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Pope Francis: Liberal Machiavelli?

Well, now it seems that Miss Emily Litella is speaking for the Synod (“Never mind”). Robert Royal reports from Rome:

I’ve  said here that Monday, the day the document officially known as the Relatio post disceptationem (Synod interim report) was issued, was the strangest day I’ve ever spent in Rome. I take it back. Yesterday, the daily Synod press briefing essentially retracted much that was said Monday and by implication parts of the document, while stopping just short of admitting as much. It was a 180-degree turn such as may never have been seen in so short a radius on Vatican soil. Ever. Throughout the ages.

And as details emerged Tuesday, the rollout of the relatio looked to rival the rollout of Obamacare for sheer jaw-dropping ineptness.

Who knows what’s really going on? We won’t until the final, official Synod report comes out over the weekend. I like how Royal points out that the media have not been distorting the Church’s official statements from the Synod, but in fact have been asking important and relevant questions that reveal the incompetence and confusion of the Synod fathers.

Damon Linker has a provocative — and to my mind, persuasive — column today saying that Synod events only make sense if you believe that Pope Francis is playing a long game in liberalizing the Church. Excerpts:

Even if the language of the document released on Monday is approved in total at the conclusion of the synod, it will still change nothing at all in church doctrine or teaching. Homosexual acts will still be deemed intrinsically and objectively disordered. It’s just that the Vatican will now be urging pastors to soft-peddle the doctrine to parishioners. Priests and bishops will be urged to accentuate the positive, to talk about the “gifts and qualities” that gay people “offer to the Christian community,” and to acknowledge that gay couples often provide each other “mutual aid” and “precious support.”

That sounds like a modest expansion on or elaboration of the Catechism’s injunction to accept gay people “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” combined with a suggestion that priests and bishops not shove down people’s throats the much harsher official doctrine about homosexual acts.

But the doctrine itself will remain unchanged.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this makes no sense whatsoever.


I submit that there is only one way to make sense of the pope’s actions, and it goes like this:

Francis would like to liberalize church doctrine on marriage, the family, and homosexuality, but he knows that he lacks the support and institutional power to do it. So he’s decided on a course of stealth reform that involves sowing seeds of future doctrinal change by undermining the enforcement of doctrine today. The hope would be that a generation or two from now, the gap between official doctrine and the behavior that’s informally accepted in Catholic parishes across the world would grow so vast that a global grassroots movement in favor of liberalizing change would rise up at long last to sweep aside the old, musty, already-ignored rules.

Read the whole thing. Seriously, do. I think he’s nailed it. I think the Catholic conservative old guard in the American commentariat are going to be standing Canute-like as the tide comes in, saying, “But doctrine hasn’t changed!” Which may be true, in a technical sense, but beside the point.

A California reader sends in this piece from the Orange County Register, reporting on how news from the Synod is being received locally. Excerpt:

“I keep going to church, but I do feel I’m not accepted,” said Rosa Lares, a 36-year-old Santa Ana mother of one who has been in a 14-year committed relationship but is not married. “I’m glad they’re changing.”

In a report released Monday by a group of Catholic bishops debating family issues in the church, leaders noted that the church should accept the “positive reality of civil weddings” and couples living out of wedlock. It also acknowledged that gay unions – while drawing a line at gay marriage – had merit.

“The Catholic Church is making a revolution,” said Alberto Castrejon, Lares’ partner. “It’s taking away many of the obstacles that the religion placed.”

If I were a liberal Catholic, I would be very happy with how this Synod is going, and would not be perturbed by the pushback and the confusion. Things really are changing. Whether or not the change is for the better — well, that’s a different question.

Here’s a deeper question arising out of this controversy, a question that both liberals and conservatives within the Church are reckoning with, whether they’re aware of it or not: What is the Church ultimately for? That is, what is its ultimate purpose? If the answer is “to do good works” or “to promote social solidarity,” that’s not true. To be clear, if the Church is being the Church, it will do good works, and it will promote social solidarity. But these are not its ultimate purpose.

The ultimate purpose has to be to unite souls with God, through Christ. I think it is a legitimate pastoral question as to whether or not the best way to do this is through strict proclamation of and adherence to doctrine, or through merciful toleration of those who fall short. In fact, I strongly believe both approaches are required, depending on the situation. The mistake some conservatives make is believing that following the Law will save you; the mistake some liberals make is believing that the Law is irrelevant — that is, that God doesn’t really care how you behave (at least in terms of your sex life, which in the US is the great point of division between the Christian left and the Christian right).

Mercy and welcome to sinners is absolutely required of Christian churches. The problem, as I see it, is that more than a few Christians, pastors as well as laity, don’t expect people to change once they get in the door. To them, the Church is a destination, an end, not the ordinary means by which individuals deepen their conversion and grow in holiness. You welcome the sinner — and all of us are sinners — to let them know that God loves them, and to love them yourself, but you also must teach that because God loves them, He wants them (he wants us) to repent, because sin is a real thing, and eternal life is at stake.

There’s a danger among us orthodox believers that we will behave like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, resentful of the mercy the father shows to the wayward brother. We have to be on guard against that. On the other hand, the prodigal brother came home in humility, wanting to rejoin his father’s household, and to do whatever is necessary to be part of it. He didn’t come expecting the father to say everything is okay, that he (the prodigal) doesn’t have to worry about repenting of his prodigal ways. The older brother, the one who did the dutiful thing all his life, looks bad here, because he spites his father’s mercy. However, had the parable continued, and his father lavished gifts on the prodigal brother despite the brother’s selfish behavior, the older brother would have been understandably troubled by the question of whether or not justice has any meaning in his father’s household.

The point I’m making here is summed up by an e-mail I received today from a friend who handles RCIA (the program through which converts are received) in her parish. She’s what I would call an orthodox Catholic, and wrote that the pope’s “leadership leads to a lot of confusion, and working at the parish level, I don’t think he has my back.” A parish priest used similar words recently in a conversation with me.

How do you teach people to live counterculturally — which is what living as a faithful Catholic in this culture requires — when it seems that the Pope and the institutional Church doesn’t really care (or is perceived as not caring) if you do or if you don’t? How do you live that way yourself, and teach your children to live that way, when it seems that not even the Pope much cares about these things?

It’s demoralizing.

Anyway, what do you think about Linker’s Francis-as-Machiavellian-liberal hypothesis?

UPDATE:Terry Mattingly has a good taxonomy of the different camps in this Catholic battle. Excerpt:

* Clearly, there are Catholics who believe that – at the pastoral level – priests need to have more flexibility in working with people whose sexual relationships are both (a) a potential source of strength in their lives and (b) clearly sinful in the eyes of centuries of Christian doctrine.

This is where things get tricky.

If you read the language of the debates, you will see that there are leaders who want to show mercy and kindness up front – with little or no up-front talk about sin and repentance – because they believe that this is truly the best, the most pastoral, way to bring wayward believers into the process of confession and reconciliation. This is, many believe, the Pope Francis way.

* Ah, but what if there are Catholics who SAY THIS is their approach but in reality they are not all that interested in that old confession of sin stuff at all? What if, at the level of local ministry, they essentially are saying that you open the door wide and then hope for the best, that in a post-Vatican II world you have to leave this up to the individual conscience? I mean, who goes to confession these days anyway? What are they supposed to confess? Talking about sin is so negative and modern life is so complex. You know?

* Finally, you do have Catholics who are engaged in a long, slow, strategic march through the structures of the institutional church to change the actual practice and doctrines of the Catholic faith. They want to move the pieces on the great doctrinal game board and a few of them are even open about that.

So, who are you hearing quoted the most in the news reports?


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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