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By way of introduction...

In summoning last October’s special meeting of the Synod of Bishops and the regular session of the Synod that will begin its work on October 5, Pope Francis called the entire Church to an open, wide-ranging, and honest discussion of the crisis of marriage and the family in the 21st century, and to a Gospel-centered exploration of what the Catholic Church might do to respond to this crisis with greater pastoral impact, thus renewing the vocation of marriage and restoring its luster.

LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD is a response to that call.

In the days immediately before Synod 2015, during the Synod, and for at least a few days after the Synod concludes on October 25, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will offer reports on, and analysis of, the Synod, its issues and its process, from some of the most knowledgeable Catholic commentators in the English-speaking world. In addition, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will provide links to insightful reporting and commentary from other sources, in the hope of facilitating the widest possible intelligent discussion of the important matters with which the Synod – and indeed the entire Catholic Church – must contend. Further, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will feature interviews with bishops, theologians, and lay experts on marriage and the family, both those attending the Synod and those attending to business at home. LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will appear on the New York-based Web site of First Things, the London-based Web site of the Catholic Herald, and the Sydney-based Web site of the Catholic Weekly. In the spirit of open discussion encouraged by Pope Francis, readers are encouraged to share materials first appearing at LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD with others.

Much of the material in LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will be signed by the author(s) in question. The interview material will, of course, speak the mind of those being interviewed. Other material on LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD will appear under the byline of our pseudonymous editor. “Xavier Rynne” introduced the world to what he dubbed “theological journalism” during the first session of the Second Vatican Council. One of the greatest of the Council’s theologians, Fr. Henri de Lubac, SJ (named cardinal by John Paul II in 1983), described “Rynne”’s work as “certainly well-informed – although dramatizing things in a one-side manner...without anything on the actual heart of the matter.” Xavier Rynne II pledges to deepen the tradition of “theological journalism” in LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD, avoiding hyper-dramatization while keeping a sharp eye on the heart of the matter at Synod 2015; or, to borrow from “Rynne” himself, spades will be called spades and, when necessary, knaves will be called knaves.

Xavier Rynne II is also taking a cue from the Synod general secretariat, which, in 2014 and 2015, has taken the position that the bishops’ interventions at the Synod should be de facto pseudonymous, as they are the “property” of the Synod, will not be released publicly, and will be summarized by the Holy See Press Office in its briefings (which typically do not identify who-said-what). While we hope that this might be changed by action on the floor of the Synod in its opening days – one does not risk much by suggesting that the people of the Church have a right to know what their bishops are saying about matters that affect us all – there is also something to be said for the freedom of expression that is, according to the Synod secretariat, afforded to the bishop-delegates by the secretariat’s decision to put their interventions into a kind of synodal lockbox. Simili modo, we hope to afford those who wish to speak plainly, in charity but “behind the veil,” as it were, that very same freedom: the aim of which is to inform, not to insult, disparage, or demean.

In the long view of history, Synod 2014 and Synod 2015 will likely appear as crucial markers along the difficult path that has been the Catholic Church’s encounter with, and challenge to, modernity, these past two hundred fifty years or so. So in reporting on Synod 2015, and in the commentary published in LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD, we will try to keep in mind the larger historical, cultural, and ecclesial contexts of the Synod’s deliberations: which is not, to put it gently, the specialité de la maison in much of the world media. Thus in the days to come, some suggestions will be made in this space about the deeper issues being contested at Synod 2015, in the hope that our readers will see the Synod and its work as we like to imagine Pope Francis sees them: as set against a large and dramatic horizon, full of shadows, but also penetrated by rays of brilliant light, most of which emanate from the heart of the Risen Christ. XR2


Semper Idem, indeed

Some instructive reading – pre-Synodal, intra-Synodal, post-Synodal, or all-of-the-above – is provided by a new book from Ignatius Press, Vatican Council Notebooks: Volume One, by Fr. Henri de Lubac, SJ, an acknowledged giant of 20th-century Catholic theology. To his great surprise, de Lubac, widely thought to be one of the targets of the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis and its critique of certain new styles in theology, was invited to be part of the preparatory sessions in Rome that laid the groundwork for Vatican II; he then participated in all four sessions of the Council as a theological adviser, or peritus.

