Francis at Tacloban: pointing us to Jesus

francis taclobanSeveral times since Friday night, I have watched that homily that Pope Francis offered at Tacloban in the Philippines. One of the things that keeps coming to mind as I do is some commentary I heard Fr Robert Barron offer some months ago, probably in one of his many online videos. He said that we Catholics today are fortunate to be living in a “golden age of the papacy” that has perhaps not been seen since the early Church. Pope after pope has come before us: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis — remarkable and holy leaders for God’s church, each in their own way.

In Tacloban on Friday we saw in a luminous way the courage, compassion, and holiness of Francis. He said himself that he had decided at the time of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 that he needed to go to Tacloban, where so many thousands died and many more thousands lost family and homes and livelihoods. And so it was not surprising that he fulfilled that intention this weekend, despite the onset of a tropical storm at the time of this pastoral visit to the Philippines. The sight of Pope Francis in that yellow poncho, on that windy and rain-swept makeshift altar, was powerful testimony to his determination to fulfill it.

And then the homily. He didn’t even bother to begin the homily prepared for the occasion. He simply spoke ad lib and obviously from his heart. And what came was a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in simple and clear and moving terms: Jesus as Lord, Jesus as incarnate in the suffering of humanity.

As we see in the video (and the photo above), Francis literally did in this homily exactly what those previous great Popes of ours have each done so insistently, in their own ways and in the circumstances of their own times: he pointed the people, pointed us, to Jesus.

Now this morning comes news of a crowd of 6 to 7 million people for today’s Mass in Manila. And in today’s homily he reminds us of “our deepest identity,” that of each of us being, together, members of God’s family and that we must live with one another like that is what we are. Again, he says it simply, plainly, winsomely. What he said and the way he said it reminds me very much of the thing I often hope my children will always remember as being a fundamental lesson I tried to raise them to understand: God gives us to each other as gifts, to be God’s help and God’s love to one another, to make one another’s lives better, and so we must always ask ourselves, “Am I being a gift to him or her?”

Rocco comments on today’s numbers:

Beyond taking the all-time record from the final day of John Paul II’s 1995 visit in the same place, it is significant that today’s mass of humanity did not come in the context of a World Youth Day, unlike the prior title-holder and Francis’ draw of 3 million to the closing of 2013’s WYD on Rio de Janiero’s Copacabana beach. What’s more, while John Paul’s last trip to Asia was commonly understood as a “farewell” to a pontiff who was entering the pantheon of legend in his 17th year as Pope, Francis has now presided over the two largest papal crowds ever within the first two years of his pontificate.

To those who scowl at Francis in our day for characteristics and priorities that we have seen on display clearly enough even on this Philippines visit — because he is not attentive enough to the prettiness of the liturgy (that damned yellow poncho!) or because his language at times lacks theological precision (“if someone says a swearword against my mother, of course he’ll get a punch in the nose”) — we should all have the wisdom and common sense to say, “You are silly,” and then to ignore them. Because may God protect us from getting so wrapped up in those peripherals that we keep ourselves from following the direction of Francis’s pointing finger, pointing to Christ, and from allowing his simple, loving, and humble witness from forming us into better Christians.


This supremely Catholic synod

In an article published today at The Week, Damon Linker opens with a question and asks for some help answering it. He spends a few paragraphs asking it, taking his time and doing a good job laying the groundwork and making clear the reasons for his “confusion.” Here is what he writes:

Maybe you can help me. I’m confused.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares as a matter of binding doctrine that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity,” “contrary to the natural law,” and “intrinsically” as well as “objectively disordered.” “Under no circumstances” can those acts “be approved.” Although people who feel same-sex attractions “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” they are called by the church to take up “the Lord’s cross” and embrace a life of “chastity” through “self-mastery” of their desires. That is the only way for them to “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

That sounds pretty unequivocal, wouldn’t you say?

Now let’s look at Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times, which contains an above-the-fold front-page story about a 12-page document released on Monday by the synod on marriage and the family that Pope Francis has convened at the Vatican. In the second paragraph of the story, we are informed (quite accurately) that the document “does not change church doctrine or teaching.” And yet the story also states (in the third paragraph) that the document is “the first signal that the institutional church may follow the direction Francis has set in the first 18 months of his papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy.”

And indeed, the document does say some nice things, about homosexual relationships, but also about “cohabitation” among heterosexual couples. If you’re a non-celibate gay Catholic, or a Catholic who’s divorced and remarried and so technically excluded from receiving the sacrament of Communion at Mass, these words no doubt come as a comfort.

But how significant are they? The answer to that question depends in large part on what the pope has in mind. And that’s where I become confused.

