Thursday, October 23, 2014


Please bear with me and read this extended quote from John W O'Malley's A History of the Popes:

By 1968 five years had passed since John XXIII established the [secret] commission on birth control.  The very fact of the commission's existence indicated a reconsideration of Pius XI's prohibition in [his encyclical] Casti Cunubii, and the passing of years without a definitive statement on the matter from the Holy See seemed to suggest that a change was in the wind.  For most Catholics, including probably a majority of bishops, the silence indicated consent.  On July 25, 1968, however, [Pope] Paul [VI] issued Humanae Vitae, his most famous and controversial encyclical, in which he renewed the prohibition.
...The encyclical, more often criticized than studied, is a rich meditation on married love.  What the world seized upon, however, was the reiteration of Pius XI's strictures [against artificial contraceptives].  The reaction was fierce.

I write this because there are many, many comments about what was discussed in the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  By turns the report of the conversations has been either praised or vilified--even though it is not only a preliminary presentation of the discussions, but also (even in any "final form") simply a prelude to the actual synodal Round 2, not to be held until October of 2015.

In other words, to reckon that change is "in the wind" (either rejoicing in or lamenting the possibility) is utterly premature.  Let the other shoe fall first, and that won't happen until some time after the October 2015 Synod, in fact.  Hopes and fears need not be very high at this point...

I will make one final observation about the Synod, Round 1:  the negative comments of bishops like Raymond Burke and Charles Chaput are simply to be expected.  They are playing Alfredo Ottaviani and Marcel Lefebvre to Pope Francis' St John XXIII and Bl Paul VI. 

It's all OK:  life goes on, and the Holy Spirit (thankfully) is ultimately in charge.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Having just received word from the government of Turkey of an official invitation to visit, Pope Francis is set to make a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.  The timing of this visit is wonderful:  it will fall across the marking of the patronal feast of the Orthodox Church, that of St Andrew, on 30 November. 

For years now delegations have been sent back and forth to commemorate this feast and that of Ss Peter & Paul, the Latin Church's equivalent.  This time, Pope Francis himself will lead that delegation.

It is a beautiful counterpoint to the meeting of these two great figures in the Holy Land, marking the 50th anniversary of the first such encounter, between (Blessed) Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, with the follow-up presence of Bartholomew at the prayer-service for peace in the Vatican Gardens, attended by Presidents Peres and Abbas.

At the end of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis held a consistory of cardinals in which he addressed the crisis of anti-Christian persecution in the Middle East.  It strikes me that with the warm friendship between Francis and Bartholomew, with the real possibility of openness in dialogue and even in theological reflection that ecumenical teams are producing, and with the overwhelming needs of Christians especially in Iraq and Syria, there is an opportunity truly golden to begin to achieve unity of the Churches of Greek and Oriental Orthodoxy with the Church of Rome--to stand together in the face of this persecution.  When we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, guns pointed at our heads, sometimes what we thought were "life-or-death" issues turn out to be questions more of style than substance of the Faith. 

The Holy Father has been clear from the beginning that the universal catholic Faith is first and foremost about lived proclamation of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.  We are not a monolith of uniformity but an organic body in communion.  There is scheduled for Pope Francis' visit the signing of a joint declaration--as God is a God of surprises, these great leaders of the Church are also leaders of surprises.  I wonder what might be included in this declaration?  We hope and pray and watch.  These are difficult times to be Christians, but they are also exciting times. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014


The idea of "graduality" was raised in discussions during the Extraordinary Synod on the Family--it expressed the thought that we can lead people step by step to a full moral life, and in the meantime understand and accept that they are not "perfect" just yet.

The idea has been regarded by others in the Synod as a sellout of moral principles and an accommodation with relativism.

What can one say, pro or con, about this idea?  Let me offer the thoughts of CS Lewis on the topic.  In responding to the idea that divorce should be freely granted, he insists that promises made should be respected and kept:

To this someone may reply that he regarded the promise [of marital fidelity and permanence] made in church as a mere formality and never intended to keep it.  Whom, then, was he trying to deceive when he made it?  God?  That was really very unwise.  Himself?  That was not much wiser.  The bride, or bridegroom, or the 'in-laws'?  That was treacherous.  Most often, I think, the couple (or one of them) hoped to deceive the public.  They wanted the respectability that is attached to marriage without intending to pay the price: that is, they were imposters, they cheated.  If they are still contented cheats, I have nothing to say to them: who would urge the high and hard duty of chastity on the people who have not yet wished to be merely honest?

                                     --Mere Christianity, Book III, chapter 6

Are many of us not also in situations where we struggle to do better, yet have not attained "perfection"?  How should we be affirmed in the struggle while still having held out to us the goal of "more," of "better"?  Is all moral reflection intended to be 100% or 0%, with no other possibility?  These are the questions that graduality is attempting to think through.  It wants to reject moral relativism while also avoiding the attitude (condemned by Jesus--Matthew 23:4) of holding others to harsh standards with no concrete help to meet those standards.