And so, the three-week Synod on the Family in Rome has ended. By most accounts, it was a defeat for Pope Francis and his liberalizing plans, though it must be remembered that in the Roman Catholic Church, a synod is only an advisory body; the final decision rests with the pontiff. Francis could overrule his bishops, but to do so would plunge the Catholic Church into crisis.

Ross Douthat says:

Look, what actually happened is that conservatives won what was probably the closest thing to victory that they could have hoped for, given that 1) the pope was against them, and 2) the pope stacked the governing and writing committees and the voting ranks, and did I mention that 3)the pope was against them. (People who still argue that Pope Francis was studiously neutral, that he just wanted dialogue, or that his views are unknowable, need to sit down and read the tongue-lashing he gave to conservatives in his closing address — and contrast it with the much more evenhanded way he closed last fall’s synod, when conservative resistance to the synod’s intended direction was much more disorganized.) Which is to say they produced a document that used unfashionable words like “indissoluble” to talk about marriage, that mostly avoided the subject of homosexuality, and that offered a few dense, occasionally-ambiguous, slightly-impenetrable paragraphs on welcoming and accompanying divorced and remarried Catholics without offering either a path to communion absent an annulment or proposing to devolve that question to national bishops conferences, as the German bishops and the rest of the progressive caucus at the synod clearly wished.

Ross goes on to point out, though, how the victory for conservatives was not as clear as they would have liked, and he details how determined Church liberals can use the wedge the Synod offered them to open a big gap. (By the way, Ross will be giving the Erasmus Lecture at First Things on Monday evening, on the subject of “The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism.” Join me, if you like, in watching the live webcast here at 6pm Eastern/5pm Central.)

John L. Allen’s take was somewhat different:

Saturday night, the Vatican released the summit’s final report. In broad strokes, it seemed to reflect a narrow liberal win on the issue of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, and a conservative victory at resisting calls for a more approving treatment of gay and lesbian relationships.

While all sections of the final document received a two-thirds majority, the sections on divorce and homosexuality also drew significant clusters of “no” votes, providing a clear x-ray of a divided body.

Allen says there are two different ways to respond to the three weeks of mayhem:

Madness as Method: This view holds that the two synods were launched without a clear objective, were poorly organized, and the overall result has been to leave Catholicism disoriented and consumed by internal battles. As one senior cardinal put it, “I used to think there was a method beneath the madness … now I worry that the madness is the method.”

No Pain, No Gain: Choosing a glass-half-full perspective, this view posits that growth is always painful, but that Catholicism will emerge stronger for having honestly surfaced its divisions rather than keeping them bottled up or, worse still, pretending they don’t exist. On the other side of acrimony and confusion, this view holds, lies a season of renewal.

From an Orthodox perspective, I was struck by the address that Metropolitan Hilarion, the “foreign minister” of the Moscow Patriarchate, delivered to the Synod. Here’s a link to the speech. Excerpt:

The Church is called to be a luminary and beacon in the darkness of this age, and Christians to be the ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light to the world’. We all ought to recall the Saviour’s warning: ‘If the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men’ (Matt. 5: 13-14). The salt which has lost its savour are those Protestant communities which call themselves Christian, but which preach moral ideals incompatible with Christianity. If in this type of community a rite of blessing of same-sex unions is introduced, or a lesbian so called ‘bishop’ calls for the replacement of crosses from the churches with the Muslim crescent, can we speak of this community as a ‘church’? We are witnessing the betrayal of Christianity by those who are prepared to accommodate themselves to a secular, godless and churchless world.

The authorities of some European countries and America, in spite of numerous protests, including those by Catholics, continue to advocate policies aimed at the destruction of the very concept of the family. They not only on the legislative level equate of the status of the same-sex unions to that of marriage but also criminally persecute those who out of their Christian convictions refuse to register such unions. Immediately after the departure of Pope Francis from the USA, President Barack Obama openly declared that gay rights are more important than religious freedom. This clearly testifies to the intention of the secular authorities to continue their assault on those healthy forces in society which defend traditional family values. Catholics here are found at the forefront of the struggle, and it is against the Catholic Church that a campaign of discrediting and lies is waged. Therefore courage in vindicating Christian beliefs and fidelity to Church tradition are particularly necessary in our times.

Today, when the world ever more resembles that foolish man ‘which built his house on the sand’ (Matt. 7: 26) it is the Church’s duty to remind the society of its firm foundation of the family as a union between a man and woman created with the purpose of giving birth to and bringing up children. Only this type of family, as ordained by the Lord when he created the world, can forestall or at least halt temporarily modern-day society’s further descent into the abyss of moral relativism.

What’s most important is what Hilarion did not say. The Catholic priest Fr. Hunwicke spotted this, and said:

At the beginning of this ghastly mess, Orthodox Marriage praxis was cited as something Catholics should have a new look at. Indeed, OrthodoxOikonomia was set before us as being an expression of the Mercy of God. Metropolitan Hilarion might, therefore, have slipped into his address, somewhere, a sly hint of Orthodox triumphalism … “How gratifying that you Latins are coming round to our Orthodox way of thinking”.

