Reports and Commentary, from Rome and Elsewhere, on the Synod on Synodality: “For a Synodal Church – Communion, Participation, Mission”
Edited by Xavier Rynne II | Number 7: October 16, 2023
YOGI BERRA AND THE SYNOD:
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN?
As these LETTERS reach an international audience, it will be best to begin by explaining that Lawrence Peter Berra (1925-2015) was an American baseball player (un giocatore di baseball, as we say here in Rome) and a key member of the fabled New York Yankees teams that dominated America’s national pastime from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. Mr. Berra, better known as “Yogi,” won ten World Series championships in that period, more than any other player in baseball history. He was a devout Catholic and a wonderful human being, of the sort that even I – a Baltimore Orioles fan and thus innate Yankees-despiser – found lovable and admirable: much like Brooks Robinson, the great Orioles third baseman who died just before the Synod opened and was universally mourned, not just for his remarkable skills but for his kindness to everyone he met.
In addition to being a Hall of Fame player, Yogi Berra was also a world-class aphorist. Among his more memorable quotes:
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
“You can observe a lot by just watching.”
“It ain’t over till it’s over.”
“Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical.”
And then there was this classic Yogi-ism during the 1961 season, when two of his Yankee teammates, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, were slugging home runs at an unprecedented pace, often one after another. After one such episode of back-to-back Mantle-and Maris homers, Yogi famously observed, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Which turns out to be an aphorism of some relevance to Synod-2023 and the expectations it has raised in some Catholic quarters, notable among younger Catholics with little sense of modern Church history.
Yogi’s bon mot about déjà vu all over again came to mind as the Synod completed its second week of work, during which its members made pilgrimages to several of the Roman catacombs. A report on the website of the Jesuit-run magazine America noted that, for the prayer service at the Catacomb of St. Sebastian, the Synod members were given a booklet that included the full text of the “Pact of the Catacombs,” a text signed by some 40 Latin American bishops in the Catacomb of Domatilla shortly before the end of the Second Vatican Council (and later endorsed by hundreds of others bishops). In that “Pact,” the prelates pledged themselves to a simpler, more evangelical lifestyle and to emphasizing advocacy for the poor in their episcopal ministries. Over time, as the America article noted with enthusiasm, the “Pact of the Catacombs” had a significant influence on the evolution of the Latin American theologies of liberation and on a ministerial vision that stressed social justice advocacy. This was taken to be a harbinger of the good things to come from Synod-2023 and the follow-on assembly, Synod-2024.
Déjà vu, all over again.
More than one Synod participant has observed over the past two weeks that certain aspects of Synod-2023, including the discussions during the two years leading up to the current meeting in Rome, seem more focused on a return to the 1970s than on an evangelical journey into the future. Time after time over the past several years, debates thought settled in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have returned to Catholic center stage, and in the same tired terms. The magisterium of those two great teaching pontificates, which gave an authoritative interpretation to the Second Vatican Council and re-focused the Church on John XXIII’s original intention for the Council – evangelization – is rarely referenced. As noted in this space previously, the Synod’s Working Document or Instrumentum Laboris makes the rather remarkable (not to say self-congratulatory) claim that the “People of God have been on the move since Pope Francis convened the whole Church in Synod in October 2021” – as if the “People of God” had been not been “moving” for decades, even centuries, a suggestion falsified by the experience of the living parts of the world Church (which are very much those who have embraced the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and are getting on with the New Evangelization).
As for the long-term impact of the “Pact of the Catacombs” and its program of remaking the Church, no doubt there is a good argument to be made that Latin American Catholicism needed reform and renewal at the time of Vatican II, not least because its traditional altar-and-throne alliance with state power had, after several centuries, proven evangelically enervating rather than evangelically enlivening. (Contemporary Catholic “integralists,” please take note.) It is very difficult, however, to make the case, as that essay on the America website did, that the attempted renovation of the Church in Latin America that was inspired by the theologies of liberation (and by the “Pact of the Catacombs”) has borne good fruits.
Thus a former exponent of that liberationist way of being Catholic, the Brazilian Servite friar Clodovis Boff, argued two months ago that liberation theology had been a major cause of the decline of the Catholic Church in Brazil, which once claimed some 90% of the country’s population and now can count slightly more than 50%. It was time, Boff argued, to re-center the Church on Christ, who is “Master and Lord,” in order to meet the challenge of Pentecostalism, which is growing rapidly while Catholicism in shrinking. Relieving poverty by empowering the poor and dealing with climate issues were not unimportant, Boff said, but “without drinking from Christ, who is the source, everything dries up, everything dies.”
