Monday, October 20, 2014

Temptations toward Extremes: Pope Francis' Concluding Synod Speech

If you haven't had a chance to read the speech Pope Francis gave at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, take some time to do so.  You can read it here and watch a video of the speech at the bottom of this post.  I found myself moved while reading the speech, which is both lighthearted and deeply theological.  Particularly valuable, I think, is Pope Francis' diagnosis of the various temptations we face as Roman Catholics - clergy and lay alike - when discussing issues as complex as marriage/divorce, familial life, and homosexuality:
One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…
There's much in here to digest, and I've found myself reading and re-reading these paragraphs.  What struck me most had to do with Pope Francis' understanding of how the church is to undertake theological discernment, specifically in relation to tradition and the 'world'.

I think Pope Francis warns above of two extremes, both of which are to be rejected: One, the extreme of undertaking theological discernment with the goal being accommodation to the dominant culture (or 'worldly spirit').  Two, the extreme of viewing the tradition of the church as being completely immobile, as being incapable of development and/or nuance. 

Temptation to Accommodation

The relationship of the church to the 'world' is a complicated one.  The church is not ahistorical; it exists in the world and is necessarily influenced by it.  There have been times when the church existed in an unhealthy relationship with the world; I think specifically of the ways in which Christian political theology was negatively transformed after Constantine.  And there have been times when the church attempted too vigorously to cut itself off from the world, to portray itself as entirely distinct from the world, and so to approach the world primarily from a position of condemnation rather than dialogue; I think specifically of the long-nineteenth century inaugurated by Pope Pius IX.

I've written on this blog before about the more open attitude Pope Francis has toward the world, an attitude similarly expressed by Pope St John XXIII.  "The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is," Pope Francis said in his interview published in America, "these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today."

But Pope Francis' attitude towards the world is not an uncritical one.  There is a big difference between interpreting the signs of the times and allowing the dominating culture to dictate the parameters of theological discernment.  Francis refers above to the necessity of 'purifying' worldly spirits, bending them to the Holy Spirit.  This is definitely not accommodation.  This is reading the signs of the times carefully through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that there is much in the world that is worthwhile but there is much that is not.  We learned from following the Synod that such discernment is complex and messy, and we do not know to what conclusions the Synod will finally arrive next year.  These conclusions may perhaps look to some like accommodation, but it is important to recognize that the starting point of the bishops' theological discernment is and will be Jesus Christ, who was the sign of contradiction precisely because he demonstrated a way of being rooted in a generous love that many found threatening.  In this, the church's starting point differs radically from the dominant culture's starting point, making the conclusions to which they arrive necessarily distinct from those of the dominant culture.

Temptation to a Rigid Traditionalism

Pope Francis also warns above about the temptation to inflexibility; to look at the tradition of the church as a bulwark that doesn't admit of development; to look at tradition as something ahistorically communicated without recognizing that tradition developed in conversation with the signs of the times; to see tradition primarily as a series of doctrinal statements rather than the ongoing relationship of the church to the God who reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ and deepens our understanding through the Holy Spirit.

I'm undoubtedly caricaturing the thought of my traditionalist friends (and so am open to correction), but I get the strong sense from them that they understand tradition as something already revealed that requires no elaboration, deepening of understanding, or development of thought.  They seem to tend to view tradition propositionally (that is, merely as a series of doctrinal propositions) rather than as the process by which the church continues to grow ever deeper in understanding of the divine will.  They seem to view tradition as static.

But a static understanding of tradition does not appear to be an authentically Roman Catholic understanding of tradition.  The whole of Dei Verbum - Vatican II's document on divine revelation - is worth examining on this point, but I take just one paragraph as an example of the church's understanding:
This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.  For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (Dei Verbum 8)
For reasons that I have to admit that I don't entirely understand, I've heard many over the past few weeks suggest that a static understanding of tradition is the only alternative to nihilism and chaos.  For fear of such chaos, they insist on the letter of tradition without perhaps recognizing the Spirit who guides the church.

A Tightrope

Against these two temptations, Pope Francis urges us in the church to walk a tightrope between progressivist accommodation and traditionalist retreat to stasis.  To traverse this tightrope appears to be an uncomfortable process that involves disagreement, debate, and dialogue, all of which will continue over the coming year as the bishops in conversation with the laity continue their discernment.  It is also a tightrope where the conclusions are not absolutely clear, and this is for all involved more than a little nerve-wracking.  It is one that requires humility in the face of theological disagreement, a humility that recognizes our limitations to comprehend entirely the will of a God who transcends all things, but also one that is willing to - in Pope Francis' words - be surprised by God.

I myself am a lowly patristics scholar whose main field of study is the development of Trinitarian theology.  My specialty is not contemporary Catholicism, nor is it the intricacies of Roman Catholic understanding of the development of doctrine.  I am, therefore, open to constructive criticism in what I'm written above.

Photo above from


  1. Me thinks you should check out websites such as Bilgrimage and The Open Tabernacle, plus the various websites that link into them in order to get a more realistic assessment of the dark under-currents that are influencing the future direction of the "catholic" church and the so-called "pastoral revolution" which according to all of the usual (propaganda) suspects Francis is supposedly instigating. It seems as though some of these dark under-currents are even being cultivated by Francis

    1. I understand the appeal of conspiracy theories. I do not, however, place any stock in them.

  2. Humility in the face of theological disagreement is a rare but absolutely necessary virtue.

  3. New to your blog. Very nice article. As someone more on the "traditionalist" end of the spectrum (though moderately so), is that it seems to me that those who say "development" often mean "alteration." With development a thing is extended to be more fully itself, while alteration is change away from what a thing originally is. I am doing my best to trust that Francis and the synod fathers are being led by the Holy Spirit towards true development, but a doubting part in me worries that what is really going to happen is alteration, an alteration of the kind that will show the Church to be just one more human institution, albeit an unusually rigid one that has finally crumbled before worldly pressure. This doubting part makes me fear for my faith, which I have always found to be the most precious thing in my life.

    1. Dei Verbum talks about development primarily in terms of comprehending more fully God's self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ in and through the Holy Spirit. That may take the church to ideas that look like alteration, but that, when looked at more deeply, are not. This has, it seems to me, happened throughout Christian history, and will continue to do so.