Synods and Sausage: having a Church isn’t for the squeamish

The opening of the Synod on the Family draws closer. Books in various languages are to be released in which marriage and Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried are studied, with a special eye on the proposals of Card. Kasper. Catholic media and blogs speculate that Pope Francis is irritated, maybe even angry, with those who are criticizing Card. Kasper’s proposals. Perhaps he is even exiling or punishing people.  Sides are polarizing.  People are having discussions.  Hands are wringing.

Can’t we all just get along?

A few thoughts.

First, this is what “synodality” looks like. It’s messy.

Bishops and theologians have at it. They propose. They counter-propose. They raise their voices.

Shall we forget our Church’s history? Look back to the ancient Church and the fiery synods of those days.

Anyone out there remember Vatican II?  It was in all the papers.

If people, especially liberals, want a more synod-like approach to how we do things in the Church, this is what they are going to get.

By the way, it doesn’t work very well for the ecclesial communities and churches that have it. But hey! Don’t complain about getting what you have asked for.

The liberal MSM is getting into it too.  For example, Nicole Winfield of AP has a bit today about the soon-to-be-released Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church (the “five Cardinals” book that dismantles Card. Kasper’s notions – HERE).  Here’s a look at some of it:


Conservatives, [Let’s stipulate that “conservatives” are the bad guys standing in the way of “mercy” and move on.] including the five cardinal authors, have vehemently [“vehemently”?  Read the book before characterizing its tone.] opposed Kasper’s suggestion as contrary to Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Their debate — unusually raw and public for such “princes of the church” [Huh?  Where’s the “raw” in “We don’t agree.”] — has crystalized the growing discomfort among conservatives to some of Francis’ words and deeds, and sets the stage for what is likely to be a heated discussion starting Oct. 5.  [A “heated” discussion in a “synod”?  What a thought!   This underscores a problem of perspective among those who lean to the Left.  Synods are apparently supposed to be like meetings of the Korean Supreme People’s Assembly in which participants clap mechanically for the predetermined (read: liberal) position.]


Francis has asserted church doctrine on the matter but has called for a merciful, pastoral approach: He reportedly told an Argentine woman earlier this year that she was free to receive Communion even though her husband’s first marriage was never annulled. Knowing the issue is divisive, though, he has convened the whole church to debate the issue as part of a broad discussion on family issues over the next two years.  [Here, she got it right.  The Pope called for discussion of the issue.  Even during the airplane presser on the way home from WYD in Rio, the Pope called for the questions to be studied.  And now “conservatives” are being “vehement” and the discussion is “raw” when some cardinals and scholars do exactly what the Pope asked for?]


It is rare for cardinals to publicly and pointedly accuse another cardinal of being flat-out wrong, and rarer still for a cardinal to question the pope, as Burke has done. [Woah! Is that what Card. Burke did?] Regarding the purported phone call to the Argentine woman, Burke told the EWTN Catholic channel: “I wouldn’t for a moment impute that Pope Francis intended to give a signal about church doctrine by calling someone on the phone. This is just absurd.” [It is blatantly false and manifestly unfair to state, as Winfield did here, that Card. Burke “questioned” the Pope.  And let’s be clear.  Who knows what the Pope really said in that phone conversation, reported second-hand on Facebook. Furthermore, the Church’s doctrine is not established in phone calls to couples living in irregular marriages.]


We are not used to seeing how the Church’s sausage is made.  It is messy.  Hands get dirty.  Lots of things go into it which, considered individually, aren’t very appealing.  Having a Church isn’t for the squeamish.

Can’t we all just get along?  Sure we can!  That doesn’t mean we can’t have heated arguments about matters that are central to our lives as Catholics.  We can and must discuss the truth in charity.

Unless, of course, the era of Caritas in veritate … charity in truth… is over.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. McCall1981 says:

    Is this Card Kasper saying that the Pope agrees with him?