De Lubac’s “notebooks” (journals, really) remind us that giants walked the earth in those days: theologians and churchmen thoroughly steeped in the traditions of Catholic theology and able to range over vast amounts of intellectual territory with seeming ease; men who could pun brilliantly in Latin as well as in their native languages; men of deep spiritual discipline, intense loyalty to the Church, and puckish good humor – which sometimes spilled over into what can only be called wicked good humor. De Lubac’s notebooks are not quite so pungent as those of his fellow Frenchman, the Dominican Yves Congar, who would also be given the red hat by John Paul II. (Congar, for example, could write without blushing of the “horrible satrapism” that surrounded Pius XII, and labeled one of his opponents a “fascist” and a “monophysite”: which, even amongst intellectual combatants, is strong stuff.) But de Lubac, a gentler soul, did not pull his punches when it came to recording his aggravations with the ways certain Vatican officials and Rome-based theologians were trying to manipulate Vatican II before it even opened – and then tried the same thing again in the Council’s first days.

The villain of this part of Vatican II history (not least as rendered by “Xavier Rynne”) is the Roman cardinal, Alfredo Ottaviani, the de facto head of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in its previous incarnation was led by the pope himself). Pinning the devil’s tail on Cardinal Ottaviani is not without its problems, for Ottaviani was in many ways an admirable character. In a Roman world whose class distinctions were nicely conveyed by the title of the graduate school for the Church’s diplomats, the “Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics,” Ottaviani had risen to eminence from the bottom of the pile, being born the son of a humble baker in Trastevere (now funky and upscale, not so when Alfredo was a boy). He was a man of considerable personal charm and some wit; he was deeply pious; and it’s not all that difficult to imagine him saying, as did the fictional Cardinal Leone (a barely-disguised Ottaviani) in Morris West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman, that, if he had his life to live over again, he’d be a simple country pastor, “with just enough theology to hear confession, and just enough Latin to get through Mass and the sacramental formulae, but with heart enough to know what griped in the guts of other men and made them cry into their pillows at night.” It’s also of interest that Ottaviani was far to the left of most of the world episcopate on matters of war and peace, to the point where he urged Vatican II to condemn all forms of modern war.

So while Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani was far more than the caricature of cranky, reactionary intransigence created by his critics, he was also a man convinced that there was one way to do theology, that doctrine and orthodoxy were identical with that way of doing theology, and that innovation was the first step toward chaos: a stance that led him to adopt, as the Latin motto on his coat of arms, Semper Idem [Always the Same]. In light of those convictions, Ottaviani ran his part of the preparatory work for Vatican II in a way that seemed to him best guaranteed to produce the result he wanted from the Council: more idem, more of “the same.” He put his closest theological adviser, Fr. Sebastian Tromp, SJ, in as the staff boss of the preparatory theological commission, and while Ottaviani acceded to the appointment of de Lubac and others who had previously fallen under the gimlet eye of the Holy Office’s scrutiny, he made sure that he had the commission and its working groups well-filled with men on whom he could rely, ideologically.

Which brings us a supreme irony suggested by the de Lubac Notebooks. Semper Idem, it seems, continues to be a watchword for some in Rome. For de Lubac’s record of what he regarded as the manipulation of the pre-conciliar process by Ottaviani and Tromp reminds the contemporary observer of nothing so much as the complaints raised from many quarters about the way the Synod 2014 process was managed by the Synod general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, and his principal theological adviser, Archbishop Bruno Forte. The shenanigans, if they may be called that, were virtually identical, even if the location of the shenanigans on the spectrum of Catholic opinion has shifted to what might reasonably be called the other end zone. Lorenzo Baldisseri as Alfredo Ottaviani 2.0 is somewhat difficult to imagine; Bruno Forte as Sebastian Tromp 2.0 boggles the mind. Yet the patterns of behavior – including deck-stacking and the manipulation of reports for partisan purposes – seem virtually identical.