Even if the language of the document released on Monday is approved in total at the conclusion of the synod, it will still change nothing at all in church doctrine or teaching. Homosexual acts will still be deemed intrinsically and objectively disordered. It’s just that the Vatican will now be urging pastors to soft-peddle the doctrine to parishioners. Priests and bishops will be urged to accentuate the positive, to talk about the “gifts and qualities” that gay people “offer to the Christian community,” and to acknowledge that gay couples often provide each other “mutual aid” and “precious support.”

That sounds like a modest expansion on or elaboration of the Catechism’s injunction to accept gay people “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” combined with a suggestion that priests and bishops not shove down people’s throats the much harsher official doctrine about homosexual acts.

But the doctrine itself will remain unchanged.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this makes no sense whatsoever.

I want to offer an answer to the question, because it seems that there are not a few good, faithful Catholics who are asking themselves something like it in recent days, and also because there are many bad answers to it being offered — answers that would have us believe that a “dark and false Church” is in the making, that a “dictatorship of relativism” is holding sway at the synod, that the synod itself is “counterfeit” and “sick,” and that it might be time for the few good bishops who are left in Rome to starting kicking some ass. Linker himself suggests that Pope Francis must have some “supremely Machiavellian strategy” in play to change church teaching.

So, here goes.

I’m a dad. The father of seven, in fact. (And while we’re on the topic, I’m the father of seven largely because my wife and I believe Humanae Vitae to be an expression of moral truth, taught to us authoritatively by Christ’s vicar on earth — so let’s please dispense now with any idea of this whole post being rooted in my wishy-washy heretical modernism.)

My kids do “bad” things all the time. (They’re my kids, after all.) From time to time they squabble, ignore homework assignments, talk disrespectfully to my wife and I, refuse to walk the dog when asked, and other such things. When they do these things, I or my wife correct them. It’s our job as parents, right? And when they sometimes choose to ignore several quick and polite verbal corrections, as they occasionally do, it’s sometimes necessary for me to raise my voice a bit or provide some consequence that gets their attention a little more effectively: they’re sent to their room for a period of time or loose the privilege of watching television for a while, that sort of thing.

But if these corrections and punishments were all I ever had to say to them, or even most of what I ever had to say to them, if I simply kept quiet and bided my time until the next bad choice came along, my relationship with them would quickly go into a tailspin, because what the heck kind of father-child relationship is that: me, the Corrector? They would grow tired of and quite accustomed to my scoldings, and any joy in their relationship with me would wither. Sure, I love them, and I might even convince myself that I am correcting them and punishing them because I love them, because after all, it is true that it’s wrong to fight and be disrespectful, and loving them means teaching them that, dammit. But my children would only with great difficulty know that I love them and experience the relationship as one of love.

This is one reason — though certainly not the only one — that I try to make sure I have lots of conversations with them about the good things happening at school, the fun stuff they’re doing with their friends, the books they’re reading, and the best shows on television. I also make sure that I point out as often as I can the great stuff they do and excellent moral choices they make. When they excel at sports or get good grades, I encourage and praise them, and when they go out of their way to be respectful, loving, or generous, I say so enthusiastically.  Not only is this just; it almost certainly makes my moments of correction and punishment more effective, because they know these corrections are coming from a parent who loves them and respects them, and they know I don’t do it simply because I like correcting them; indeed, they know I would much rather be praising them.

In fact, I make sure my kids know, unequivocally (they have heard me say this clearly and often): There is nothing you can do that would make me stop loving you. If they don’t know that — and I mean know it in their bones — I’ve failed in a significant way as a father.

I would suggest that herein lies the “sense” of approach we find in the mid-term synod document released yesterday. As has been made clear by almost everyone, no doctrinal changes have been proposed or are suggested. The Church still believes marriage is intended by God to be permanent, that it is between a man and a woman, that remarriage after divorce is contrary to the nature of marriage, and that homosexual activity is sinful.

The insight of at least some of the synod fathers and, it seems, Pope Francis, is that if the only thing the Church ever says to people who are divorced and remarried or people who are gay or people who are living together is “what you are doing is wrong” or “your desires are disordered,” then the Church is carrying out its role as mater et magister poorly.

Some will object to this line of thinking: “But that’s not all we say to them. Haven’t you read the Theology of the Body?” I have read it, in fact, and find it to be quite compelling and in places beautiful. I have taught its ideas to others over the years. In fact, I was an “early adopter,” if you will, teaching Theology of the Body in the mid-1990s, long before it became much more widely known within the Church.

