Chaos at the Vatican

Well, at least the Pope has temporarily shifted his political emphasis on Global Warming to a church-related subject. The question still remains, is this Pope a Far Left Radical?

Hammer and sickle Crucifix 5

Jonathan V. Last writing for The Weekly Standard thinks so:

Everyone talks about “chaos” in Congress just because Republicans haven’t chosen a new speaker of the House. If you want to see real chaos, look at Rome, where Pope Francis’s synod on the family has been a shambling disaster since the moment it started.

Check that—the meltdown started before the synod convened. The day before Francis kicked off the assembly, Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa made quite a stir. Charamsa is not just a normal priest, but a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the division of the Church tasked with keeping track of doctrine and orthodoxy. (You may remember them from such films as The Inquisition!)

Anyway, Charamsa, it turns out, is gay. And not just theoretically gay, but practically so, having taken a gay lover. (Or rather, a “partner,” per news accounts.) This might sound like a small doctrinal problem for a fellow whose portfolio is overseeing doctrine, since the Church teaches that (1) homosexual acts are not rightly ordered; (2) sex outside of marriage is sinful; and (3) priests make a vow of celibacy. So Charamsa was 0-for-3.

But even that wasn’t the big problem. On October 3, Charamsa was removed from his post not because he was a priest engaged in an adulterous, homosexual affair in contradiction to his vows. No, Charamsa was removed because he was planning to lead a demonstration with a group of gay activists outside the Vatican as the synod convened in order to protest the Church’s “homophobia”—his word—and advocate that the synod recognize beautiful, healthy relationships like his. After all, as the Holy Father has said on the subject, “Who am I to judge?”

This may sound like an inauspicious start to Pope Francis’s great synod on the family. It might even sound as though certain factions have viewed the synod as a chance to re-write the Church’s teachings about the nature of marriage, family, and sexuality. But don’t worry, it’s much worse than that.

Two weeks after Charamsa was sacked, the pope’s supporters—the very ones who want to change Church doctrine—started leaking to the press that l’affaire Charamsa had been a conservative scheme to weaken Francis. Leonardo Boff, a theologian close to the pope, claimed that Charamsa’s protest was “a trap set by those on the right of the church who oppose the pope. . . . Because he didn’t do it in a simple way. But in a provocative way in order to create problems for the Synod and for Francis.”

Now that’s chaos.

* * *

The Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops—as this synod on the family is formally known—is a product of Pope Francis’s ambitions. The pontiff called for it, laying the groundwork for this year’s gathering at last year’s extraordinary synod. He has set the agenda and allowed the fundamental Catholic understanding of the family to be called into question by a small group of European bishops who preside over decaying parishes. He has control over the daily workings of the gathering. And he alone will determine what actions to take at the close.

At every turn, this synod has been a train wreck. Even the question of which bishops would be chosen to participate has been steeped in controversy. For instance, Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of America’s foremost theologians and experts in canon law, was excluded, at the pope’s discretion. Instead, Francis chose to invite the retired Belgian Archbishop Godfried Daneels.

Daneels is notable for many reasons. Like Monsignor Charamsa, he takes a more progressive view of homosexuality, saying that the Church “has never opposed the fact that there should exist a sort of ‘marriage’ between homosexuals.” But here’s Damian Thompson on what makes Danneels particularly loathsome:

In 2010, a man confided in Danneels that he had been abused by a bishop, Roger Vangheluwe. The cardinal, who didn’t know he was being tape-recorded, told him to shut up until after the bishop retired.

You can see why some people might find the exclusion of Burke, and the inclusion of Danneels, irregular.

Also irregular are the procedures Francis set for the synod. The goal of a synod is to produce a document with recommendations for the Holy Father. In prior synods, this document was crafted by a drafting committee whose members were elected by the general assembly. The assembly voted on various propositions as the synod progressed. At the close the meeting, when the final document was complete, the assembly voted to accept or reject this document not as a whole, but paragraph by paragraph.

In Francis’s synod, the members of the drafting committee were appointed, without consultation. There is no voting on propositions during the synod exercises. And when the final document is finished in a week or two, there will be only a single, up-or-down, vote on it.

Understandably, many of the bishops present feel as though these rules were established to usher in a predetermined outcome. In response to this grumbling, on October 6 Francis admonished the assemblage not to give in to “the hermeneutic of conspiracy” which, he claimed, “is sociologically weak and spiritually unhelpful.”

Which is an interesting way to foster collegiality.

* * *

On October 12, reporter Sandro Magister published the text of a letter that had been sent to Francis and was signed by thirteen senior clergymen. It was shockingly blunt, eschewing nearly all of the elliptical euphemisms that typically mark Church politicking. The letter noted the synod’s procedural irregularities and concluded by suggesting that in trying to redefine marriage, the Church was placing itself in great jeopardy:

These things have created a concern that the new procedures are not true to the traditional spirit and purpose of a synod. It is unclear why these procedural changes are necessary. A number of fathers feel the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions.

Finally and perhaps most urgently, various fathers have expressed concern that a synod designed to address a vital pastoral matter—reinforcing the dignity of marriage and family—may become dominated by the theological/doctrinal issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. If so, this will inevitably raise even more fundamental issues about how the Church, going forward, should interpret and apply the Word of God, her doctrines and her disciplines to changes in culture. The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.

Not. Good.

But not-good got worse. The next day, four of the men who had reportedly signed the letter began denying their participation. Yet they did so in highly qualified terms, leaving open the possibility that they might have signed a different draft than the one which was published, or that they had expressed support for it, but not signed it. Subsequent reporting suggested that these demurrals were misleading and that the thirteen clergymen had indeed signed a letter substantially similar to the one which was published.

The Vatican then began leaking its outrage over the letter having been leaked. No amount of hand-waving can obscure what an ugly scrum this has been.

* * *

We’re about two-thirds of the way through the synod at this point and no one knows where it will end. One day Vatican leaks suggest that instead of redefining marriage for the universal Church, the pope will simply punt these questions down to the local levels, letting different councils of bishops come up with their own rules. The next day, the Vatican suggests that perhaps Francis will simply bury whatever document the synod produces and do nothing.

It will probably all work out in the end. The chances of the synod inflicting real damage on the Church are small, in the same way that the chances of catastrophe are always small. Most cars don’t drive off the road. Most asteroids don’t hit Earth.

But even so, the chances of catastrophe are non-zero—and a good deal higher than they were twelve months ago. And while the odds are slim, the events of this synod give a pretty clear idea of how such a catastrophic crackup of the Church might happen.

What is amazing, and instructive, is that Pope Francis views this chaos around him—chaos he helped create—and does nothing to step away from the storm. Francis has chosen to put the Church at risk—small, but real, risk. And he has either chosen to do so for a reason. Or for no reason.

Neither answer is very comforting.


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