Some bold interventions in the very first week of Vatican II put paid to the attempt by the Ottaviani Party to arrange the Council’s working committees to its liking from the git-go. Will similar interventions be in order to ensure the open discussion Pope Francis has said he wants at Synod 2015?

Semper Idem....

George Weigel
Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E.
Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and
Public Policy Center, Washington D.C.


When he was elected to the Office of Peter in 1978, Pope St. John Paul II brought to Rome more direct, personal experience of marriage preparation, and a more extensive experience of pastoral ministry to married couples, than any pope in centuries. That ministry had begun when he was a young priest in Kraków; it continued throughout his years as archbishop of that city. It was an experience that led him to “know our lives from inside,” as one of those he prepared for marriage later said.

That experience also shaped his historic pontificate and magisterium, which included the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio[The Community of the Family], brief excerpts from which are reprinted below as one example of an appropriately evangelical framework for Synod 2015. XR2

Knowing that marriage and the family constitute one of the most precious of human values, the Church wishes to speak and offer her help to those who are already aware of the value of marriage and the family and seek to live it faithfully, to those who are uncertain and anxious and searching for the truth, and to those who are unjustly impeded from living freely their family lives. Supporting the first, illuminating the second, and assisting the others, the Church offers her services to every person who wonders about the destiny of marriage and the family.

In a particular way the Church addresses the young, who are beginning their journey towards marriage and family life, for the purpose of presenting them with new horizons, helping them to discover the beauty and grandeur of the vocation to love and the service of life….

… Illuminated by the faith that gives her an understanding of all the truth concerning the great value of marriage and the family and their deepest meaning, the Church once again feels the pressing need to proclaim the Gospel, that is the “good news,” to all people without exception, in particular to all those who are called to marriage and are preparing for it, to all married couples and parents in the world.

The Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled.

Willed by God in the very act of creation, marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ and have need of His graces in order to be healed from the wounds of sin and restored to their “beginning,” that is, to full understanding and the full realization of God's plan.

At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God…

The communion between God and His people finds its definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom who loves and gives Himself as the Savior of humanity, uniting it to Himself as His body.

He reveals the original truth of marriage, the truth of the “beginning,” and, freeing man from his hardness of heart, he makes man capable of realizing this truth in its entirety.

This revelation reaches its definitive fullness in the gift of love that the Word of God makes to humanity in assuming a human nature, and in the sacrifice which Jesus Christ makes of himself on the Cross for his bride, the Church. In this sacrifice there is entirely revealed that plan which God has imprinted on the humanity of man and woman since their creation; the marriage of baptized persons thus becomes a real symbol of that new and eternal covenant sanctioned in the blood of Christ. The Spirit that the Lord pours forth gives a new heart, and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ has loved us. Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained, conjugal charity, which is the proper and specific way in which the spouses participate in and are called to live the very charity of Christ who gave himself on the Cross.

In a deservedly famous page, Tertullian has well expressed the greatness of this conjugal life in Christ and its beauty: “How can I ever express the happiness of the marriage that is joined together by the Church strengthened by an offering, sealed by a blessing, announced by angels and ratified by the Father? ...How wonderful the bond between two believers with a single hope, a single desire, a single observance, a single service! They are both brethren and both fellow-servants; there is no separation between them in spirit or flesh; in fact they are truly two in one flesh and where the flesh is one, one is the spirit.”

Receiving and meditating faithfully on the word of God, the Church has solemnly taught and continues to teach that the marriage of the baptized is one of the seven sacraments of the New Covenant.

