Thursday, July 16, 2015

Blessed Paul VI, The Synod, and Pope Francis

An earlier version of this post was published October 25th 2014.

     Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini is reported to have said at the time that St. John XXIII didn't realize what a "hornet's nest" he was stirring up in calling the Second Vatican Council.  A few short years later, Montini,  as Pope Paul VI, found himself presiding over that very hornet's nest.  He faced the Herculean task of trying to preserve the unity of the Church in the face of the forces that had been unleashed, both during the council and in the years that followed. Pope Paul's approach seemed to be based on the maxim (often erroneously attributed to St. Augustine): "Unity in essential things, liberty in doubtful things, charity in all things".  Pope John had quoted it in his first encyclical,  Ad Petri Cathedram [here], and Pope Paul took it to heart.  He allowed everyone to have his say when possible, which tended to create the appearance (and, quite frankly, often the reality) of disarray in the Church.  Where he judged it necessary, on the other hand, he firmly restated the traditional teaching: on priestly celibacy [here], for instance, the all-male clergy [here], and most famously, human sexuality in his most well-known encyclical, Humanae Vitae [here]. As a rule he refrained from condemnations, denunciations, and other seemingly uncharitable gestures.

Blessed Paul VI at the closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council        
       Pope Paul is now Blessed Paul VI, having been beatified last weekend at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  Speaking of which, one can't help but agree with the numerous commentators who have observed that this synod was not just Extraordinary, but extraordinary.  There's no need for me to recap all the hijinx that took place; let it suffice to say that such public disarray in the upper reaches of the Church has not been seen the pontificate of, yes, Paul VI.
          There are some interesting connections here.  There has been a lot of speculation as to Pope Francis's position on the controverted issues and controversial maneuvering at the synod.  He gave Cardinal Kasper the opportunity to run with his long-time project of loosening up the rules preventing divorced Catholics who have remarried without annulment from receiving communion, and appointed administrators for the synod who finagled to make that and other liberalizing proposals seem much more agreeable to the assembled fathers than they actually were; he also put more traditionally-minded prelates such as South African Cardinal Napier in a position to counter the machinations of Kasper and his crew.  As the synod unfolded, the Pope appeared to have no public reaction to the actions of the liberalizing faction in the first week, nor to the successful revolt of the others in the second.  He very consciously took an evenhanded approach in his final address, mixing some "pox on both your houses" rhetoric with a call for unity in arriving at the truth.
          What does this have to do with the beatification of Paul VI?  Clearly, raising up the author of Humanae Vitae as the culmination of a synod on the family sends a pretty strong message that Pope Francis is not going to soften Church teaching in this area (as I previously suggested here).  I wonder if he isn't also looking to Blessed Pope Paul as a model for how to approach the question of Church Unity.  It may seem to him that, despite the fact that a whole lot of people weren't happy, Paul's light touch largely succeeded in holding the Church together.  The one significant exception, of course, was Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers, now embodied in the Society of Pius X - to whom Pope Francis seems to be making some very charitable overtures for reconciliation [here].  Like Blessed Paul VI, Francis seems to be aiming for a style more pleasing to the "progressives", while maintaining (on doctrinal matters, anyway) a more traditional substance.*
     Whatever the Pope's personal stance on the doctrinal issues, however, the less orthodox views of some of the bishops at the synod received much more attention from most media outlets, which tend to have very little sympathy for Catholic teaching in this area.  The same is likely to happen again this coming fall, at the synod for which last year's meeting was merely a preliminary.  At the same time, the attacks n the family have grown even more intense. I ask that we pray very hard for the Holy Father and the synod fathers, that they make this year's gathering both a sign of unity, and a clear statement of the timeless teaching of the Church. 

*. . . I haven't forgotten about the post-Vatican II reform of the liturgy: I'll get to that in another post.

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