ROME — On Friday, a colleague and I took an old friend out to lunch in one of my favorite Roman restaurants. The friend is Bishop Borys Gudziak, who leads the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Paris, and also serves as president of the prestigious Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
It’s the only Catholic university in the former Soviet sphere — as they like to say, the only Catholic university “between Poland and Japan.”
Founded on the twin pillars of the martyrs and the marginalized, I once called it the “future of the new evangelization.”
Toward the end of lunch (for the record, rigatoni alla norcina with a lovely white wine), Gudziak looked at us and said something like: “This has been a great meal, and I thank you for it. Let’s not forget, however, that millions of people in this world live in extreme poverty, and could never dream of affording something like this.”
Honestly, my unspoken reaction was, “You’re a great guy, Borys, but you can be a real downer sometimes.”
He wasn’t done.
“Almost half of the world lives with less than what a cappuccino costs in this neighborhood, less than two euros a day, and 80 percent of the world lives on less than $10 a day,” he said, with rising intensity in his voice. “There’s 150 million homeless people, 100 million orphans, 60 million refugees.”
“Those,” he said, “are impediments to good family life.”
Gudziak was making a point about the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops on the family, a keenly anticipated and somewhat tumultuous summit convened by Pope Francis that my colleagues and I are covering right now and in which Gudziak is taking part.
The synod is entering its final week, and has been marked by controversies over both process and substance.
Some critics, mostly conservatives suspicious of Pope Francis’ Vatican team, have charged that the deck is stacked in favor of progressive positions, with one coalition going so far as to petition “faithful” bishops to walk out.
While bishops taking part say most concerns about process floating around at the beginning have been resolved, doubts in some quarters remain.
In terms of substance, there’s division over a proposal to relax the Church’s traditional ban on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receiving Communion. There’s also a clash over whether Catholicism needs more positive and inclusive language about homosexuality, or whether getting too far away from traditional formulas risks confusion about Church teaching.
In related fashion, there are contending positions over whether these issues have to be resolved in Rome, or whether they could be decentralized by placing them in the hands of national or regional conferences of bishops.
In that context, Gudziak was making a simple observation: Those are important questions, no doubt, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize.
If we want to talk about issues facing the family today, he was saying, there’s a much bigger picture, and becoming consumed by inside ecclesiastical baseball isn’t a prescription for seeing it clearly.
Those big-picture issues are legion, but here are a couple of illustrative examples.
Migrants and refugees: The synod is taking place in Europe as the continent struggles with its most massive refugee crisis since World War II. Pope Francis has called on all Catholic facilities in Europe to open their doors to at least one refugee family, and has done so himself at the Vatican.
Yet there’s been strikingly little conversation at the synod about whether that’s actually happening all across Europe, and whether it ought to be replicated in other zones of the world. One African bishop pointed out that nations such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, and Zambia are now home to “massive numbers” of migrants and refugees, but it’s not clear the synod is fashioning a new Catholic strategy for responding.
War: Francis has said repeatedly that we’re in the middle of a new world war in the early 21st century, being fought in piecemeal fashion. Pastors on the front lines of that war have tried to get the synod’s attention, so far with mixed results.
Patriarch Ignace Youssif III Younan of Lebanon, for instance, spoke passionately about the nightmares currently playing out in Syria and Iraq, saying that Christians in particular “want to get out of this hell because they are persecuted, taken hostage, by the ISIS terrorist state.”
Gudziak pointed out that more than 5 million people are currently being affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which he sees in terms of Russia trying to prevent a civic uprising against authoritarianism in Eastern Europe from spreading.
It’s not clear, however, that the synod has yet identified new ways to mobilize the Church’s considerable human and political capital to support families in conflict zones.
As the synod enters its final week, it’s now crunch time. The bishops have to move toward a set of votes on Saturday on a document containing recommendations to Pope Francis, which means they have to get down to brass tacks on the divisive issues. Ultimately, it will be up to Francis to decide what to do about whatever they propose.