But the fact is, it’s not that compelling to some folks. Some are not convinced by Catholic moral teaching — in some cases because they could care less what the Church says, and in some cases because they have reflected on it, prayed about it, discussed it, and struggled with it, and they still don’t buy it. Of course, the Church should and must continue to teach it as the good news that it is. But if all they hear is the Church continually insisting that they’re wrong about that, and they never hear that despite the Church’s different view of things, they are still respected and loved and welcome among us, we’re doing something wrong.

If people, all people, do not know that there’s nothing they can do to make God stop loving them, and therefore that there is nothing they can do to make the Church stop loving them and respecting them and welcoming them, then the Church’s teachers have to some degree failed in their roles as fathers and teachers. In my view, the mid-term synod document was a moment in which the synod of bishops decided to say something like that. And in saying it, they were expressing the orthodox, evangelical, essential truth of Catholic Christianity.

And so maybe Cardinal Burke wasn’t “punished” (as Mr. Linker puts it) “for forthrightly stating and defending in public the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church.” Maybe he was moved on to a less prominent position because he seems unenthusiastic about stating and defending in public another authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church: that God loves sinners, and he wants them to know, through the Church’s teaching and practices, in their bones, that they are loved.

“I submit,” Damon Linker writes, “that there is only one way to make sense of the pope’s actions…. It’s a brilliant, clever, supremely Machiavellian strategy — one that promises to produce far-reaching reforms down the road while permitting the present pope both to claim plausible deniability (‘I haven’t changed church doctrine!’) and to enjoy nearly constant effusive coverage in the secular press.”

But I submit, Mr. Linker, that there is more than one way to make sense of the pope’s actions, and that the most reasonable and likely way involves not a supremely Machiavellian strategy, but a supremely Catholic one, and that is that he intends to proclaim God’s unconditional love to the sinners for whom his Son Jesus died.


“Mercy is joined to justice”: Enzo Bianchi on the synod

Yesterday morning, Massimo Faggioli tweeted that “no Catholic religious in America has had the courage to write what Enzo Bianchi wrote today on the Synod, marriage, and divorce.” (Enzo Bianchi is an Italian monk, the founder and head of a remarkable ecumenical monastic community in Italy called The Community of Bose.) Faggioli pointed to an essay by Bianchi published in Italian at the Vatican Insider website by the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Though many articles on the site are often offered in English as well, this one is not (yet).

I checked it out and agreed, so spent some time doing a quick translation into English. Though I don’t have the time to go over this with the kind of care and attention it deserves, here’s my quick and dirty translation of Bianchi’s peice. It’s worth a look:


Immediately after the election of Pope Francis, Cardinal Rivasi declared, “We look forward to a new breeze.” Today, after twenty months of this pontificate, we can say that there is a new climate in the fabric of the church: a climate of freedom in which every Catholic, both bishops and the simple faithful, can feel free to speak with honesty and courage according to their conscience and to say what they think, without being immediately silenced, censored, and even punished, as has been the case over in recent decades.

This doesn’t mean it is an idyllic climate, because even within the Church there are bitter conflicts — as the New Testament shows us was the case from the beginning — but if these are approached without mutual excommunications, if each person listens to the reasons offered by the other before declaring him to be an enemy, if all are careful to maintain communion, then even conflicts are fruitful and serve to deepen and more effectively give reasons for the hope that lives in the hearts of Christians.

Unfortunately, one can see that there are now “enemies of the Pope”: people who don’t limit themselves to respectful criticism, as happened with Benedict XVI and John Paul II, but who go so far as to despise him. A bishop who declares to his priests that the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium “could have been written by a peasant” expresses a judgment of contempt, but at the same time prophetically recognizes that that letter is readable and understandable even to a poor and simple Christian at the peripheries of the world. And so, despite his intentions, these derogatory words are in fact words of praise. Some even attempt to delegitimize Bergoglio’s election by saying the conclave was not conducted according to the rules, while others claim that there are still two popes, both successors of Peter, but with different duties…. We have known for a long time people inclined to follow their own ecclesiastical hypotheses rather than the objectivity of the great Catholic tradition in which the gospel is given primacy.

Certainly the composition of this synod, its new way working, the Pope’s invitation to participants to speak plainly and even to criticize his thinking or offer a different opinion, and the request for frankness in the interventions have created a synodal atmosphere that was unseen in the previous synods. Pope Francis wants [l’assise?] to be lived in the spirit of episcopal collegiality and of ecclesial synodality and not to be a simple celebration: and Francis also doesn’t hesitate to say that the synod takes place according to the great tradition cum Petro et sub Petro, that is with the Pope present and, as successor of Peter, personally reaching a final discernment.