    “None of my brother cardinals has ever spoken with me,” the cardinal (Kasper) said. “I, on the other hand, have spoken twice with the Holy Father. I arranged everything with him. He was in agreement. What can a cardinal do but stand with the pope? I am not the target, the target is another.”
    Asked if the target was Pope Francis, the cardinal replied: “Probably yes.”

    [HA HA HA HA HA! Noooo…. the target is Card. Kasper. And he knows it. That’s why he is whining and hiding behind the Holy Father’s skirts. I have seen the book, which was sent to me by the publisher. What Kasper said is untrue.]

  2. rswain says:

    I have no problem with the messiness that Synods present. Liberal/Conservative or whatever. I have faith in the Bishops and those who attend. Coming from the Episcopal Church I was often put off by decisions made “in the name of the Spirit” by whatever layperson who was politically active enough to get elected to the House of Deputies. Here I know that the issue will be taken seriously by educated individuals who know the tradition of the Church and take their role as successors to the Apostles seriously. I may not agree with their ultimate decision, but it will not be for lack of informed discussion, heated or otherwise.

  3. ChrisRawlings says:

    I’m also utterly over the mainstream media’s prism of this pope and, more generally, the Church. The people who take the Church’s teachings seriously know that AP or MSNBC or Fox News are not reliable sources of catechesis and therefore shouldn’t be approached as such. We all love to lament how MISLEADING or CONFUSING the faith is construed in the media, but this isn’t the 1960s and your average Catholic is generally not especially concerned with what comes from synods or even the pope’s own mouth. They’re going to do whatever they want whether the Church’s allows them to or not. So I would suggest simply avoiding the secular’s media’s absurd contortions of doctrine and the upcoming synod. There is a lot of Catholic media that will probably get hooked, too.

    At the end of the day, watch for the apostolic exhortation. That is what concerns us as Catholics. And I don’t see a way that that exhortation could teach anything other than the truth of the indissolubility of marriage, even if the annulment process is compromised in the process, the Church simply cannot throw her hands up and throw Pauline sacramental and penitential theology out of the window.

  4. ChrisRawlings says:

    By the way, Fr. Z., do you still stand by your earlier prediction for the outcome of the synod?

  5. Imrahil says:

    Indeed, dear rswain.

    But, were it not for the here actually given influence of the Holy Spirit Who will not allow the Church to make a major blunder (but what about minor ones? the Church is the Church, but the people entrusted to lead it can generally make, and have in the past made, mistakes, with the limited exception the First Vatican Council spoke of),

    I’d quote Prof. Dumbledore to the effect that “as for those that are more intelligent than others, their mistakes tend to be correspondingly greater”.

    (With a beg of excuse to those who’d dislike a Harry Potter quote on this blog.)

  6. Landless Laborer says:

    On a positive note, the synod will bring clarity. There is a lot more confusion out here than most people imagine. A friend of mine was told during the RCIA process, that she could not receive communion until she had completed an annulment process. I made an appointment with the deacon overseeing RCIA and explained to him that although she was divorced (30 years prior), she lived alone in celibacy. He insisted she could not receive communion until a decision was made regarding the validity of her marriage. I asked that the question be examined by a canon lawyer, after which he recanted. This deacon ran the RCIA program for a number of years; the implications are appalling. How many more years would this have continued? Btw, my friend would not have gone through the annulment process. She believed the marriage was valid. For better or worse, the synod will bring clarity.

  7. Matthias1 says:

    Funny enough, just this morning I lectured on early Church Councils. We included St. Nicholas punching out the heretic Arius. No relation intended to Cardinal Kasper, of course, but there is some, uh, precedent.

  8. Robbie says:

    A church ruled by committee, or in this case a synod, is a church that will ultimately water itself down in the interest of compassion, understanding, and compromise.

    More than 50 years of novelties and confusion has brought us to this point and, considering recent events, schism may be a word we hear more and more often.

    In my opinion though, I’m less concerned with what takes place at the synod and far more concerned with what takes place after the it. If history is any guide, much of it will simply be ignored and with deleterious effects.

