By Robert Royal
In the past week or so, the pope has: praised “that great imperial Russia” for its noble culture and humanity (a remark later admitted to be “badly phrased”); lauded Genghis Khan’s blood-soaked empire for its religious tolerance and “pax mongolica” (40 million killed, give or take); encouraged Chinese Christians to be good citizens of a nation whose “culture” he greatly admires and whose government is, he says, “very respectful” towards the Church (other views abound); shied away from saying anything more about Nicaragua where the Ortegas are basically outlawing Catholicism and a bishop has been sentenced to 26 years in jail; and denounced worried Catholics, especially American Catholics, for their criticisms of – well – many things, but especially “politicizing” the upcoming Synod on Synodality, and embracing rigid and empty “ideologies” instead of following the living doctrine of the Faith.
Even for someone like the present writer, who has seen “unbelievable” things happen over decades of following faith and politics in Rome and Washington, this has been a breathtaking stretch. And one has to ask, seriously: Is there something wrong in Rome?
The remarks about Russia and Mongolia, for instance, read as if some ghostwriter in the Vatican was given the task of finding something positive to say about those countries. And after a quick glance at Wikipedia, plucked those gems out of a mass of other, far less flattering, material.
That was already bad enough. But it’s scandalous, in the proper sense of the term, that those ridiculous remarks, isolated from any other considerations, past and present (e.g., the invasion of Ukraine or the kind of “imperialism” Pope Francis would recoil from, in horror, if perpetrated by the United States), could have passed in front of various pairs of eyes – or at least been discussed privately with the Holy Father – and then aired in public by the head of the One, Holy, Roman, and Apostolic Church.
Pope Francis may not believe it – given his circle of advisers, who know as little about America as he does – but loyal Catholics, even in America, feel great reluctance having to point out the nakedness of the Holy Father in such matters. In fact, we lament having to say anything about it at all, given that it often could be, with a little more care, avoided. Still, it would be a betrayal of real loyalty and even of a certain affection for the office – to say nothing of the Truth – if we simply indulged such things without a bit of truth-telling.
What, for example, is a well-intentioned American Catholic supposed to make of this farrago, which the pope put forward on the plane back from Mongolia when asked about criticisms of the synod:
Always, when one wants to detach from the path of communion in the Church, what always pulls it apart is ideology. And they accuse the Church of this or that, but they never make an accusation of what is true: (it is made up of) sinners. They never speak of sin. . . .They defend a “doctrine”, a doctrine like distilled water that has no taste and is not true Catholic doctrine, that is, in the Creed. And that very often scandalizes. How scandalous is the idea that God became flesh, that God became Man, that Our Lady kept her virginity? This scandalizes.
You could try to parse this out and salvage some meaning, but it might be a better expression of filial piety towards the Successor of Peter to say: Holy Father, please, don’t do this sort of thing. (Really, traditional Catholics don’t invoke the Creed, Incarnation, Blessed Virgin, a Church of sinners, or. . .what?) Better to remain silent at certain points on the plane, in a meeting, during the Wednesday General Audiences, than – in a media age – when your every word will be scrutinized, and not always by friends of the Faith, to draw the whole Church into such tortured rhetorical thickets.
Further, when people are troubled by criticisms like those lobbed at American Catholics, a truly welcoming and listening Church would try to “walk with” them, too, on the synodal path. An Eastern Orthodox prelate recently observed that the synod that will soon begin is not a recovery of an ancient form of Synodality lost in the West but preserved in the East. The Eastern tradition is what we had in the West a short while ago, too, a synod of bishops, an assembly of those with the apostolic authority to debate serious Church matters.
But if you’re going to ignore both the Eastern and Western tradition and seek to have a Christian discussion among bishops and laity – however oddly some delegates have been chosen – and call it a “Synod on Synodality,” it’s very strange to dismiss the most faithful and fervent members of the Church with “move on, move on” (as Francis did) when you’ve just attacked them. Such treatment is the very reason many look upon the synod as something other than what it professes to be.
It’s not political “chatter” (PF, in flight) either, to bring up real concerns about the Synod based on what we’ve seen of the process thus far (we will be doing daily coverage from Rome here at TCT and via EWTN as well). Synod sessions will be “closed” to allow candid discussion. Which is fine in theory, but no mere machinery can now abolish the polarization that the process itself has produced – as was also the case in past synods.
Invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit, too, is not an answer to concrete questions that a tradition of Faith and Reason has always known must be confronted head-on and resolved by hard thinking, always in light of Scripture and tradition.
Pre-emptive discrediting of certain voices, which may also be of the Holy Spirit, is not openness or welcome. It looks a lot like ecclesiastical ideology – perhaps even neo-clericalism