Here was a body of Christians that knew precisely what it believed and why. It was not going to dissipate its energies in endless internal wrangling and navel-gazing.
That is not to say that the Catholic Church has no doctrinal and moral divisions. Rather, we can point to a clear and coherent body of formal teaching and say, “this is what you should believe and teach if you are a member”. Catholic seminaries do not, by and large, produce clerics who publicly advocate driving a coach and horses through orthodox moral teaching – although Pope Francis has clear sympathies with some progressives. Academic theologians who teach contrary to the faith can be and are disciplined. As a church we do not make a virtue of vagueness or of compromise for its own sake. We have a deposit of faith to proclaim to the world.
There is well-meaning and heartfelt verbiage about turning outward to the world and reflecting deeply on how we speak to each other, but it all feels very self-regarding.
I am therefore uneasy about the “synod on synodality” that has just opened in Rome and is intended to last for another two years. For one thing, the precise purpose of the proceedings remains unclear. There is well-meaning and heartfelt verbiage about turning outward to the world and reflecting deeply on how we speak to each other, but it all feels very self-regarding.
Take this sentence, for example: “by journeying together and reflecting together on the journey that has been made, the Church will be able to learn through Her experience which processes can help Her to live communion, to achieve participation, to open Herself to mission.” The meaning of this is unclear. Does it hold any meaning that is accessible to someone not versed in the quasi-corporate anti-poetry that tends to mark Vatican communications? One might also argue that the Synod document’s call for “a participative and inclusive ecclesial process” rings rather hollow in the light of Rome’s approach to those attached to the Latin Mass, or Francis’s repeated public criticisms of clergy whose liturgical and theological approaches do not match his own.
The world does not need the Church to embark on yet another round of agonised introspection
There is room for doubt as to whether the outcome of the “synod on synodality” will be helpful or constructive for the Church. Some sceptics have repeated a remark reportedly made by Cardinal Ottaviani at the Second Vatican Council, when he was being criticised for a lack of collegiality. He supposedly said that the Bible only records one example of the apostles acting collegially – and that was on the night before the Crucifixion, when they abandoned Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
One of the big questions facing the Church is that of modernisation, and to what extent it should adapt to the modern world. When the Church of England General Synod has debated the ordination of women as priests and bishops, and other hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and transgenderism, the need to “keep in touch with modern society” has been cited over and over again. In 2012, when the Church of England Synod (temporarily) voted against women bishops, one supporter of the measure wrote in The Guardian that the C of E was “detonating its credibility with contemporary Britain” and that it would “look foolish in the eyes of society”. Modernising currents in twentieth century theology, like the so-called Death Of God or Sea of Faith movements, often stressed the need for Christianity to abandon its supernatural aspects because they were allegedly no longer believable in a world that had discovered evolution and quantum physics.
This shows a fundamental lack of confidence in the faith, an abdication of our responsibility to think carefully about how the findings of modern science can be integrated with the orthodox faith. There are many serious Christian intellectuals that we can turn to. We might think of the Evangelical mathematician John Lennox, or the Orthodox philosopher Richard Swinburne, and the Catholics Peter Kreeft and John Haldane. They are those who follow the commandment in 1 Peter 3v15: “have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have.” The world does not need the Church to embark on yet another round of agonised introspection; it needs us to be confident in our proclamation of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist.
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