Reflecting on the Recent Synod on the Family

There’s been a great deal of discussion and media attention to the recent Synod on the Family held at the Vatican. Western media and progressives were agog at the prospect of a welcome for LGBT people and for divorced and remarried Catholics. Then a few days later, they were outraged when it appeared the Synod reversed course. As one example, the Episcopal Cafe announced: “Catholic Bishops fail to welcome gay, divorced Christians.”

One can understand the wider culture’s inability to understand what precisely is going on in the Synod (I use the present participle because there will be a follow-up next year at which a final report will be issued). What’s more surprising is that even Catholics don’t get the dynamics at play. Witness Ross Douthat, who in his Sunday column in the New York Times seemed to be threatening schism (there’s another living pope, after all), and the absolute immutability of church doctrine over time. Douthat reasserts the importance of the latter to his own Catholicism in a blog post yesterday.

The greatest living American Catholic historian, John S. O’Malley, SJ responds to Douthat and provides background to the synod here. He writes:

Change is in the air at the synod. To that extent Mr. Douthat is right. Moreover, change is problematic for an institution whose very reason for existence is to preserve and proclaim unchanged a message received long ago. Yet, given our human condition, change is inevitable. Sometimes change is required precisely in order to remain faithful to the tradition. It has in that way been operative in the church from the beginning.

Every council in the history of the church has been an instrument of change, and the synod is in effect a mini-council. Pope Francis convoked it for an examination of conscience about a range of questions directly or indirectly affecting the Sacrament of Matrimony. What will result from this examination? We don’t know. Will it be a declaration, a decree, a simple report? We don’t know. No matter what the form, what will it say? We don’t know.

O’Malley knows councils, having written on the Council of Trent and Vatican II. His new book on the history of the Jesuits came out last week and I can’t wait to read it.

O’Malley was one of my teachers and it is to him that I owe my deep appreciation for Roman Catholicism as well as my knowledge of Early Modern Catholicism.

I’ll be interested to see what ultimately emerges from the Synod. As someone who regularly encounters Catholics who have been deeply wounded by the church’s practices around divorce and remarriage, I am hopeful that the Synod will find a way to embrace the lives, faith and journeys of divorced and remarried Catholics.


John O’Malley on Vatican II

My teacher, mentor, and friend writing in the NY Times on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Council:

The bishops at Vatican II felt that more than a century of centralization needed to be tempered. But in their euphoria, they failed to reckon sufficiently with the resistance of entrenched bureaucracies — jealous of their authority and fearful of disorder — to change. A more participatory mode of church life took hold for 15 years or so after the council, but from on high it began to be more and more restricted, to the point that central control is now tighter than ever.

And in the long historical perspective of Catholicism:

The post-Vatican II church was not a different church. But if you take the long view, it seems to me incontestable that the turn was big, even if failures in implementation have made it less big in certain areas than the council intended.

I wrote about O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II here.

Culture Wars in Universities

Colleges and universities are in the news (It’s commencement time, I suppose). And some of the news is about commencement. A furor over Georgetown’s invitation to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius to speak. More here.

St. Francis University of Steubenville has announced it will no longer offer health insurance to its students, ostensibly because of the contraception provision in the ACA. But it turns out that the decision is largely financial, and they will continue to offer insurance to their employees.

At Shorter University in Georgia, a furor over the requirement of staff and faculty to sign a statement of moral behavior–. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the story; a story from Huffington Post on a librarian who has refused to sign, and the website that is spearheading opposition. Shorter is one of many institutions caught in the middle of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and 1990s.

And, on a very different note–at another Christian college, the Biola Queer Underground.

And finally, my friend and mentor John O’Malley asks whether medieval universities were Catholic:

Were medieval universities Catholic universities? It is a question easier to ask than to answer. One thing, however, is certain: the contemporary grid for an “authentically Catholic” university does not neatly fit the medieval reality. There are even grounds for asserting that in their core values medieval universities more closely resemble the contemporary secular university than they do today’s Catholic model. If we are looking for historical precedents for that model, we do not find it clearly in the Middle Ages.

I still remember him saying in class some 25 years ago that the university was the one institution in the West that had never been reformed; it still functions in many ways today as it did in the Middle Ages. Shorter and St. Francis are both evidence that some modern universities are more benighted than medieval ones.

What happened at Vatican II? And does it still matter?

I just finished reading John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard University Press, 2008). I read it for at least three reasons. First, John is a teacher, mentor, and friend. Second, I realized I had never read anything substantive about the council, a glaring lacuna in my knowledge. Third, with the recent developments in Roman Catholic liturgy and practice, it struck me as important pastorally to understand some of the background to the Roman Catholic church of the late twentieth century, what conservative Catholics are reacting against, and what disaffected Catholics are struggling with.

O’Malley delivered on all of those points. It’s an engaging read of a difficult subject, and probably very difficult to make interesting for the non-specialist. To talk about machinations behind the scene, debates over schemas and the like is no easy thing. He doesn’t divide the opposing camps into “liberal” and “conservative” but calls them “majority” and “minority.” One gets the sense that the council had a life of its own that made it difficult to control and surprising in its outcomes to both participants and observers.

Most interesting to me are the three underlying themes that O’Malley detects. These, he says, are “the issues under the issues” and are key both to understanding the council and to making sense of Catholicism today. They are: 1) the development of doctrine; 2) the relation of center to periphery; 3) the “style” or model according to which authority is exercised.

In many respects, these three issues are not unique to Catholicsm. It may be that because Anglicanism is shaped very much like the Roman Catholic Church that we experience them acutely, but it seems to me they are pervasive throughout Christianity, and to some degree, throughout the History of Christianity. The first two are, of course, particularly important in debates within and concerning the Anglican Communion. The third I find especially intriguing. O’Malley points out that the documents of Vatican II are self-consciously written in a “pastoral” style, a remarkable break from the doctrinal formulas and anathemas of previous councils. That style involved a change in rhetoric, towards teaching, a change in vocabulary, but also a change in form, perhaps with the emphasis on collegiality.

I read a blog post about “the theology of the text message.” In it, Jason Byassee argues that pastors must be ready to “text” with younger parishioners or risk not communicating at all with them. He talks about offering pastoral care via text message, but there is more to be said. Christians are people of the Book, readers and interpreters of scripture. The question is, what sort of theological and spiritual “style” might emerge from our use of new media?

One possibility: The New Media Project at Union Seminary offers a case study of the House for All Sinners and Saints.