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The Bearable Lightness of Doctrine

Synod-2023 begins its final work week this morning with a Mass in the apse of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter, at what is known as the Altar of the Chair. Three and a half weeks ago, that great space witnessed the ordination of eighteen transitional deacons, students at the Pontifical North American College. It was a splendid and moving occasion: a vibrant testimony to what a living Churcha local Church formed in the authoritative interpretation of Vatican II by John Paul II and Benedict XVIlooks like. 

It is far beyond my pay grade to decide which of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s many masterpieces should rate as his greatest: The massive Altar of the Chair, at its most stunning when ablaze with more than a hundred tapers on February 22, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter? The nearby bronze baldacchino over the papal high altar, beneath which are the earthly remains of the Prince of the Apostles? The overall decorative scheme of St. Peter’s, an extraordinary challenge extraordinarily well met? What about the sculpture group Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, at the Galleria Borghese? Or the Ecstasy of St. Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria (titular church of an American member of the Synod, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M. Cap.)?

Irrespective of any rank-ordering among Bernini masterpieces, the Altar of the Chair bears a special message for Synod-2023. Synod discussions these past three weeks have often seemed obsessively focused on those biblical and Catholic truths that the post-modern Western world finds difficult, distasteful, or incomprehensible. Some, perhaps many, synodal discussants seem to have concluded that those teachings, which form part of what John XXIII called “the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine” at the opening of Vatican II, must be excessively burdensome.

No doubt the harder edges of the gospel have been a challenge for two millennia. They certainly were in Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s seventeenth century. Bernini, however, was a man of deep faith, and his composition of the Altar of the Chair testifies to his conviction that the truths of Catholic doctrine are not heavy, but light. So light, in fact, that the symbol of those apostolic truthsthe great bronze “chair” in which, tradition holds, fragments of St. Peter’s actual cathedra are enclosedis upheld by the mere fingertips of St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine: four of the Church’s greatest teachers. 

More than once these past three weeks, participants at Synod-2023 have reverse-riffed on Milan Kundera by deploring what some imagine to be the unbearable heaviness of doctrine. Holy Mass at the Altar of the Chair is a reminder of the liberating, and altogether bearable, lightness of doctrine: the truth that sets humanity free in the deepest meaning of human freedom. That truth should, of course, always be proclaimed with compassion and charity. But also with clarity and conviction. It would be reassuring and evangelically energizing if the theme of liberating truth were to get more attention during this final week of Synod-2023.

Confronting the Vile Beast of Antisemitism

As has been noted in this space before, Synod-2023 can seem to be taking place on a different planet. Intensely self-referential ecclesiocentricity has, thus far, been the hallmark of a synodal assembly formally dedicated to animating what Pope Francis has called a Church “permanently in mission.” Yet that hyper-focus on internal Catholic matters has tended to shut out the fact that the world to which the Church must be “permanently in mission” is in terrible shape right now. The parade of horriblesincluding a genocidal Russian war on Ukraine endorsed by the blasphemous Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, murders of Catholics in Nigeria, and the imprisonment of a bishop in Nicaraguais well known. But as Synod-2023 has ground on, something unspeakably vile, something not heard at such volume and in so many venues since the night of November 9–10, 1938, has fouled the global public space: “Kill the Jews!” Those who imagined the human condition had been purified of the corrosive hatreds that led to such cries on Kristallnacht should think again.

One of the many things right about the post-conciliar Catholic Church is its reconfigured relationship to living Judaism. That has been made possible in part by the tremendous efforts of Pope St. John Paul II to initiate a new depth of conversation between the two peoples of The Book: efforts emblematically represented by his historic visits to the Synagogue of Rome in 1986, by his achingly profound remarks at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and by his prayer at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem in 2000. Even earlier, however, the foundations on which John Paul worked were set by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Church’s Relationship to Non-Christian Religions. The key teachings of that declaration on Catholicism and Judaism, found in Nostra Aetate 4, bear repeating at this dark hour: 

The beginnings of the Church’s faith “are already found among the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets”; that is why we can remember, in the Roman Canon, “Abraham, our father in faith.”

The Catholic Church is thus inextricably bound up with the people from whom she received the revelation of God in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible from which “she still draws sustenance.”