Indeed, by means of baptism, man and woman are definitively placed within the new and eternal covenant, in the spousal covenant of Christ with the Church. And it is because of this indestructible insertion that the intimate community of conjugal life and love, founded by the Creator, is elevated and assumed into the spousal charity of Christ, sustained and enriched by His redeeming power.

By virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church.

Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers.


A Homiletic Meditation on This Moment, and the Synod’s Issues

What follows are excerpts from a homily preached by the Very Rev. Jay Scott Newman at St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina, during Synod 2014. Father Newman’s reflections on the current cultural situation, the New Evangelization, and the current state of marriage in West bear prayerful meditation as the Church and its bishops prepare for further discussion, at Synod 2015, of how we shall be the Church in the post-modern world. XR2

the legal dispute over same sex marriage in the United States has now been decided, and in that contest the traditional Christian understanding of marriage lost. What you may be surprised to learn is that I welcome this defeat, and I want to explain why.

Since I began to preach from this pulpit over thirteen years ago, I have attempted in a variety of ways to explain that we now live in what must rightly be called a post-Christian era in human history. It has been many decades, some would say centuries, since the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the primary engine for the formation of culture in the West, and now we are seeing the rapid abandonment of the Gospel as a source of law in the West. For fifty years and more, the trajectory of law and culture in Europe and the United States has been away from the Christian worldview and towards a new paganism, particularly in regard to sex, marriage, reproduction and family life: no fault divorce, birth control, abortion, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, embryonic stem cell manipulation, assisted suicide, multiple remarriages, and now same-sex marriage. These changes in law and custom are but a reflection of the post-Christian character of our civilization, and for most people today, Christianity is neither a life-changing nor life-giving force; it is simply a relic of a pre-modern past. And that is among the many reasons we are now witnessing the all but complete collapse of cultural Christianity.

Though it may be an unpleasant prospect to contemplate, I welcome this collapse of cultural Christianity because I believe that only when Christianity as a cultural memory is gone can Christianity as an evangelical movement return. As for Christians in the first centuries after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, so now it is our privilege in a post-Christian culture to change human lives one at a time and then to form vibrant sub-cultures which can eventually shape entire cultures with the liberating truth of the Word of God. That is the framework of the New Evangelization and of Evangelical Catholicism, and in that sense I welcome the arrival of same-sex marriage in the United States as a harbinger of the time when the boundaries between the Church and the world can be clarified, especially for us, by the disappearance of the last vestiges of cultural Christianity. In other words, Christians must let go of nostalgia for our faded Christian civilization in order to build it again.

If we can see the collapse of cultural Christianity as a great evangelical opportunity, then with joy and love we can proclaim Jesus Christ crucified and risen to the millions of people who now have only debonair nihilism to help them understand the purpose and meaning of their lives. To put it plainly: if we let the new pagans be honest pagans, then we have a new opportunity to propose to them that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the living God, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It’s when we ask others to live as Christians without being Christians that we set the stage for bitter conflict with those who do not share our faith, and in fidelity to her divine Lord, the Church never seeks to impose herself or her teaching on any person or society. We seek only the liberty to teach what Christ teaches, to organize our lives around that teaching, and to invite all others to accept him as Lord and Savior.

Now responsible voices in the Church will respond to me that in sketching the drama of our times in this way, I have surrendered too much, including the truths about human nature that we can know by right reason alone without the assistance of grace or by saving faith in the truth of divine revelation. I have deep respect for those who offer that criticism, many of whom are my teachers and friends, and they may be right. But abstract principles of the natural law no longer have purchase in the minds of the majority of Western people, and arguments derived from those principles are irrelevant in a culture which is running away from the God of the Bible as fast as possible and rejecting the entire project of biblical religion as hostile to human freedom and flourishing. In such a time as ours, it is imperative for the effectiveness of our evangelical witness that we begin at the beginning and ask no one to accept the conclusions of Christian faith who does not first believe the premises of that faith. Let pagans once again be pagans so that Christians can once again be Christians proclaiming Jesus Christ in a world where he is no longer or not yet known and loved.