  9. Allan S. says:

    I cannot but think of how often we, as students of history, review the record of some major, ‘surprise’ event where those in charge at the time utterly failed to see what was coming. Hindsight being 20/20, we of course can now see all the signs and are amazed at the collective blindness of those who failed to perceive what history subsequently judges to have been obvious.

    In all of our ‘tsk tsk’ing’ of historical figures, we fail to see that we – now – are these blind ‘fools’ of tomorrow. Should, as I believe, Pope Francis promulgate new and abrogate current teaching on the nature and effect of sin, the signs were all there – right from the first.

    We have had Popes in the past who were required to ‘clean up’ messes from their predecessors, even to the point of nullifying the magesteriums of their predecessors.

    Sometimes things are exactly as they appear.

  10. pannw says:

    Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

    As we know it is not because He likes a good brawl, but because one will follow Him and the other will war against Him and His followers. There are those in the synod who will stand on the side of Truth and those that will not. Both sides can not be true and either the Church is the deposit of Faith and TRUE, or it is not. I find it very hard to believe that the teaching on marriage will be changed, can be changed. Jesus was quite clear. I tend to think if Pope Francis were to be of a mind to try to change it, he would be stopped. I pray that he does not try to do this. Only the past day or so has it come into my mind that he might actually try to do it (due to the remarks on his annoyance with the book, the ‘demotion’ of Cardinal Burke…) and I remember Jesus’ words, “What you hold loosed…” Could something that has been bound “from the beginning” be suddenly changed here and in Heaven? Honestly, I don’t know what I would do if they change the teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage… Where would I go? But I could not accept it. Jesus said, “from the beginning it was NOT SO.”

    I’m trying very hard to be calm and just wait to panic if there is a cause for it, but with all that is happening in the world, it is getting very hard to keep my peace. Come, Holy Spirit.

  11. Cosmos says:

    If we are going to look at history, isn’t there some pretty good precedent for getting worked up and raising a huge stink, rahter than trusting things will work out?

  12. TWF says:

    Synods have always been essential to the governance of the Catholic Church. The supreme authority of the Church is exercised by the pope, but it is also exercised by Ecumenical Councils (all the bishops of the world in communion with the Pope), and Ecumenical Councils are essentially just universal Synods. The vast majority of major decisions in Church history, whether dogmatic or disciplinary, have been made by councils / synods. If you believe that the Popes ruled the Church from Rome in a vacuum issuing edicts to other bishops, you need to brush up on Church history. For the vast majority of Church history, Popes ruled WITH their brother bishops by means of Councils / Synods – at least when it came to the really “big” topics. The Holy Spirit guides the bishops – they are, after all, part of the Church’s magisterium. Have some faith in the Synodal model which goes back to Acts 15…

  13. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Suppose the Synod were to uphold the Church’s Gospel-dictated theology and teaching on marriage, Communion, and sin. Do we think that those liberal bishops who have already advertised their wish for (or indifference to) an easy tolerance of remarried couples at Communion would then go back with bowed heads to their dioceses and sternly lay it on the line?
    Their strong inclination would be to find ways round any orthodox synodal decision, particularly if its language were open to creative interpretation. Or at the very least to quietly allow and encourage their priests to create local ‘exceptions’. And if some bishops stray in this way, who could and would bring them back into line, in this current fuzzy-logic who-am-I-to-judge atmosphere whipped up by the public media?
    What that would do is turn the Church into an Anglican-style a la carte menu.

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    Cosmos wrote:

    “If we are going to look at history, isn’t there some pretty good precedent for getting worked up and raising a huge stink, rather than trusting things will work out?” [my correction]

    I thought this was supposed to be a synod on the family, but from all of the comments over the blogosphere, one might be tempted to think that this is a synod on the almost-family: communion for the divorced, easier annulments, blessing irregular marriages – ah, the synod of the could be, the maybe, the wish-fulfillment family.