The Catholic Church must “ever keep in mind” the words of St. Paul about the Jewish people from whom he sprung: “Theirs is the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises; theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4–5).

The Catholic Church believes that “God does not repent of the gifts he makes or of the calls he issues,” even as she “awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice . . .”

And for that reason, “the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews . . . decries hatred, persecutions, [and] displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” 

Jew-hatred and murderous antisemitism have returned these past weeks, tearing more wounds in the moral fabric of our civilization. This Synod ought to take public note of that, condemn it, and reaffirm what Vatican II called “the bond that spiritually ties the people of the New Covenant to Abraham’s stock.”

The Synod might also make its own this prayer, which John Paul II left at Judaism’s holiest site on March 26, 2000:

God of our fathers,
you chose Abraham and his descendants
to bring your Name to the Nations:
we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those
who in the course of history
have caused these children of yours to suffer,
and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves
to genuine brotherhood
with the people of the Covenant. Amen.

On “Process”

That the “process” of “discernment” through “dialogue” is the important thing at Synod-2023 has been repeated ad infinitum (and occasionally ad nauseam) for three weeks. One is reminded of the tortures of “sensitivity training” in the 1960s and 1970s. In fairness, though, there is a truth here that should be acknowledged. Two distinguished synodal participants have told me that the small-group discussions, however aggravating for being micro-managed and often emotionally driven, have been useful in tempering some of the loopier ideas being promoted under the rubric of a “Conversation in the Spirit.” 

Now, voices are being heard calling for even more of this process of discuss/dialogue/discern between the close of Synod-2023 on October 29 and the opening of Synod-2024 next October. About which, a word from Joseph Ratzinger, channeled by Eduardo Echeverria of the Sacred Heart School of Theology in Detroit and recently published on that excellent website The Catholic Thing, is in order.

Ten years after Vatican II, then Professor Father Ratzinger (or, to give him his full and glorious German academic title, Prof. Dr. Hab. Ratzinger) noted that councils such as the one completed a decade earlier were necessitated by “an extraordinary situation in the Church” and ought “not be regarded as a model for her life in general or even as the ideal content of her existence.” 

Why? Because “in plain language, the council is an organ of consultation and decision. As such, it is not an end in itself but an instrument in the service of the life of the Church. . . . If a council becomes the model of Christianity per se, then the constant discussion of Christian themes comes to be the content of Christianity itself; but precisely there lies the failure to recognize the true meaning of Christianity.” Appunto, as we say here in Italy. Constant discussion of “who we are” is self-indulgent and borders on narcissism. Ecclesiastical narcissism is not the way for Catholicism to be a Church “permanently in mission.” Nor is vagueness about what the Church believes and why. Firm faith, imaginative evangelization, noble worship, courageous witness, and compassionate charity are far more important than internal “process” in being a Church “permanently in mission.”

The living parts of the world Church understand that, which is why they are living. The dying parts of the world Churchas in so much of German Catholicism, a process-driven train-wreck insufficiently analyzed as such at Synod-2023don’t get it, which is why they are dying. 

If dioceses and parishes expend ever more energy on “synoding” between now and October 2024, valuable time will be lost in bringing Christ to the world. Perhaps the dawn of Advent in a few weeks, with that wonderful season’s reminder that “The Lord is near,” will jolt the process-obsessed out of their self-enclosed circles and into being missionary disciples.  

No change? Oh, really?

It’s not quite flat-out lying, but there is something perilously close to dissembling in the insistence by Synod-2023 enthusiasts that the “synodal process” launched in 2021 would never, ever “change doctrine.” 

That is true, in that councils or synods are not legislative bodies that can reinvent the Church from scratch; councils and synods can deepen our understanding of doctrine, or facilitate the development of doctrine, but they cannot change doctrine. The principle of non-contradiction applies to councils and synodsand, for that matter, to papal teaching. What Nicaea I and Chalcedon taught about the Trinity and the person of Christ cannot be changed by some putative Vatican III or Lateran VI. Similarly, if A was true and B was not in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, A cannot be false and B true today, for popes are not czarist autocrats; popes are the servants of the deposit of faith, not its master.

Nonetheless, the question of whether doctrinal incoherence is becoming a real danger today, through dramatically changed pastoral practice and by the fact that virtually anything is deemed discussable at this Synod, should be addressed in the final week of Synod-2023. It should also be front-and-center in the serious discussions that precede the Synod on Synodality’s second assembly in October 2024. Two examples will illustrate the problem here.