As for the theme of the synod, it is so crucial because what is under discussion is not just a different discipline in regard to marriage, family, and sexuality, but the face of the invisible God, a face that we Christians know only through the face of Jesus Christ, the one who reveals, explains and makes known God. Under discussion is the face of the merciful and compassionate God, as it was revealed in his holy name given to Moses and was spoken about by Jesus, the Son he sent into the world, who never chastised sinners, never punished, but forgave them whereever he met them, and in that way moved them toward repentance and conversion.

There is no doubt that at the heart of the debate and the synodal discussions, there are words of Jesus that can be neither forgotten nor tampered with. In the Gospels, in fact, when talking about divorce — which was permitted by Moses but condemned, we mustn’t forget, by the prophets — Jesus did not choose the way of casuistry but recalled the intention of the Lawgiver and Creator and rejected any possibility of breaking the bond that is formed by the love of a man and a woman: “In the beginning it was not so… The two become one flesh… No person can divide what God has joined together!” The language is clear, demanding, and radical because the relationship between a man and a woman bound in the covenant of the word is a sign of the faithful covenant between God and his people: if fidelity in one becomes a lie, then the other is no longer credible either. It is a demanding and difficult message, which priests should teach their people from their knees: “It is the Lord’s words, not ours, the call for this fidelity. We repeat it because it is our duty to do so, but we offer it from our knees, without conceit or arrogance, because we know that to live one’s marriage faithfully and with a continually renewed love is difficult, exhausting, even impossible without the help of God’s grace….”

But even if this is the unchangable teaching of the Gospel, it remains true that in history, and especially today, this bond in the history of love, romance is not always taken up in faith, in adherence to the word of Christ. In any case, it sometimes deteriorates, withers, and dies. Yes, spouses should remain faithful to their committment until one returns to the other, but if that is no longer possible, after repeated attempts, then separation may be a lesser evil. And it is here that one can sometimes begin a new history of love that can prove to be a bearer of life, lived in loyalty and fidelity, in the sharing of faith and of life-giving connection with the Christian community. For those who live in this situation, it is not possible to celebrate another wedding without contradicting the sacrament of marriage already celebrated, but if there is a penitential journey, if they show fidelity over the passing of the years to the new bonds they have formed, could they not at least be admitted to communion, which offers them nourishment along the way of their journey towards the Kingdom? According to traditional Catholic teaching, the Eucharist is also a sacrament for the forgiveness of sins. Cardinal Martini asked: The question of whether divorcees can receive Holy Communion should be reversed: how can the Church come to their aid with the power of the sacraments?” The answer to these questions can come only from the Pope, after having heard the voice of the Church through the synod.

One other point should be made: Why can priests, monks, and religious who have made public promises to God in the heart of the Church and then abandoned their vocations and contradicted their vows — vows that St. Thomas Aquinas said the Church can never dissolve — participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church, while those in other situations of infidelity are excluded? There seems to be an injustice in this practice, created by clerics who may or may not live their celibacy well but who have no experience of the effort and the difficulties involved in married life.

What then is a Catholic who is mature in his or her faith to expect from the synod? A proclamation, again and again, of the indissolubility of marriage, yes, but offered in a way that manifests the mercy of God, reaching out to those who, in the course of this demanding adventure, have fallen into a contradiction of the covenant and inviting them into the fullness of ecclesial life. The Christian God has a face in which mercy is joined to justice, a compassionate God who in Jesus walked and continues to walk among the woundedthe sick a God who calls everyone to conversion and to life.



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.

As the Synod begins

My wife and I went without the Eucharist for five years because of our irregular marriage situation. We refrained from receiving despite the objections of our pastor at the time who, knowing our situation, suggested that it might not be such a big deal for us to receive anyway, and also despite the frequent questions of our children about why we did not.

In other words, I’m one of those people that many of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s critics keep speaking up for, when they say that his proposal that the bishops of the Synod on the Family find a way to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion throws those who have respected the discipline under the bus. “There are people who have lived heroically by the teaching of the Church,” says James Hitchcock. “They have not received Communion in living in the teaching of the Church, and they cannot be brushed away.”

I’m not sure I felt “heroic” about it, but I’m one of these patient souls, and I’m telling you I’m a little offended by this line of thinking. Do Hitchcock and others really think that my attitude toward this question will be: “If I was not able to receive Communion when I was in an irregular situation, then no one else should be able to either”? Does he think me to be that childish?

If that’s the biggest thing keeping us from opening the way for divorced and remarried people to receive Communion, then we really do have a problem with mercy. My guess is that most divorced and remarried Catholics who have abstained from Communion out of their love for the sacrament and their respect for the Church’s judgment would be greatly in favor of a way that would allow others in similar situations to receive. I know I would.