This was, of course, one of the key points of the two texts on the theologies of liberation issued during the pontificate of John Paul II by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Both the 1984 “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation’” and the 1987 “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation” emphasized that liberation from sin and death, made possible for us by the Cross of Christ and the gift of sanctifying grace mediated by Christ’s Church, is the most basic – and most urgent – form of human liberation, for it liberates us into freedom in its deepest and most authentic sense. And while this spiritual liberation naturally leads to an ecclesial commitment to other forms of liberation in the world, liberation from sin through grace must always remain foremost in the Church’s evangelization and catechesis.
These core Catholic truths were embodied in John Paul II’s role in the liberation of central and eastern Europe from communism. By inspiring a revolution of conscience in Poland and its neighbors, John Paul made possible a different kind of political revolution, in which tyranny was overthrown without mass violence. Like the great Czech playwright and dissident (and eventual post-communist president) Václav Havel, John Paul II knew that “living in the truth” was the most effective weapon against tyrannies that had a monopoly on material power but were hollow in the things of the spirit – and the Spirit.
Yet if I read Clodovis Boff ‘s analysis correctly, it was precisely a disregard for those core Catholic truths of Christocentric liberation that led to the radical diminishment of the Church in Latin America. Nor can it be said that the social justice advocacy to which the signatories of the “Pact of the Catacombs” committed themselves, and which was so prominent in Latin American Catholicism during the 1970s, was effective in setting the cultural foundations for the flourishing of political and economic freedom between the Rio Grande and Tiera del Fuego. Very few Latin American countries have achieved either widespread and equitable economic development or political stability under the rule of law. Corruption is rampant through the continent; pondering that, ought the Latin American Church not take some measure of responsibility for a great catechetical failure?
In short, whatever the “Pact of the Catacombs” and the rise of the theologies of liberation may have achieved, it was neither the renewal of the Church nor the reform of culture, society economics, and politics in Latin America. And yet enthusiasts of certain cast of mind at Synod-2023 are celebrating the return of that approach to being a Church of communion, participation, and mission. Isn’t that a long march back to the 1970s, not forward into the future?
Isn’t that déjà vu all over again?
Forty-five years ago today, on October 16, 1978, the Church did take a bold step into a new future – and a giant leap beyond the ecclesiastical miseries of the 1970s – when the College of Cardinals did what had seemed unthinkable a month earlier and elected a 58-year-old Pole as Bishop of Rome: the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever. The impact of that Spirit-led discernment (to adopt the preferred language of Synod-2023) was quickly evident when, six days later, Karol Wojtyła, now Pope John Paul II, stood before the Church and the world at the Mass publicly inaugurating his Petrine ministry and courageously proclaimed, “Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” After which French journalist André Frossard wired back to his Parisian newspaper, “This is not a pope from Poland. This is a pope from Galilee.”
A Church in the doldrums was thereby re-energized for Christocentric mission, the results of which are evident everywhere today: from the bursting seminaries of Africa to lay-led movements of evangelization like FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students); from the growing institutes of consecrated religious life for both men and women to the vibrant Catholic campus ministries found throughout the United States and in global intellectual centers like Oxford; in the pro-life movement and its service to women in crisis pregnancies and their unborn children; in the vitality of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and the remarkable Ukrainian Catholic University; and not least in the lively parishes throughout the world Church that remain the institutional basis of living Catholicism.
A synodal process fostering communion, participation, and mission should be inspired by that historic proclamation, “Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” A synodal process fostering communion, participation, and mission should learn from the growth in faith, witness, and charity that has been the result of answering John Paul II’s summons to the New Evangelization. A synodal process fostering communion, participation, and mission ought not issue a call to return to the 1970s.
Which is to say, the “People of God… in Synod” must not do déjà vu all over again.
WHAT I WOULD SAY TO THE SYNOD
Mary Eberstadt holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at Washington’s Catholic Information Center and is Senior Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute. The mother of four, she is the author of numerous essays and several books, the most recent of which is Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited; its foreword was written by Cardinal George Pell shortly before his untimely death earlier this year. Asked by LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2023 what she would like to say to those participating in the synodal process in Rome this month, Mrs. Eberstadt responded with a caution against the Church doing déjà vu all over again with respect to the sexual revolution.
Xavier Rynne II
If I could ask one question of the Synod, it would be: Why do some in the Church seek to accommodate the sexual revolution, when the consequences of doing that are already disastrous?
Christians were warned from the earliest days that the rules governing this new culture would be strict; the disciples themselves complained that Jesus’s strictures were “hard.” But something new is afoot. Two thousand years later, not only do many Catholics and other Christians voice the same old complaint. Some also now insist that “hard” teachings must ipso facto be “wrong” teachings.
The problem for the sex rebels at this precise moment is that we can no longer pretend that this is 1968. Too much evidence has accumulated about what happened around the planet after so many of its Eves swallowed the Pill. And that evidence points to moral hazards ignored by today’s would-be Church-changers.