Despite the fact that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith answered the question of whether the Church could ever authorize blessings for couples in same-sex relationships with a firm “No,” in a 2021 Responsum ad Dubium whose publication Pope Francis authorizes, that question has been part of Synod-2023’s small-group discussions. Moreover, at least one advocate of the Synod’s taking a stand in favor of such blessings has been reported to be lobbying members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See on the issue. And a month before the Synod opened, the archbishop of Berlin, Heiner Koch, wrote the priests of his archdiocese, permitting them to bless couples “who cannot or do not want to marry sacramentally,” citing the pope’s “calls for pastoral discernment.” (The archbishop said he would not perform such blessings himself until the pope had explicitly permitted them.) Thus new pastoral facts are being created on the ground in Berlin, as they had been previously in Flanders and elsewherepastoral facts that clearly imply a change in doctrinal understanding about the proper expressions of human love.

Then there is the matter of ordaining women to the diaconate or priesthood. The latter has been definitively ruled out by John Paul II in the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, and as explained in “LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD - 2023: SPECIAL EDITION 2” (October 18, 2023), that definitive judgment would seem to apply as well to the other two orders of the one sacrament of Holy Orders, the diaconate and the episcopate. Yet many Synod discussion groups raised the issue of ordaining women to the diaconatesome raised the question of ordaining women priests, and a proposal was bruited in one group to abolish the transitional diaconate and ordain both men and women to a new form of “diaconate” that would not be considered part of the triple-ministerium and would thus not be conferred by Holy Orders. It was not at all clear who would be pleased by such a change, or why such a fundamental change in the Church’s understanding of its threefold sacred ministry made any theological sense. But such is the terra incognita into which “Conversation in the Spirit” can lead. 

Ecumenical propriety has been a human hallmark of Synod-2023, but if the issue is not raised this week then it has to be raised between now and next October: Is Catholicism stepping onto the road to ecclesiastical incoherence pioneered  by a “synodal process” in the Church of Englanda road that has accelerated the disintegration of Anglican practice in the U.K. while destroying the unity of the Anglican Communion, as the most vibrant members no longer recognize the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury? 

Archbishop Koch asked his archdiocese to “preserve unity in diversity.” The question is whether diversity can become so extremebecause pastoral practice reflects incompatible understandings of religious and moral truththat “unity” in anything more than endless dialoguing becomes impossible. And that is not the unity of the Body of Christ.

George Weigel


In service to the Synod’s discussions of women in the Church, LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2023 is happy to publish this lyrical reflection, which begins with a hiking trip in the Rocky Mountains of the western United States. XR II

On Young Women by a Young Woman

by Lauren Abeyta

There at the top of a broad-shouldered saddleback, at a gently-sloped crossing point between two summits, stood a group of nine young women with their counselors, who stood there taking in the exhilarating, crisp mountain morning. They began their trek early that morning with the sun burrowed well below the horizon line. At this point in their journey, the explosion of the sun’s warm rays had just reached a new morning’s glow and tipped over the peaks beyond to bask their faces in light. After absorbing the panoramic views, the women made their way down a steep switchback to a verdant pasture, settled in the middle of a choir of mountains. The valley lay before them adorned with a host of expressive wildflowers. Even the grass reached up to the heavens, joining the hymn of the surrounding mountain peaks clustered together in a profound council deliberating the magnificence of the scene. The natural setting of this backpacking trip sung deeply to the young hearts of the women gathered there. 

A priest joined them later in the afternoon and set up for Mass on a rock the women appointed in the landscape. As the women came up to receive Holy Communion, the wind gently brushed around them. A reverent silence settled over the group. Years later, the women would recount that there was something received there together, through their time with one another in the silence and amongst the alpine flowers, that would help them navigate through life with a sense of appointed love, solidarity, simplicity, and peace.

These women would go back to their families and schools, onward to college and into family life. They would work jobs and invest themselves in women around them and seek out the sacraments. These women are no strangers to the harrowing adversities facing women today. Some would face same-sex attraction, others would struggle as they wait to meet “the one,” and still others would face their parents’ divorce, mental health issues, financial strife, estrangement from loved ones, the pain of worldwide political and military conflicts, natural disasters, and the great pain often suffered silently at home: infertility. 

