Contra Pell, what being “with Jesus” means is not always entirely clear

Some fascinating comments this morning from Fr. Lombardi as the synod concludes its general discussion. Vatican Insider reports:

“Participation peaked” during this very “passionate” debate, with the Synod split down the middle, between those in favour of allowing remarried divorcees to take communion in certain cases and others against. Both sides, however, are faithful to Jesus’ teaching on mercy and support the indissolubility of marriage. It is not yet time to take official counts, we don’t count who is “for” and who “against” at the Synod, Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi said.

Two main lines of argument emerged during the daily press briefing. One “insists on what the Gospel says about marriage: if a first marriage is valid, a remarried divorcee cannot be admitted to the sacraments, as there needs to be coherence between doctrine and faithfulness to the word of the Lord. The other line of reasoning recalls that “Jesus sees human  experiences with a merciful eye” and “takes into account” the “differences” in each “specific case”, which would make access to the Eucharist possible in some cases. Nevertheless, “even those who are most concerned about the preservation of the doctrine, are far from shut off to the suffering of people facing difficult situations.” Likewise, those who are open to allowing access to communion “do not in any way deny the indissolubility of marriage.”

This is interesting in all kinds of ways, and Lombardi does a good job at capturing some of the nuance involved in a complicated and many-faceted question. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Here is a point that we must notice: Gathered in Rome right now, some of the finest theologians theologians in the world, some of the most astute pastoral leaders in the world, some of the highest ranking prelates of the Church — by and large very good, very faithful, and very smart people — are quite clearly divided about the answer to this important pastoral-doctrinal question about admission of divorced and remarried people to Holy Communion. Indeed, if you’ve seen recent interview comments from men like Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Burke, you know that they don’t even seem to agree upon the degree to which this matter is doctrinal question at all.

Take Cardinal Kasper, for example. Much as Raymond Aroyo and Joseph Fessio and Cardinal Burke want you to think right now that he’s an insufferable liberal, ready to throw the Creed overboard in the name of kumbaya religious goodfeelings, that is downright laughable. Walter Kasper has been recognized as a premier Catholic theologian for almost two generations. His scholarly work in Christology and Trinitarian theology has been standard reading at the most respected and rigorous Catholic schools of theology — including Rome’s Gregorian University, where I studied in the early 1990’s, and that’s no bastion of heretical thinking. Only after his significant scholarly achievements was he named a bishop by Pope John Paul II (I know — another stinkin’ liberal, right?) in 1989. The same John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001, not long after bringing him to Rome to head the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Then there’s Cardinal Wuerl, whom everyone is touting as one of the “moderates” among the participants in the current synod, because, oh my, he had the chutzpa to suggest there’s a distinction between doctrinal principle and pastoral practice. Wuerl. A liberal. A danger to the true faith. This, too, is laughable. This is the same Donald Wuerl who began his episcopal career with ordination by John Paul II himself in Rome and then an assignment to Seattle to watch over and share power with that city’s residential bishop — Archbishop Raymond Hunhausen — after Hunthausen got himself into some trouble by taking some truly liberal positions on a variety of issues. At the time, the nation’s liberals were all poking pins into little Donald Wuerl dolls. Wuerl is also the author of The Teaching of Christ, one of the most respected, sound, and popular pre-Catechism of the Catholic Church catechisms ever published in English. After a long and successful stint as bishop of Pittsburgh, Wuerl was named Archbishop of Washington by Pope Benedict — damn liberal — in 2006. Benedict also named Wuerl the Relator-General of the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.

Those are just two of the most prominent leaders who are open to having a conversation about a topic that Cardinal Burke wants us to think no good Catholic would ever consider. Interesting that Lombardi suggests half the bishops gathered in Rome this week are at least open to talking about it. The group is “split down the middle.”

I’m not saying I know which direction things will go or even that I think I know which direction things should go on this particular question. I know neither. What I’m saying is we are seeing a very clear example of the fact that not everything that the ultra-Catholic right wing wishes us to think is simply clear cut Catholic thinking actually is.

When they tell you that it’s obvious that no pro-choice Catholic politician should be admitted to Communion at Mass, that support of mandatory priestly celibacy is a no-brainer to really faithful Catholics, that refusing to allow your gay son to step foot with his partner into a family gathering is the simple and clear conclusion of basic moral reasoning — well, it’s bunk. Maybe a Catholic pro-choice politician should be barred from Communion, I don’t know for sure; but I tend to think the Eucharistic Christ can take care of Himself. Maybe mandatory celibacy is exactly what God wants for his priests, I can’t say for sure; but if he does, that would make the current church practice of ordaining married ex-Protestant ministers who become Catholic and then discern a call to priesthood contrary to God’s will. And maybe you should tell your gay son he’s not welcome in your home until he dumps his partner, but that doesn’t sound any more morally sound to me than making sure your boy knows he’s welcome in his parents’ home at absolutely any time he wants to come by, just because dammit, he’s your son.

Folks, there are doctrinal principles that are non-negotiable, and heresy is indeed a clear and present danger to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But that set of doctrinal principles does not offer a clear answer to every question that the Church faces in any particular time and place, and the most hard-line, conservative, traditionalist answer to every question is not necessarily always the right one. Indeed, Catholic history has shown us again and again that sometimes the “conservative” answer is the one that is soon dismissed by the church to the dustbin of history, and the “liberal” or “progressive” one is what is soon recognized as orthodox and sound.

Cardinal Pell can say, “I’m with Jesus.” But the fact is, everyone in that Synod hall is “with Jesus.” But what exactly being “with Jesus” means on a particular question related to Catholic faith and life is sometimes not very clear.

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