Pressure to capitulate to the sexual revolution flows from two directions. One is the wider secularist anti-culture in which a neo-pagan current antithetical to Christianity strengthens apace. The other, more dangerous pressure arises from within the Church itself. Watching as their often poorly-catechized, neo-paganizing flocks are swept away, some shepherds lament that core teachings about marriage and sex are not “well received” – code language for the campaign aimed at softening them, in the hope that they might someday be erased. The implied notion is that the truth of dogma is not absolute, but relative to its popularity in the pews.
Members of the Synod might consider, first, the tired but true problem of the slippery slope. If teachings are to be jettisoned due to their unpopularity, where will that exercise end? Measured by statistics, the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days is also not “well received.” Judging by the conspicuous consumption on display every holiday season, and in every other season, neither is the commandment against covetousness. Frequent confession, corporal works of mercy, the mortification of the flesh: more victims of faulty reception.
No doubt many Catholics would like to jettison the teachings that make our secularist neighbors uncomfortable, including the ancient prohibition on contraception. This brings us to another kind of disaster visited on the denominations that did just that. Not only did that change lead to institutional collapse in one case after another. It also entailed dark fallout. If half a century of legalized abortion around the world has shown anything, it’s that contraception increases abortion. A changed Church, in this sense, is more than a Church with a smiley face. A changed Church would have blood on its hands.
The incantation of “reception” fails for another reason: The most auspicious post-revolutionary reality today is not that people resent Catholic teaching about sex. That’s old news – two thousand years old. No, the most auspicious and under-attended reality is that skeptical reaction to the sexual revolution is growing inside and outside the Church.
By the first quarter of the twenty-first century, as the stupendous wreckage of the sexual revolution piles up, what is driving many Western converts into the Church is not resistance to Catholic teaching, but desired fidelity to it. They seek a way out of the low-down, dirty, neo-paganizing culture – especially its degraded sexuality. Likewise, today’s extraordinary evangelization of Africa and Asia continues, not despite the tough Christian rule book, but because those teachings about the sanctity of life and marriage shine out against the anti-Christian and non-Christian alternatives, including but not limited to polygamy.
This brings us to one final point for all Catholics, not just those dreaming of a hipper, rainbow-waving Church. The same teachings that some hope to deep-six are gaining new and unexpected hearings outside the Church, in the same re-paganizing West.
This is partly due to the energetic scholarship of religious traditionalists themselves – including an outpouring of work by female theologians and philosophers. That growing body of evidence should be front and center as the Synod deliberates – especially to those who wonder aloud where the Church’s women are. One answer is: defending the Barque of Peter.
Consider a landmark symposium held in Washington, D.C., in 2018 on “Second Thoughts on the Sexual Revolution,” co-sponsored by the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Notre Dame’s de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, the Catholic Information Center, and the Archdiocese of Washington. It featured testimony by theologians, philosophers, and other academics, alongside attorneys, therapists, and journalists – nearly all of them women in positions of intellectual authority, wielding their collective might on behalf of classic moral truths. To that example could be added others that have arisen in solidarity, making the case against capitulation with new energy and new scholarship.
One more fact we can no longer pretend not to know, and that members of the Synod, above all, might bear in mind: Partly in response to such work, writers from outside religious precincts are slowly but unmistakably coming to reckon anew with the sexual revolution – and they, too, are gaining traction.
In the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, for example, three such skeptical books have broken through in the last few years alone, all objects of vigorous discussion, and all from beyond Planet Catholic. In secular media these days, questions that once were unthinkable now abound about the Pill, cohabitation, and divorce. Or consider another phenomenon proscribed on account of the old Christian rule book: pornography. Today, its detractors include not only people within religious circles, but a lengthening list of celebrities and other secular witnesses.
Today’s cutting-edge analyses, secular and religious, are lining up behind revisionism about the sexual revolution, not surrender to it. These developments mark a transition in the postrevolutionary West. For that reason, those who would dilute Catholic teaching could not have chosen a worse moment to press their case. It makes zero sense to cheer the revolution’s infiltration of the Church, when so many people outside it are stumbling anew onto ancient truths, and so many on the inside are defending those truths with renewed vigor.
That, finally, is the ultimate appeal to those present at the Synod: How grand that the Church has maintained unflinchingly its enduring teachings, no matter how irksome and unpopular, for so long. What a tragedy it would be for the world if, at this of all moments, Catholic leaders themselves were to miss, amidst today’s postrevolutionary disorder, an unfolding and profound vindication.
Abundant evidence points toward the preternatural wisdom of a longstanding rule book. And that proof cannot, in good faith, be ignored any longer.
[This reflection was adapted by the author from her essay, “1968 Is So Over,” in the May 2023 issue of First Things. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2023/05/1968-is-so-over.]
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the biographer of Pope St. John Paul II