Amidst it all, their friendships anchored these women and bolstered them to be pillars to the women around them. Their experience of being deeply loved and invested in on that alpine trip, and by women around them, helped guide them during times of uncertainty and suffering. They, like their ancestors, drew near to the beacons of light available to us in God, other creation, and life in the Church. All these treasured experiences drew from the source of life, Jesus, God with us.

This is the beginning of life, God with us, and the women took that lesson away from their time together. They were not walking on pilgrimage to heaven alone. This is where transformation begins. Accompaniment. God with us, and we with one another. Without this orientation we are orphans in the universe, without direction and cause for hope. 

The fundamental question of impressions, which turn into movements in which a person moves to act toward an end, is paramount. The pressing end that we aim for is heaven, or sainthood, salvation, and eternal union with God. The business of that conversion and the means by which souls are compelled today to commit themselves to the salvific life of the Church is the question at large. What is that bolt of light that crests over the peaks of our lives and catalyzes souls to sainthood today? What specifically orients the young woman to cast her nets into the deep?

It is no surprise today that the young woman is at odds with the world. The primary attack on life and identity from the womb to the tomb, which concerns her very role as a woman, places her at the center of the battle. Central to the question of human flourishing is how woman orients herself as a life-bearer, in the whole sense of how in every way, spiritually and physically, she is oriented to receive and promote life.

There seems, too, to be an anxiety growing around us about the nature of Church and family life. The two go hand in hand and as the family suffers, the Church suffers. A central topic of conversation touching the future of the Church is anxiety about the increased stress on and brokenness of families. At the center of this pressure seems to be the question of what role the Church plays in the revitalization of that central powerhouse of the family.

This is really the joyful realization about investment in women. We bring life into the world and, like Mary, we come bearing great life and news within us—life is able to flourish within us and mature into great sacred bundles of new life, namely our children. When women profoundly accept their identity and dignity within the lived experience of God’s deep love, communities flourish. New life, spiritual union, profound healing, gradual holistic development of businesses and corporations, and the integration of a healthy anthropology all flower in the presence of a woman truly rooted in God and invested in by her friends and community.

We need priests and bishops who live their identities as spiritual fathers and holy men who sacrificially go out of their way to invest in great families, mothers, teachers, college students—and those on the fringe who inquire with curiosity about the Church: “Is there a place at the banquet for me, with my experiences and suffering?” There is a place at the banquet for women in every stage of life, and it is often quite fruitful to reach the women in the deep waters of our society through the joyful, willing, and able young women who are already walking their own pilgrimages with Christ in the Church. 

There are so many women who are waiting to be entrusted into the vineyard. So many beautiful women inside and out are looking for great men to marry, for the entrustment of their gifts to unfold in the world and in their Church communities. Bishops and priests, pray for these young women, invest in them, and orient your lives around the Prince of Peace. He is working in peace amidst a chaotic and unhinged society that has profoundly disassociated itself from the principles that balance and bring peace to human hearts. There is a special place today for the investment of strong young women in social media, becoming beacons of light amidst a rushing current of consumerism, comparison, and a deficit of meaning. 

Not all women may share a particular alpine backpacking experience, but all women are impressed by and in need of witnesses. 

Heaven awaits, and it begins with friendship. God’s friendship catalyzes us, and he offers us as lights to one another, to run together into his arms. How profoundly and slowly Christ was patiently loved and invested in during his first thirty years of life. How beautifully he was tended to by Mary, who lived fully her feminine nature and vocation. How actively Christ loved his friends. And he loved them to the end. The bolt that catalyzed the apostles to love Christ to the end began with the initial investment of Christ to call them to himself, but it was the long-term investment of Christ in genuine friendship and the gift of himself as God and man that set these young men decidedly on the path to center their lives on Christ and commit themselves to him forever. He is with us, He died for us, He will bring us life unto eternity.

In this absurdly busy, confused, and grasping world theater of conflicting messages on the meaning of life, and amidst direct affronts to the dignity of life and women, God is with us. And we can navigate pastoral care for women by this simple and profound Truth. 

Lauren Abeyta is a graduate student living in Rome and studying architecture with the University of Notre Dame. She previously studied film production, theology, and the classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. 

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