Not a whisker of it.

This does not surprise me at all, and for a reason I gave on this blog earlier in the Synod process. The Moscow Patriarchate is well aware of how weak the Christian faith is in Europe. It knows too, obviously, that the forces within the Roman church that seek to liberalize are the ones who would have Rome adopt an approach to marriage, divorce, and communion that’s more like Orthodoxy’s. My guess is that Moscow recognizes that given the current crisis of Christianity in the West, and the different way Catholicism approaches matters of doctrinal truth, for Rome to adopt a policy closer to Orthodoxy’s at this particular time and under these circumstances would, paradoxically, weaken Catholicism’s witness to the larger truth of family and marriage. This is why I actually think Orthodoxy has a more reasonable and compassionate way of handling it, but I hoped that the conservatives would win at the Synod, because the idea of Rome taking an Orthodox tack in the present situation struck me intuitively as a bad move from the interests of Orthodoxy. 

Damon Linker makes a very good, very MacIntyrean point about the profound disorder within Roman Catholicism today, when he says, “Catholics these days can’t even agree about how to disagree.”  He sketches the two opposing views within the Church today, which became very clear during the Synod:

The reformers view the church as a community of believers founded by Jesus Christ on a message of universal inclusion, hope, love, and mercy. … This helps explain why the reformers favor loosening the strictures against divorced Catholics receiving communion: because it’s a gesture of inclusion, healing, acceptance. Just as Jesus consorted with the outcasts of his time, so his church should offer welcoming arms to any and all who want to receive the message of mercy and love and become active members of the People of God.

The conservatives, on the other hand, says Linker:

The church, for them, is primarily a rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live. Christ rejected divorce. Over the centuries, the church has developed a rich set of intellectually satisfying principles and procedures in response to this divine decree. … The church simply has to uphold the traditional rules and procedures — not primarily because they’re traditional but because they’re systematic.

Linker adds:

The two camps talk right past each other. What is the church? How did Christ want his followers to live and worship in his name? How much change, and what kind of change, is acceptable? The question of annulment, divorce, and communion has raised these deeper and potentially far more divisive questions.

He’s right about that, but I don’t fully agree with the way he characterizes the conservatives’ take on matters. No doubt there are plenty of legalists and rigorists in the conservative camp, but what Linker (who’s a friend, fyi) seems to miss is that doctrine and “rules” are not ends in themselves, but signposts that direct us to God. Doctrine is not about right order alone, but primarily about Truth. It is far from loving and merciful to tell someone that a lie is actually the truth, only so that they can feel good about themselves, and affirmed. This, at best, is what the conservatives stand for — not mindless rule-following.

But Damon is right about one thing: the two broad factions within the Church can barely talk to each other because they differ on primary questions. I think it was in Commonweal a few years ago that I read an older liberal Catholic lamenting that back in the pre-conciliar days, at least the liberals and conservatives shared basic premises from which to make their arguments. Now, that’s no longer true. The crude version of this dynamic is what every conservative Catholic has to deal with: you can cite the Catechism and authoritative Church documents to progressive Catholics all the livelong day, and they just do not care. They’re determined to believe what they want to believe, and call it Catholic. They think that the word “Catholic” does not describe an objective reality that entails affirming certain propositions, but rather expresses their inner conviction about themselves.

Gabriel Sanchez, an Eastern Rite Catholic, has a pretty dark view of the Synod’s conclusion:

The glib optimism flowing from ostensibly conservative Catholics concerning the recently concluded Extraordinary Synod on the Family is a thing of wonder. Only in a Church where abuse, dissent, and outright heresy are so commonplace could a document like the final Relatio be held up as a banner of orthodoxy. Some conservatives are now laying into traditional Catholics, noting that their worries about schism and collapse were not just overblown, but thoroughly ridiculous. As a friend of mine observed, however, just because a stroke is a more dramatic way to die doesn’t mean a nice quiet bout of cancer won’t do the same job.


The truth is that most Catholics scandalized by the Synod and the Pope won’t leave. The sunk costs are too high. Instead, they will close their eyes to their surroundings while singing “Everything is Awesome” just loud enough to drown out all the voices—clerical and lay—calling for a sexual revolution in the Church. Some Catholics, like the Society of St. Pius X and the faithful who remain attached to tradition, will continue to resist the institutional Church, including the Pope if necessary. God bless them. There will be no heavenly reward for obedience to those who betray the clear teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Church.

Whole thing here.

What will Francis do now? He is not predictable. The conclusion of the Synod may not have been the end of something, but only the beginning of the end of something. The one thing that the history of most churches in the West of the past half century shows: church liberals never take “no” for an answer.

OK, time to pour the bourbon and get ready for Ross Douthat’s webcast talk. See you there.