But I’m not optimistic that there is such a way. I’ve read the Kasper interviews and articles and his little book, The Gospel of the Family. I greatly admire what the Cardinal is trying to do. By his willingness to acknowledge the difficult situations of many Catholics today and the efforts of many to navigate a life of faith in less than ideal circumstances, Kasper demonstrates both courage and goodness. If nothing else, perhaps his words will help us treat people in these situations less like second-class Catholics. I think the disrespectful comments made publicly about and toward the Cardinal by people who should know better are unfortunate. I sincerely hope there is a way for the truth about marriage and the truth about God’s mercy can be balanced in such a way that those who have divorced and remarried might be able to receive Communion.

But I don’t see it. Sympathetic as I am to Kasper’s efforts, I am unconvinced. And I write this almost with a cringe, because I really hate to put myself on the side of an argument whose chief proponent thinks that the existence of the Roman Curia is part of the deposit of the faith handed down by God (and who, I’d add, doesn’t mind being seen like this and this in public). I don’t see a way around the teaching that marriage is indissoluble and exclusive. If it’s there, I welcome it, but I don’t see it.

I think it comes down to this: “[The Church] cannot propose a solution apart from or contrary to Jesus’ words. The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage during the lifetime of the other partner is a binding part of the Church’s tradition, which one cannot repeal or water down by appealing to a superficially understood and cheapened sense of mercy.” You probably think that’s Burke talking, but it’s Cardinal Kasper, in his The Gospel of the Family (p. 26). And I haven’t found anything else in that book that helps us get beyond that statement.

Certainly there may be a way. I just finished writing a book about John Courtney Murray and the remarkable role he played in forming the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious freedom. Almost everyone, including some of the most powerful people in Rome and most prominent defenders of Church teaching (that is, the Cardinal Burkes and Father Fessios of Murray’s day) insisted that to recognize the religious freedom of all people meant renouncing some unchangeable Catholic truths. But they were wrong. Murray demonstrated, in a way that almost everyone else was unable to do, why that was not the case. If there is a new John Courtney Murray out there, who will show us the way in this situation, I hope his voice is heard.

And so I really will be praying this morning at Mass for the Spirit to be heard at those Synod gatherings. I admit it freely: I don’t know what the Spirit wants here. But I hope those guys will figure it out and do it.

Krista Tippett on being against the commercialization of Christmas

Despite what Fox News would have us believe, the real War on Christmas is, of course, its commercialization. The idea that we have to mark the sacred feast by flying headlong into a national spending rampage is a surer sign of our secularization than any generic holiday greeting from the Walmart cashier will ever come close to being. So protesting that commercialization by refusing to participate in the annual buying rites is surely something that many serious Christians have considered already.

Still, this new reflection by Krista Tippett (one of my favorite voices on radio) on Christmas and why she’s not giving gifts this year articulates things afresh and is worth a look. My two favorite passages:

I don’t like — don’t approve, refuse to throw myself into — the spirit of obligatory gift-giving. In my lifetime, this has become existentially linked to a commercial orgy that has now even co-opted the ritual angle. We have Good Friday and Maundy Thursday; we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Unlike Good Friday and Maundy Thursday, however (though like “fiscal cliff”) these terms are repeated and reported by the most serious of journalists. Like all mantras of ritual, they work on us from the inside. They are an economic event by which we measure a certain kind of cultural health.

This form of cultural health is not health at all. It is overwhelmingly an exercise in excess and trivia.


Here’s what I take seriously. There is something audacious and mysterious and reality-affirming in the assertion that has stayed alive for two thousand years that God took on eyes and ears and hands and feet, hunger and tears and laughter and the flu, joy and pain and gratitude and our terrible, redemptive human need for each other. It’s not provable, but it’s profoundly humanizing and concretely and spiritually exacting. And it’s no less rational — no more crazy — than economic and political myths to which we routinely deliver over our fates in this culture, to our individual and collective detriment.

Of course, not giving gifts, either to avoid complicity or to protect one’s own spiritual well-being, makes good sense. But it also would take a good bit of courage, even audacity, because it risks misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or incomprehension by family members and loved ones. It’s not surprising that Tippet, as she acknowledges, did not take this step until after her own kids were grown. And though completely understandable, waiting until then inevitably means first joining the annual spending rites with much gusto at the time when not doing so could perhaps make the most difference, before finally turning one’s back on them. It’s a capitalistic version of Saint Augustine’s classic prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”

We of the Christian community need to find a way to think this through together, with greater attentiveness, cooperation, and intention. It could represent an important grass-roots ecumenical effort with real consequences both inside and outside the church.