    It would be far better if, perhaps, instead of a synod on the family, they would, first, have a synod on the definition of the word, mercy, seeing as how the word keeps getting flung in the faces of both sides, like some kind of spaghetti – a word that is so flexible and slippery that it goes with everything, but nothing sticks to it. I could really go for a spaghetti synod right about now.

    Speaking of history, however, what they won’t have is a real historical perspective on the relationship and influence of the Church of the last century on, at first, the strengthening, but, later the decline and dissolution of marriages in the Western World. That might reveal the magician’s secrets. What they won’t have is an answer to the question of how the Church withstood the exact same environmental stresses on marriage of Modernism, rising technology, secularism, fundamentalism, scientism, feminism, anti-procreationalism, hedonism, and pluralism in the 1920’s without losing almost any families to divorce while in the rest of the West divorce rates were, suddenly, sky-rocketing. I am sure that the synod will enumerate the same causes for the present problems with the family, but they won’t see the difference, the essential difference, that allowed the Church and Catholic families to be rock stable back then, but fluffy marshmallows, by comparison, now.

    That is a pity.

    What is the essential difference between Catholics of then and now, between the Church’s influences on marriage then and now? Should I leave that as an exercise to the reader? Hmmm? One can line up the worldly destructive influences, point-by-point and see just how closely the two periods are related. If you really want to seek the essential differences of the Church’s effects, then and now, that is the place to start. Why are we so precariously close to becoming Protestant-like in our understanding of divorce and re-marriage, now, but not back then? There is one glaring difference and it makes all of the difference.

    Of course, the Devil is behind all of this, but by way of a hint on the temporal effects, I will say that when divorce occurs, in at least, as I see it, 80% of the cases, one or both parties have slid away from a virtue. Very few marriages fail when both parties are moving closer to a virtue.

    Ultimately, we know why marriages fail and they fail for the same old tired reasons marriages have failed throughout history, even though those influences bear more modern names, more high-fallutin’ names, today.

    The principle reason is pride. There, I’ve said it. Wasn’t that the first sin of the first marriage? It has always been such. Is it not pride (with a dash of envy) that makes some divorced couples, today, want to taste the forbidden fruit of the Heavenly Grain? There is an old saying that anyone who approaches God unprepared is liable for judgment and these unprepared divorced people are eating judgment on themselves, not the mercy they really want.

    Historically, all of the influences seeking to break up the family can be reduced to the movement away from a virtue and it is precisely this facet of things which is different, today, than in the 1920’s. Virtue implies a strengthening in goodness, which, collaterally, implies a strengthening of the will. The primary difference between then and now is that back in the 1920’s the Church saw the virtues as being connected, primarily, to the will and taught this to the laity. The laity trusted the Church to do the heavy intellectual lifting (which they did) and then applied themselves to a cultivation of the results of the Church’s deliberations in their wills. Marriage, back then, was, primarily, about the will even as the church taught that love was primarily located in the will.

    Then came the slow erosion of Modernism coupled with the rising influence of psychological theories that re-located the locus of human action in the emotions, not the will and made love less of a personal responsibility and more of the response of a human-like biology. The Church, in a sort of temporary Thomistic-hiccup, baptized these psychological insights, against its better philosophical judgments and the slow transformation of marriage from a training ground of the virtues under the action of a continual purification of the will into a lush garden of hither-to-unknown psychological delights was set into motion. The will is only seen as a reason for the continuation of a marriage, today, when it manifests itself as a sort of stubbornness. Gone, all too often, is the will for the other. Gone is the concept of history within a marriage. Everything must be new, fresh, current. The will has a preserving influence on actions – it plots a course and follows on in seeking the good, but where the good is seen to be transient, as in the transformed humanity of the modern age, the will must be replaced with something equally as ephemeral – and enter, desire.

