Monday, September 29, 2014

Progressives, Conservatives, & the Synod on the Family

I read this morning a pre-synod interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper in America Magazine.  Cardinal Kasper has in recent weeks come under fire for his proposals regarding the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, one of the issues that will be discussed at the upcoming Synod on the Family.  In the interview, Cardinal Kasper responds to those - Cardinal Müller & Cardinal Burke to name a couple - who have opposed him, suggesting that his interlocutors fear that any change in the discipline could result in a domino effect whereby all aspects of Catholic faith would come up for questioning:
I think they fear a domino effect, if you change one point all would collapse. That’s their fear. This is all linked to ideology, an ideological understanding of the Gospel that the Gospel is like a penal code. 
But the Gospel is, as the Pope said in ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ (Evangelii Gaudium), quoting Thomas Aquinas, the Gospel is the gift of the Holy Spirit which is in the soul of faithful and becomes operating in love. That’s a different understanding. It is not a museum. It is a living reality in the church and we have to walk with the whole people of God and see what the needs of the people are. Then we have to make a discernment in the light of the Gospel, which is not a code of doctrines and commandments.
I like the second paragraph of Cardinal Kasper's response more than I like his first.  He is right to emphasize the preeminence of love and mercy in any interpretation of the gospel, but I worry about the kind of language he uses to characterize his opponents.  Kasper strongly implies above that those opposed to his viewpoints are not concerned with love and mercy, but are concerned primarily with ideology and punishment.

This strikes me as an unfair characterization.  I'm not a moral theologian, nor am I a pastor.  My understanding of the intricacies of the church's theology of marriage is limited, and as a result, I've taken a 'wait-and-see' approach to the synod's deliberations on the issue of divorce and remarriage, though I will admit that Kasper's language resonates of love and mercy resonates with  me.  But it is, I think, unhelpful to caricature one's opponents, particularly given that he himself has been caricatured.  It does little to promote dialogue.

Kasper rightly compares the atmosphere surrounding the Synod on the Family to that of the Second Vatican Council, and his comments reminded me of Thomas Merton's observations regarding the hardening of division between progressives and conservatives that occurred during and after the Council.  I've posted these comments before, but they bear repeating, particularly as I fear further estrangement between progressives and conservatives as a result of the Synod.

Used with permission of The Merton Legacy Trust
In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton expresses his frustration with the intransigence of progressives and conservatives, and particularly their unwillingness to have their engagement with the other marked by charity.  Merton's focus is on 'extreme' conservatives and progressives, and so he does, admittedly, indulge in some caricature of each side.  But it's his broader point that bears attention.  He writes:
The extreme conservatives seem to me to be people who feel themselves so menaced that they will go to any length in order to defend their own fanatical concept of the Church.  This concept seems to me to be not only static and inert, but in complete continuity with what is most questionable and indeed scandalous in the history of the Church: Inquisition, persecution, intolerance, Papal power, clerical influence, alliance with worldly power, love of wealth and pomp, etc.  This is a picture of the Church which has become a scandal and these people are intent on preserving the scandal at the cost of greater scandal.
...They are so convinced that they are the Church that they are almost ready to declare the majority of bishops to be virtual apostates, rather than obey the Council and the Pope.  At the same time, of course, their hysteria suggests that they are having a little trouble handling the guilty which this inevitably arouses in them.
On the other hand, the refusal of the extreme progressives to pay any attention to any traditional teaching which would give them a common basis for rational discussion with conservatives is surely scandalous also - especially when it is allied with an arrogant triumphalism of its own, and when it simply ridicules all opposition.  This is not only foolish, but seems to show a serious lack of that love to which they frequently appeal is justification of their procedures.  Though they are continually shouting about "openness" one finds them hermetically closed to their fellow Catholics and to the Church's own past, and there is some validity to the conservative accusation that these extreme progressives often are more open to Marxism, to positivism, or to existentialism than they are to what is generally recognizable as Catholic truth.
It has been remarked with truth that conservatives and progressives in the Church are so concerned with total victory over each other that they are more and more closed to each other.  If this is the case, one seriously wonders about the value and significance of the much touted "openness" to non-Catholics.  An ecumenism that does not begin with charity within one's own Church remains questionable (316-317).
This intransigence and lack of charity is alive and well in the Roman Catholic church.  Despite the many benefits of the internet, it has done little to contribute to charitable dialogue and disagreement; social media and the comments sections are rife with those determined to demonstrate that their viewpoint is the only valid one.

Yesterday Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI publicly embraced as they celebrated the elderly.  While I do not want to make too much of this embrace (such things are expected) nor of the supposed differences between the two popes (which I think are wildly exaggerated), Francis and Benedict represent to many two distinct theological and pastoral approaches.  I'd like to suggest that their embrace yesterday become an icon for us of our unity, a unity that transcends and encompasses our differences.

A unity centered in true charity, the love that God is.

Photo of Cardinal Kasper from
Image of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI from

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