admirable comprehensiveness of Anglicanism. Why should we allow ourselves to be embarrassed by the clash within the Church of honestly held ideas and convictions?

If ecumenical dialogue is not an honest search for truth and for new insights, it becomes an exercise in what the Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, in a lethal phrase, called “ecclesiastical joinery”. Although he was a committed ecumenist, Macquarrie was quite prepared to speak of the “many dangers in ecumenism”, especially “the danger of submerging legitimate differences, and thereby impoverishing the body which is enriched and strengthened by these differences”. As he pointed out: “The genuine diversity-in-unity of the body of Christ needs to be defended against uniformity just as much as against divisiveness.”

Differences and tensions within the Churches should not be smothered any more than the legitimate differences between them. Many traditionalists, for example, look to Jesus as primarily a legislator, and they cite texts from the New Testament that make it quite clear that Jesus was against divorce and remarriage. Those who take a different view have never denied this. What they point out, however, is that while Jesus held out ideals of what ought to happen in a godly life, he was moved to compassion by the plight of those who failed to reach the ideal.

At the first Synod on the Family, there were eminent hard-line traditionalists who said that if couples break the law, they should be refused the Eucharist – a view that was energetically opposed by those who, inspired by Pope Francis and led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, emphasised that Jesus was first and foremost someone who showed mercy to people who, like the woman taken in adultery, had failed to observe the law.

We do not know what Jesus wrote in the sand on that occasion, but we do know that what he said to her accusers left them feeling unable to cast the first stone. Pope Francis echoed this, by answering a question on homosexuals, with his remark to journalists on his flight home from Brazil last year: “Who am I to judge?” – a pertinent reminder of Jesus’ instruction: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37).

The Christian Church is not designed only for strictly observant rule-keepers and doctrinal rigorists. Christians are human beings wounded by failure, false promises and disillusionment. For some, daily life is a scene where they hurt and are hurt; for others, it is a place of boredom, feelings of worthlessness and lack of meaning. For most people it is a combination of happiness and sadness, light and shadow, a twilit world of religious uncertainty and moral ambivalence.

This is the world in which we have been placed, at a distance from God, so that, with the help of unmerited and freely granted grace, we may undertake a pilgrim journey in trust and confidence towards the Creator whom Jesus has taught us to call our Father.

“One must ALWAYS protest,” wrote Congar in his Journal, “when one feels in conscience or by conviction that there are grounds for doing so. Of course, one thereby makes trouble for oneself, but something positive is nevertheless achieved.”

When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offends against justice and peace by identifying its own traditionalist opinions as “the immutable teaching of the Church”, and then accuses, and even punishes, fellow Catholics for not conforming to them, we have a situation that makes dissent and protest not only permissible, but a moral and theological duty.

Dr Gabriel Daly OSA

Originally published in The Tablet

Dr Gabriel Daly OSA is a theologian and Augustinian priest