This Wednesday is the 33rd anniversary of my night of fire, the night in which the living God took hold of my life and revealed his love to me so that in the obedience of faith I could find true freedom, the evangelical freedom of the children of God. I was then a college boy of 19, and my life changed that night when I accepted the truth of the Gospel. Most disciples of the Lord Jesus will never have such a dramatic experience of grace, but every Christian must have heard at some point in his or her life the clarion call of Christ: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Only from the personal conviction of conversion to Jesus Christ can we find the desire and strength to live as Christians must live in every time and place. We must be a sign of contradiction. We must live as strangers in every country, including this country, because we are citizens only of the heavenly Jerusalem. We must be disciples and friends of the Word made Flesh, who calls us to be salt and light in this world, so that others may see in him God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.

I have set aside the readings for today to speak about these things because one task of every pastor is to help his people read the signs of the times, and I believe that the arrival of same-sex marriage in our nation is an important sign of our times. Yes, it is a sign of the end of the influence of cultural Christianity, but for that very reason, I believe it is also a sign of a great evangelical possibility. And to take full advantage of this opportunity, Christians must heighten the contradictions between the Church and the world so that all will see what true Christianity is and how Christians live and love.

I hope, for example, that our bishops will completely disentangle the Church from civil marriage and teach our people to visit a judge if they want the State to consider them life partners but to come to the altar if they want to receive the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and live as husbands and wives in Christ. I believe that we must equip every Christian to resist and refute the lies of the sexual revolution and find the interior freedom needed to cultivate the virtues of chastity and self-mastery, both in single life and in marriage — not in order to repress sexual desires but to integrate them into healthy personalities according to the Creator’s design for us. I also believe that in prayer, service, and study we must find the courage to bear witness to Jesus Christ in every corner of our lives and in our every corner of our hearts, even when — especially when — that witness will cost us dearly. I believe that in the wasteland of debonair nihilism we have a precious and rare chance to propose the Gospel as though for the first time to people who are prosperous and healthy but whose lives are, finally, without purpose and therefore unsatisfying. But to make that proposal we must first know the Gospel, believe the Gospel, live the Gospel and be prepared to share the Gospel with others.

In short, we must all be missionaries, right here and right now. And one thing all missionaries learn to do in preparing to share the Gospel with others is always to be mindful of the human situation of those to whom we seek to give witness. In every human life there is something good, true and beautiful, and pagans search for love and want to live a good life no less than Christians. The same-sex couple, for example, in asking for marriage…are seeking to make the gift of self to another person which gives life meaning. Christians believe, of course, that such a gift of self can find its true meaning and purpose only when it is made in keeping with God’s plan for our lives, a plan that does not include same-sex marriage, but anyone who is already seeking a way to make that gift, however confusedly, is climbing the ladder of love, whether they know it or not. And a skillful missionary will use that as a starting point to invite the seeker to climb higher, not to humiliate or demean a human person who is created in the image and likeness of God, even when he is in the grip of sin. But above all else, a good missionary will never present Christianity as a moral code or set of rules to be obeyed for the sake of some future reward; a good missionary will explain that authentic Christianity, which of course does have a moral code, is first a relationship with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who alone can reveal our full dignity and eternal destiny and who alone can redeem us from the grave and give us a share in the glory of the one, only, living and true God.

My friends, by our Baptism we are called to invite others through our words and deeds to follow the more excellent way of divine love revealed by Jesus Christ on the Cross, but we cannot do that if we think or speak of those who do not share our faith with derision or contempt or hatred. So even as the news in the coming months is filled with smiling, newly married same-sex couples on the steps of the court house, do not allow your hearts to harden. Remember, instead, that the final collapse of cultural Christianity clears the way for a new proclamation of the Gospel which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, and our proclamation of that Gospel begins now and always with our own continuing and ever deeper conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

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