Friday 17 October 2014

Odd sins and synods

                              Flock of Cardinals. (Seems to contain a few wrong 'uns.)

Oh, I've really got little idea what to say about the Synod. Over the week, I've found myself going backwards and forwards: wanting to think it's all right (and so retweeting soothing tweets from soothing others); and then getting worked up a little (so retweeting apocalyptic announcements based on 6th century Irish sources); and then.... Well, you get the point.

As an individual Catholic, I've long come to the conclusion that's there's no point in getting worked up by the daily news cycle: the frenetic need for novelty and emotion is simply bad. Nothing worthwhile is achieved. Perhaps the greatest (and worst) change since my childhood is the abandonment of Sunday closing and the tendency to shut shops for a half day on Wednesdays. We need (regularly) to do nothing. Bring back the Sabbath.

But as a key Catholic commentator with a worldwide audience sometimes reaching into double figures, I realize that this is shirking my responsibilities. And so...

There are a couple of different aspects that struck me. First, there is the politicization of the process. Something that's striking me more and more is the absolute mystery of the individual's journey to God (or just truth). You can't (eg) institutionalize Socrates: the whole point of his prodding and maieutics was to get people to live out that journey themselves. Now this is of course the substance of (especially) the Eastern Orthodox attacks on Catholicism: that it tends to turn the mystery of faith into a bureaucratic process. (Think Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor.) Turning to the Synod, the process of lobbying, preparation of papers etc, just seems to be making a category mistake: whatever will bring people to God, it won't be this sort of committee meeting and position papers.

Now, I'm completely unconvinced by the general attack on Catholicism from this direction. (You need the ability to be clear and even bureaucratic to exist effectively in the world.) On the other hand, in this case, I do wonder what on earth is expected from this Synod: is there some magic formula that will reverse the decline in religious practice when serious Catholics such as Louise Mensch in irregular relationships have already found a way through under the present system? This isn't a bureaucratic problem to be solved by committee but a problem of attitude. The problem is existing in societies which are no longer Christian and even positively anti-Christian: of course that makes living out Christian teachings more difficult, but no tinkering with admission/exclusion from Communion will alter that fundamental fact. (There was a similar sort of pretence about the possibilities of bureacratic process with the vox pop surveys that preceded the Synod (my previous post). We pretended they mattered but really they were the sort of dismal process that bureaucracies indulge in, and which require that everyone pretends to think them important whilst knowing they are useless. Think setting out transferable skills for academic courses.)

One other aspect that struck me is that I was totally unsurprised by some of the liberal posturings that came out of the Synod. It really can't be a surprise that we have a Church where (some? many?) Bishops sound like liberal Protestants. Anyone who's lived in the Catholic Church in the West knows this is the state we're in. It is, moreover, something that exists in all parts of the hierarchy. (The conclusion I draw from Father Lucie-Smith's reflection that the Synod only repeats what he was taught by theologians at the Gregorian is that the rot existed there as well. But again, really, are we surprised at that?)

What we have here is a crisis of one type of authority in the Church: that of the hierarchy. The Synod exists because lay Catholics won't listen to the teachings of the Church with docility if they clash with their secularized consciences. The Synod has got into trouble because an increasingly more theologically aware body of practising Catholics won't accept the sort of back of an envelope theology that Anglicans have specialized in since the sixties. At one level, that might suggest that the Catholic Church is caught in a terminal bind: since its main 'attraction' for such refugees from secularity as me is precisely its claims to supernatural authority, the loss of trust in the representatives of that authority surely means an end to its USP? Perhaps. But let's try a different view. Docility towards the hierarchy has always been one element in the Church's package of authority. It has operated, for example, in conjunction with the development and articulation of doctrine, and the examples and teachings of Doctors and Saints. We have never simply obeyed Bishops; we have always to some degree looked to the other elements of authority. To take Vatican II at its word (and to take St John Paul II's emphasis on that personal element in theology) modernity has seen a rebalancing of that complex interaction of authority away from the persons of the hierarchy towards a reliance on other sources (of which, perhaps, the Catechism is symbolic). If that is the case, Bishops etc need to recognize that they are becoming less important than they once were. (Which is not to say that they are unimportant.) Instead of trying to sort it out via a Synod, why not point away from themselves, towards an encouragement of the laity to engage with St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis, St John Paul etc etc? (Or even pray a little more??) )

So, in modernity, we have to do it for ourselves. But that doesn't give us carte blanche to find authority wherever we like. Every time a progressive Catholic stands up, Bishop or laity, ask them where they think more authority lies: in the Summa, or in feminism? In the whining of secularized Westerners, or in the lamentations of the psalmist? I'm not a great fan of ressourcement as a twentieth century concrete phenomenon. But the essential idea is fine. Whom do you trust for your authority? Saints or sinners? Yourself, or the holy men and women who have gone before you?


  1. Lazarus, we may not agree about the Ressourcement (the wonderfully Christocentric Balthasar is an important point of reference for me); however, I am completely with you anent the need to avoid getting worked up by the unending churn that is the news cycle: conscientious Catholics have to realise that keeping up with the latest developments within society and the Church does not count as spiritual reading! We can help ourselves, of course, by reducing the time we spend on the Internet and other forms of media, and increasing the time we spend in prayer, worship and acts of charity.

  2. Oddly enough, Balthasar is very important to me as well! I have no problem in returning to Patristics and Scripture as a way of refreshing theology. My objection is when such ressourcement suggests that subsequent developments -esp neo-Thomism- are to be jettisoned as corruptions rather than seen as merely incomplete. I tend to think of Garrigou-Lagrange (perhaps the greatest neo-Thomist) and von Balthasar as the skeleton and the flesh: neo-Thomism providing the structure and the support, the imaginative use of Patristics as providing the flesh.

    I agree about internet use! (Oh the irony!!)

  3. Ah, ok. The thing is as well that both theologians are accessible to us as part of the great Catholic Tradition: their roles are surely different, but it's not as if we have to choose one over the other.

    These days it seems the most natural thing in the world to use the internet to criticise excessive internet use. I get the impression though that the addictive nature of gaming and certain social media can make matters worse for many online.