No doubt about it, the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome, which brought together some 260 Catholic bishops and other Church leaders for a tumultuous fortnight, was serious business.
Issues such as how much moral value the Catholic Church should assign to same-sex unions or living together outside marriage, and whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics ought to be able to receive Communion, are enormously complicated, and anyone who thinks the answers are easy hasn’t been paying attention.
That said, the synod was also terrifically entertaining. It featured several plot lines worthy of a Hollywood screenplay: Pitched battles between progressives and conservatives, conspiracy theories and accusations of stifling dissent, clashes between larger-than-life personalities, and enough surprising twists to satisfy even the most devoted potboiler fans.
In that spirit, it’s time to award the Oscars for the 2014 synod, recognizing the best performances from two weeks that shook the Catholic world. As with the real Oscars, the big awards here come in five categories. Unlike the Oscars, there’s no academy to thank in acceptance speeches, since these prizes were determined by a jury of one … i.e., me.
The “A Bridge Too Far” Award: This honor recognizes the personality at the synod who most spectacularly overplayed his or her hand, trying to unilaterally achieve a result for which the synod just wasn’t ready.
And the Oscar goes to … Archbishop Bruno Forte of Italy, who was the lead author of a controversial interim report described by veteran Vatican-watcher John Thavis as an “earthquake” for its stunningly positive language on gays, cohabitating couples, and the divorced.
In retrospect, Forte’s mistake was using the report to try to drive the synod forward, rather than doing what the document was actually designed for, which was to summarize its discussions at the midway point. Conservative backlash against the Forte text may have helped make the final report more cautious than it might otherwise have been.
The Alfredo Ottaviani Opposition Figure Award: Ottaviani was the legendary leader of the conservative faction at the Second Vatican Council, and so this award recognizes the most outspoken voice of dissent at the recent synod. (Ottaviani’s motto was Semper Idem, Latin for “Always the Same,” a whole political philosophy in miniature.)
And the Oscar goes to … Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American whose fierce criticism of the interim report, and of proposals to allow the divorced and remarried back to Communion, framed much of the synod’s controversy. At one stage, Burke even suggested that Pope Francis owed the world an explanation for fostering confusion about Church teaching.
One can love Burke’s positions or hate them, but there’s no denying he was a star of the show.
The “John Wayne as Genghis Khan” Award: Having the Duke play the Mongol warlord in the 1956 film “The Conqueror” is considered one of the most spectacularly inept casting decisions of all time. In that spirit, this honor recognizes the synod participants whose contributions were most widely misunderstood.
And the Oscar goes to … Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney, Australia, who on Oct. 6 told the bishops about friends whose gay son wanted to bring his partner home for Christmas. The friends welcomed the partner, which the Pirolas applauded.
Their comments brought wide criticism from traditionalists. The London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, for instance, blasted what the Pirolas had to say as a “disturbing” concession to the “homosexual agenda.”
In reality, the Pirolas are pious Catholics whose views would conventionally be seen as conservative. They weren’t advocating changes in teaching, but rather compassion and good sense in how the teaching is applied.
The Dirty Harry “Make My Day” Award: This prize goes to the synod personality who delivered the single most spectacular one-line comment, a sound-bite that sent eyebrows soaring and tongues wagging.
And the Oscar goes to … Cardinal Walter Kasper, who in brief comments to journalists on Oct. 15 said of conservative African prelates pushing back against his permissive line on Communion for the divorced and remarried that the Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.” To make matters worse, he initially denied saying it, only to be confronted with the audio tape.
Granted, Kasper has said he only meant that different parts of the world have different problems and need their own solutions. Still, that one line touched nerves that run both left/right and north/south, and echoes of it are still being heard.
The Alfred Hitchcock Award for Best Direction of a Suspense Story: No explanation needed for this one, and there’s also no real debate over the winner.
And the Oscar goes to … Pope Francis, for having set this whole process in motion.
There’s another, bigger Synod of Bishops set for next October, after which Francis will have some big decisions to make. At this stage, no one seems confident about what he’ll do, which only makes the intrigue more intense.
However this year-long process shakes out, Pope Francis is providing the most riveting drama Catholicism has seen in an awfully long time. For that, the viewing public can be grateful.
