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.


Let’s Get Busy! Moving forward from General Convention

I had an email exchange with a clergy colleague yesterday in which we talked about how the decisions of General Convention might play themselves out in the diocese of Milwaukee and locally. In the course of that exchange, he suggested that I might be anxious about those developments. I quickly responded assuring him that I have no anxiety about what might happen here. I am quite excited about the future of the Episcopal Church and the path that has been laid out from General Convention 2012.

Of course there are those who are anxious and worry about what it might mean. There are clergy who are concerned about how GC’s decision might play out in their parishes. Some worry whether there is a place for them in the Episcopal Church. I share their concerns and will work to make sure that the Episcopal Church remains a place where people can disagree about important matters and still come together to worship God and struggle together to discern God’s will.

There is much that could lead to anxiety, not least reports in the media. But those reports are not the story of the Episcopal Church. The story of our church is our story. It is the story we tell about ourselves. It is what we experience when we worship together, when we gather in fellowship, or to serve Christ by feeding the hungry or clothing the naked. It is the story we live when we baptize babies or mourn the faithful departed.

Ron Pogue has written a thoughtful essay in which he encourages us to embrace what General Convention has done: “Now is a perfect time to be unapologetically Episcopalian.”

Let’s be who we say we are. – We really have nothing to fear about this decision.  We have every reason to rejoice as we learn to live into the new opportunities it presents. We can hold up our heads and with humility, generosity, and without apology, we can do even more than ever to manifest God’s love.  We are stewards of important, life-transforming work that God wants accomplished specifically through our Church.  We are Episcopalians!  And, as someone has pointed out, there is no asterisk on those signs that say, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!”

On the other side of the pond, the Church of England is also struggling with restructuring and with the fall-out from its own General Synod, at which the decision in favor of the ordination of women bishops was deferred. Sam Charles Norton writes with insight and passion about what he believes the debate over women’s ordination teaches us about the church:

The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. In my view, the real issue is that there is is a hole where our understanding and practice of the gospel should be.

Norton is writing with an eye to the difficult adaptation the Church of England is having to make to the realities of changing culture in England.

The context is different here. I wouldn’t characterize ours as a “dying church.” It could die, if we do not adapt to the culture in which we live. It will die if we are unable to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ

This is a point on which Ross Douthat and I agree:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Proclaiming the good news is not hard. It takes courage, persistence, and deep faith in God. It takes a willingness to try new things and the freedom to fail. General Convention has given us some new tools. Let’s get busy.

Bad Religion: Bad Theology (on Ross Douthat)

Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion has received considerable attention. Having read a number of reviews, I don’t think I’ll bother reading it. From all accounts, his historical retelling of American religious history is full of errors, and his understanding of “orthodox” Christianity is equally mistake-ridden. First, from the camp of his supporters:

Alan Jacobs writes here:

If you’re a Christian, it’s tempting to say (drawing on the Perfidious-Mainstream-Media account) that we were forced into these subaltern modes by the relentless hostility of the cultural elites. That’s a very comforting narrative: we get to cast ourselves as the persecuted minority, and who can resist that temptation? Ross is offering a less consoling explanation: that Christians lost their cultural influence in large part because they lost their connection to historic orthodoxy, preferring comfortably flaccid theologies — of the Right and the Left — that were pretty much indistinguishable from what most religiously indifferent Americans believed anyway.

So for those readers especially hostile to Ross’s account, I have a queston: Are you sure it’s not because he’s telling you something you don’t want to hear? — That if you have a marginal place in American culture, the situation may be largely your own fault?

Now from those who find his perspective inadequate. The Catholic author, Michael Sean Winters writes in the The New RepublicHe begins:

ROSS DOUTHAT’S ANALYSIS of religion in America is more sophisticated than the analysis of, say, Rick Santorum—but not by much. There are many ways to be simplistic and coarse. In contending against what he sees as an America afflicted with too many heresies, Douthat’s book, like Santorum’s speeches, is riddled with mistakes of fact and interpretation that would make any learned person blush.

And he concludes:

My problem with Douthat’s book is not that his opinions differ from my own. My problem is that he does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about. In the West, there has been no universally accepted authoritative voice on orthodoxy since the Reformation. “What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of whom swears to have the Spirit?” asked Erasmus in 1524. But Douthat does not see the larger picture that he aims to explain, and his treatment of his subject is so pitifully mistaken in things large and small that what we are left with is a meandering, self-serving screed. The book has the same reliance on private judgment that anyone who was really concerned with heresy would recognize as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Randall Balmer’s review is here. Ballmer is an Episcopal priest and a prominent scholar of American religious history. He points out weaknesses in Douthat’s argument, and the numerous factual errors (as well as several egregious errors of interpretation). Ballmer writes:

Although Douthat’s grasp of American religious history is sometimes tenuous — he misdates the Second Great Awakening, mistakes Puritans for Pilgrims and erroneously traces the disaffection of American Catholics to the Second Vatican Council rather than the papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae” — there is much to commend his argument. Yes, the indexes of religious adherence are down, and the quality of religious discourse in America has diminished since the 1950s, in part because of the preference for therapy over theology. Theological illiteracy is appalling; many theologians, like academics generally, prefer to speak to one another rather than engage the public.

But the glass-is-half-full approach, to borrow from the famous Peace Corps ad of this era, looks rather different. I’m not sure that the enervation of religion as institution since the 1950s is entirely a bad thing; institutions, in my experience, are remarkably poor vessels for piety. An alternative reading of the liberal “accommodationists” Douthat so reviles is that they have enough confidence in the relevance and integrity of the faith to confront, however imperfectly, such fraught issues as women’s ordination and homosexuality rather than allow them to fester as they have for centuries. I suspect, moreover, that Douthat has overestimated the influence of intellectual trends like the Jesus Seminar. The thinkers he quotes are important, but I would also recommend the lesser-known work of writers like Roger Olson, Jean Sulivan, Doug Frank, Miroslav Volf and David James Duncan as evidence of the vitality of Christian thinking; they may occasionally poke provocatively at the edges of orthodoxy, but most do so from well within its frame. Finally, the fact that we are having this conversation at all (much less in the pages of this newspaper) is testament to the enduring relevance of faith in what sociologists long ago predicted would be a secular society.

Like any good jeremiad, “Bad Religion” concludes with what evangelicals would recognize as an altar call. Douthat invites readers to entertain “the possibility that Christianity might be an inheritance rather than a burden,” and he elevates such eclectic phenomena as home schooling, third-world Christianity and the Latin Mass as sources for renewal.

Religion in the rearview mirror never looked better.

An hour-long video conversation between Douthat and Andrew Sullivan: