On Sunday, October 19, the Synod on the Family concluded a two-week meeting at the Vatican, which brought together bishops from all over the world. More precisely, it concluded the first session of the Synod, which will truly conclude at a second session a year from now.
The Synod was convoked by Pope Francis I, with the mandate to freely discuss the challenges to the Roman Catholic Church by contemporary changes to the institution of the family. Progressives in the Church had pinned high hopes on a number of mostly informal comments made by the Pope about openness and affection toward people living in relationships that have long been deemed “objectively disordered” by Catholic moral teaching—notably divorced Catholics who remarry, gay couples and heterosexual couples who cohabit without being married. The same papal comments aroused strong fears among Catholic conservatives, who thought that any relaxation in these matters would start a process of spiritual decay that (terrible to contemplate!) would lead the Church into the moral and doctrinal “chaos” of liberal Protestantism (the word “chaos” was actually used by a conservative prelate to describe the open disagreements that surfaced at the Synod).
Both parties hoped or feared too much, as yet for now. No consensus was reached at this session. There now comes a year in which the debate will continue. A consensus is defined as a resolution favored by two thirds of the attendant bishops. However, even that vote would not be binding on the Pope—who does not preside over a democratic parliament but over an assembly that recognizes his ultimate, putatively infallible, authority in pronouncements on faith and morals. There seems to be little doubt over the direction Francis would like to go—a liberalization in attitude and practice in some key issues “south of the navel”. I don’t know how far he would finally go in that direction. He cannot go too far in deviating from the tradition, even if he wanted to, without undermining his own authority. But he has already changed the tone in this and other Catholic gatherings, and as the French saying goes, “It is the tone that makes the music”
An article by David Gibson in the online bulletin of Religion News Service, on October 21, 2014, gives a good summary of what happened and, just as important, what did not happen at the Synod. The gathering has been described as “wild and crazy”, also as a “pastoral earthquake”. The Pope said from the beginning that he wanted absolutely free discussion, with no holds barred. He certainly got what he wanted. Conflicting conservative and progressive views were aggressively voiced. Gibson proposes that, on the one hand, “hard-liners won the battle”, but that on the other hand, “reformers may win the war”. More clearly progressive language was modified in the (inconclusive) official report, at the insistence of conservatives, despite the fact that Francis apparently favored this language (no wonder, some of it came from utterances by him!).
There were three major points of disagreement. One was the question of whether Catholics who divorce and then remarry should be admitted to communion. Those in favor of this move argue that the Church should not exclude such individuals, but lovingly accompany them through difficult phases in their lives. Those opposed say that the Church must continue to insist on the indissoluble character of marriage, “until death do us part”—a basic moral teaching that supposedly would be trivialized if those who had violated it are admitted to the fellowship of the altar. This is an issue unlikely to arouse much passion outside the Catholic community. It is different with the other two bones of contention: the attitude toward heterosexual couples who cohabit without being married, and toward homosexual couples. No one, as far as I know, has suggested a radical revision of the Catholic doctrine of marriage as a permanent union of one man and one woman. After all, marriage thus defined is one of the seven sacraments. The Protestant Reformation rejected the idea of marriage as a sacrament, thus allowing greater flexibility in this matter. But the Pope himself has observed, if only in passing, that both arrangements, even if “objectively disordered”, could have positive moral benefits and could be steps toward a fuller Christian order.
Won a battle, losing the war? The Synod failed to reach the consensus as defined in its statutes, but a strong majority nevertheless voted for the rejected language of respect and welcome toward gays and lesbians. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pointedly used the rejected language. Of course the Church must be influenced sooner or later by the change in sexual attitudes and practices in the Western world. More important, I think, it is clear that the Pope favors some degree of liberalization, for pastoral rather than doctrinal reasons. Papal encyclicals customarily are named by the first few words (usually but not always in Latin). A joke is told in Roman circles about a gay-friendly encyclical about to be issued (this time in Italian, to assure broad circulation). It begins “Carissimi tutti frutti”—“Beloved all fruitcakes”.
Gibson makes one interesting observation. He quotes Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, who said that the Catholic Church is “flirting with an Anglican moment”. What is meant by this is the impending schism within the worldwide Anglican communion over just the sexual issues over which the Synod split. The “evolution” of sexual mores in Europe and North America no longer dominates Christendom the way it used to—the demographic center of the Christian religion has increasingly shifted toward the Global South. Africa is crucial. African Christians—Catholics as well as Protestants and Anglicans—are much more conservative morally than their coreligionists up North. In the matter of sexuality they tend to be hysterically homophobic. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the titular head of the Anglican global community, has just called off the scheduled meeting of the Lambeth Conference, which brings together Anglican bishops from all over the world. The reason is that many Africans have refused the invitation, to protest Northern developments on gay clergy and bishops, same-sex couples, and generally tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality. There are two important differences: Africans make up about 16%of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world; they make up well over 50% of the world’s 80 million Anglicans. But also, the Archbishop of Canterbury is no Pope. No one could ever say of him what has been said about the Pope: “Rome has spoken; the matter is closed”. In his final message to the Synod, Francis I urged the bishops to be “open to new things”—any guesses as to what new things he had in mind?
It is not only African bishops who refuse to march in the Euro-American gay pride parade. There is also Russia, specifically the Russian Orthodox Church. I have had several encounters with this venerable institution. It is like entering a different world. In my restless efforts to find religious curiosities to enlighten and entertain the readers of this blog, I read all sorts of publications. Among them is Interfax, the English-language version of the online Russian news magazine. It regularly features stories about the Russian Church, with its ever-closer embrace of the Putin government. On October 21, 2014, Interfax published a statement by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who heads the Patriarchate’s Department of Church and Society Relations. The statement was in response to a recent speech in Washington by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the multimillionaire tycoon who was careless enough to express opposition to the Putin regime, was convicted for fraud in a trial regarded by outside observers as political retribution, served in prison for ten years (2003-2013), and then was surprisingly pardoned and exiled. He now lives in Western Europe and openly criticizes Russian developments.
Khodorkovsky said that in the last ten years Russia had been “flung back far into the distant past: politically, economically, psychologically”. He urged that instead Russia should “return to the European values that lie at the foundation of the Euro-Atlantic civilization”. On the contrary, Chaplin urged Russia to continue on its present path “to the absolute freedom from western models and western influence in economics, politics and law”. In this particular statement Chaplin did not mention the alleged moral degeneracy of the West, which is regularly denounced by the Russian Church. The anti-gay legislation just passed by the State Duma (unanimously, no less—or so, it is claimed) sharply discloses the Russian morality which the Putin regime professes to uphold. The ideology of the regime, strongly endorsed by the Church, is a culturally conservative nationalism, closely tied to the Orthodox Church.
In the course of his statement Chaplin makes some quite remarkable observations. Rather than “return to European values”, as Khordorovsky urges, Russia should “return Europe to its true self, help it rebel against pressure of transnational corporations, American troops, and American political dictate”. I must quote in full the most astounding paragraph:
We have a great and glorious history in which, I believe, there were three gaps—early reforms of Peter the First, 1917-1938 years and early 1990s, Everything mentioned by Mikhail Borisovich—space exploration, the nuclear shield, literature and art, high level of education and science, was created under empire, the Soviet Union in its best years and early this century.
This chronology of the gaps in Russia’s glorious history is a bit puzzling. Peter the Great is clear enough – he was guilty of the first turn toward Europe. 1917-1938 are apparently not the best years of the Soviet Union. But that regime lasted long after 1938. Perhaps he meant 1941, when Germany attacked Russia and the Soviet regime included the Russian Church in the mobilization of the entire country in the Great Patriotic War. The early 1990 is clear again: That was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the privatization of the Russian economy that allowed people like Khordorovsky to become rich.
I have met Vsevolod Chaplin twice. On both occasions he said some memorable things. In the early 2000s CURA, our research center at Boston University, conducted a three-year study of the Russian Orthodox Church and democracy, under the direction of Christopher Marsh, a political scientist and Russia expert, who was then the director of the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. We held three conferences on the topic—in Moscow, Vienna and Washington. During this period Chaplin was in charge of external affairs at the Patriarchate. We interviewed him about the 1997 law, which restricted religious freedom in Russia, for the first time since 1917 gave a privileged position to Orthodoxy, and was particularly directed against Evangelical missionaries, many of them from America, who evangelized with some success after the collapse of Communism. We raised some questions about this law. Chaplin commented:
Look. The Communists killed some 200,000 Orthodox priests, monks and nuns. This oppression is over. And now come these wealthy American missionaries, and they go about stealing Orthodox souls. We are against this, and we want our government to stop it.
The third conference was held in Washington, of all places at the Woodrow Wilson Center, named after the man who took the United States into World War I to make the world safe for democracy. There Chaplin delivered himself of this pronouncement:
The ideal form of government, in our view, is that of the Judges in the Old Testament, who were directly guided by God. This is no longer possible. The next best government is a monarchy, with a monolithic unity between church and state. We have concluded that democracy is preferable to anarchy.
There was an audible gasp in the audience.
On one of the floors at the Center, one where visiting scholars have their offices, there is a life-size statue of President Wilson. It is so life-like that, on the one occasion when I happened to come upon it, I thought for a moment that it was a living person in an old-fashioned suit. If the soul of the President sometimes returns and briefly inhabits his facsimile, in order to find out what goes on at his Center, he must have gasped too after Chaplin’s statement.