Real heroism in Ukraine
Inés San Martín of Crux is in Ukraine this week, part of a group of journalists on a fact-finding trip organized by the Greek Catholic Church. Her reporting has been tremendous, including interviews with the former head of the Ukrainian church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, and his successor, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk.
Having myself just taken a tongue-in-cheek look at the synod, the story of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine offers a salutary reminder that some Catholic dramas are no laughing matter, and that some of the performances being turned in by their protagonists don’t reflect the faux heroism of a movie script, but the real deal.
The Greek Catholic Church has long been one of most importance forces in civil society advocating a free, independent Ukraine, whose future lies in Europe rather than a rebuilt Russian empire.
The Church was a major backer of Ukraine’s pro-democracy “Orange Revolution” of 2004, and they put their lives on the line again recently by acting as a support system for the Maidan Square protests that left more than 100 dead amid crackdowns ordered by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Greek Catholics supported the protestors from the beginning, even performing emergency surgeries for the injured in nearby churches. They created a small chapel in the square open to all, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with like-minded Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Now as Russian troops cross the border into Eastern Ukraine and fears are mounting about a potentially wider conflict, the Greek Catholics know that if a pro-Russian regime returns to power, they’ll probably have the top spot on its enemies list.
Yet they’re not backing down.
“It’s not easy to suddenly be free,” Shevchuk said of the situation in Ukraine immediately after the collapse of Communism.
“In Maidan we had a whole generation that only knew freedom, which we didn’t have 10 years ago,” he said. “It surprised me to see that free Ukraine being manifested in such a beautiful and strong way. No one will give up their freedom now. Post-Soviet Ukraine does not exist anymore.”
He told Inés that debates about “European values” can seem awfully theoretical in the coffee bars of Paris or Vienna, but not where he lives.
“Who today would be able to give up their lives for European values [as many did in Maidan]? Maybe for a better salary or a new iPhone some would. But for the values? They’ve become something very abstract for them, but not for us,” he said.
“It’s a struggle not only for our freedom, but for Europe,” Shevchuk said.
When I’m on the lecture circuit, Catholics in North America and Europe sometimes ask where I see hope in the Church today. In truth, there’s always a case to be made for hope if one has eyes to see it. However, if you want to find hope in especially clear relief right now, look no further than the Greek Catholics of Ukraine.
The danger of calling people ‘bigots’
In the wake of the recently concluded Synod of Bishops, some supporters of a more positive approach to gays and lesbians have been tempted to label the opposition that arose as bigots. In general, they do so because of an honorable and passionate commitment to protecting a vulnerable minority group against unjust prejudice.
As we go forward, however, it might be a good idea to think carefully about how we use such terms.
For sure, the Catholic Church contains its fair share of bigots, whether the prejudice in question is toward gays or any other category. The Church is pretty much a mirror of the broader human population, both in terms of its virtues and its vices.
That said, all I can add is this: I tracked the synod closely, interviewing protagonists on both sides on a daily basis. While I heard a great deal of passion, and sometimes a degree of nastiness, I never saw anything that struck me as bigotry.
Even the most ferocious traditionalists at the synod always prefaced anything they had to say about gays and lesbians by stipulating that they possess the same human dignity as everyone else, that their human rights must be defended, and that they must not be subjected to discrimination or abuse.
The debate is not really about the treatment of gays, but the moral analysis of homosexuality and of same-sex relationships. Whatever else the conservative side of those arguments may be, it’s not by definition a form of homophobia.
It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t just conservatives who faced charges of bigotry. German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a progressive darling for his support of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to Communion, was accused of racism for his line about African bishops cited above.
The comment may have been ill-advised, but calling Kasper a racist is just as unfair as it is to accuse bishops striving to defend Church teaching of bias against gays.
Francis has called for a year-long process of reflection on the results of this synod ahead of the next one, set for October 2015. If this two-week experience was any indication, the road may be a little bumpy, because much is at stake and feelings are strong on all sides.
If the Church is to come through it without falling apart, it’s likely going to be important not to demonize people with whom one disagrees. Using terms such as “bigots” probably isn’t the best way to go about it, just as it’s not helpful to accuse those advocating a more positive approach of being heretics or of betraying Catholic teaching.
As always, the high ground will be occupied by those capable of the greatest graciousness.