The bishops might also want to frame this week, however, as a final opportunity to stand back and ask what they might have missed. If not, they may find themselves accused of having spent the synod’s three weeks fiddling, while every place other than Rome burns.
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The Synod of Bishops struggles to recover its ‘gentlemen’s agreement’
Now, here’s some of that inside ecclesiastical baseball.
This past week, a controversy broke out over reports of a letter to Pope Francis signed by several high-ranking cardinals, such as Australia’s George Pell and America’s Timothy Dolan, raising concerns about the process at the Synod of Bishops. It came at the very beginning, and both Pell and Dolan now say they believe those concerns have more or less been laid to rest.
In the background of the letter was a perception lingering from the last summit on the family in October 2014 that there had been an effort by synod officials to control the information flow, creating a false impression of consensus in favor of progressive stances and minimizing conservative dissent.
One of the signatories to the letter, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal czar, told a reporter this week that the leak of the letter was intended to “spread arguments and create tensions.”
(In truth, most people following the two synods on the family would say they didn’t really need any help on that front.)
As “letter-gate” was breaking out, I and my Crux colleague Michael O’Loughlin sat down with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, who is a veteran of many Vatican synods and is currently serving on a 10-member committee to draft this summit’s final document.
I asked Wuerl to compare this synod to past sessions in which he’s taken part, and he didn’t mince words in expressing his sense of things.
“The single biggest difference is that unfortunately we all came to this synod with a hermeneutic of suspicion already floating out there,” he said, created by “the number of things published beforehand claiming that somehow this wasn’t going to be an open and fair synod.”
(“Hermeneutic” is a popular term in Church-speak, meaning a way of interpreting things.)
Wuerl said that in his view, changes to the process introduced by Pope Francis have made the synod remarkably “open,” but acknowledged that not everyone sees it that way.
“Everything looks yellow to the jaundiced eye,” he said. “If you start with the idea of a conspiracy,” Wuerl said, then you end up seeing evidence of it everywhere.
To be clear, he wasn’t just talking about pundits and agitators outside the synod. He also meant some of the bishops taking part.
“There are people inside the synod who talk about this,” he said. “The media didn’t create these stories.”
Wuerl said that past synods had their flash points and divisions, too, but there was a sort of gentlemen’s agreement among the bishops “not to begin pointing the finger at others,” and to do their best to stay together.
Now, he suggested, that gentlemen’s agreement may not be in tatters, but it’s definitely frayed.
“I think that’s going to be one of the wounds to this synod,” he said.
Later in the week, I had the opportunity to ask Pell, who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, for his view on where the earlier gentlemen’s agreement among the bishops now stands.
“Let me just say this: all the bishops are gentlemen, but that’s defined differently in different cultures,” he said, laughing.
Pell argued that if there was a “hermeneutic of suspicion” coming into this synod, it didn’t drop out of a clear blue sky, but was based on perceptions left over from the last one.
“I think in the last synod, there were some rather surprising developments,” Pell said. “I think Pentin’s account of the last synod, his suggestions and accusations, are substantially unanswered.”
(Edward Pentin is a Rome-based journalist who recently authored an e-book titled “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?” about claims that the 2014 synod was manipulated to promote a progressive outcome.)
“In think it’s in the light of those charges that people approach this synod,” Pell said.
What all of this illustrates is the critical importance of the final document the Synod of Bishops on the family will produce, which is scheduled to be put before the 270 bishops taking part next Saturday for what Pell said will be paragraph-by-paragraph votes on its content.
If the impression is that the document honestly and fairly presents the results of synod discussions – pointing to consensus where it exists, but also candidly acknowledging areas where it simply wasn’t there – then perhaps the “hermeneutic of suspicion” will begin to ebb.
If not, the death of the gentlemen’s agreement among the bishops could become a permanent feature of the Pope Francis era in Catholicism, and not just during occasional summits in Rome. That’s probably not in anyone’s interest – beginning, of course, with Pope Francis himself.