    Did you notice the same change in the Garden of Eden? After the Fall, God said that Eve’s desire would be for her husband. Before the Fall, Eve had to have her will corrupted before it slid down to mere desire. Her choice, her will in tasting of the Forbidden Fruit was not only set against God, but it was set against her husband, as well. Before the Fall, marriage was eternal and willful; after the Fall, it was temporary and filled with the unordered desires of Original Sin. Who is to say that there aren’t echoes of that Original Sin in every generation? The Devil must be condemned to crawl on his belly in every era and I am afraid, from time to time, he is allowed to walk a little more upright than at other times.

    The solution to the current marriage crisis, is, of course, obvious. If the Church continues to let science set the endpoints and define the purposes of marriage, then they will have less and less of an influence in the state of marriage in the world. It is the Church which must make clear to everyone entering marriage the four classical causes of marriage: formal, efficient, material, and final, but the most damaging mistake they have made, between 1920 and today, is to ignore or at least be unclear about the final cause of marriage. Indeed, as some philosophers have argued, it is the loss of final causality which has allowed scientism and atheism to have such an increasing influence in modern times. Many people want to get married, today, but few people understand why they are getting married. When people have a goal upon which to focus the will, it can resist all sorts of temptations. The final cause of marriage is exactly where Catholics and most Protestants differ. It is, also, where Catholics and many psychologists differ. Emotions are almost never final causes and cannot direct final causes, and this is the fundamental change that has occurred between 1920 and 2014 – the universal location of where marriage really is effected: in the will. In the 1920’s, the Church resisted all of the environmental influences acting to change marriage by insisting that the end of marriage was God-ordained growth in the virtues of the physical (fecundity) and the spiritual (virtuousness) and directed the will of each spouse to those ends. Now, I am afraid, God has been, largely, taken out of the picture. When has the fear of God ever reared it head in a modern marriage? This is the bare naked difference between then and now. Those divorced couples who want to receive Communion do not want God at the center of their marriage. End. Full stop. They want to keep God at the periphery of their marriage, so they want to sneak up to the Communion rail, knowing full well that God is not at the center of their marriage and is not the Final Cause, the end goal of their marriage. To tell them this is a mercy; to give them the Sacrament is to perpetuate a soft lie. Those who are pushing for allowing the divorced to receive Communion are killing them, softly by letting them, yet, again, have their own way.

    “Humility, humility, I say it, again, humility.” So St. Teresa of Avila said and, in the end, that really is all the synod has to say, if they want to change the course of marriage in the world. If they spent half as much time teaching prospective married couples the meaning of that word as they do of debating endless minutiae of mercy, marriages would become cradles of mercy and love and teach the rest of the world why God saw it was good.

    The Chicken

  15. Legisperitus says:

    Using words like “raw” and “vehement” will only draw greater publicity and interest for what is most likely a rather sedate book.

  16. St. Epaphras says:

    Allan S. –
    “Sometimes things are exactly as they appear.”

  17. JonPatrick says:

    Chicken, you nailed it. If only our bishops were as wise.

  18. Matthew Gaul says:

    While the cardinalate’s typical public gentility – particularly their courtly “disagreement language” – is more noble than brutish secular politics, now and again it is refreshing to see some good ol’ plain speaking.

    If Papa Francis injects some forthrightness into the system, and the hierarchs’ personal colors must fly more publicly, then I say, “job well done.”

  19. Pingback: Cardinal Kasper Calumny and Pope Francis -

  20. jflare says:

    Seems to me you’re being more than a little unfair to the RCIA deacon. If I’m teaching an RCIA class and a student in that class tells me that she’s been divorced 30 years, believes the marriage to have been valid originally, but wants to go to communion anyway, that would–rightly–send all manner of red flags flying into the air. It would naturally convey the idea that the lady had every intent of doing precisely what she wanted, never mind what the Church actually teaches.

    If you would argue that the deacon could easily have misdirected any number of people with not-entirely-accurate teaching, I would counter that the deacon, being involved in an RCIA class, has almost certainly dealt with any number of situations where people saw fit to twist almost anything into precisely what they wished to believe.

    Your friend may well be living a celibate life, but I suspect the deacon would be more than a little wary of pressing very far into that personal of a matter in a public setting.

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