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The Roots & the Fruits: A Reflection on the Synod of Bishops

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The recent Synod of Catholic Bishops concluded with a lot less than the initial documents suggested.  I suspect this is exactly as Pope Francis designed.

The initial document was less a matter of signaling an immediate change and more a matter of opening a window into the deliberative processes of the Catholic Church.  This is, in and of itself, remarkable.  Questions about divorce and remarriage, civil marriages and homosexual persons and relationships had previously been off the table.  This was more than just an assertion of thousands-year-old teaching; the topics themselves had not been previously offered to the faithful for thoughtful discussion.

From now until this time next year that will be changing.  And that is an earthquake all by itself.  It's not the 'big one', but might be a foreshock to the 'big one'.  Hopefully it will also be an opportunity for the 'conservative' and 'liberal' sides of the Church to better understand one another.

Here is how I hope that will play out: (Note: I write as a Evangelical Protestant.  But as a student of the history and theology of Christianity, I consider myself part of a history which is playing out before us.)  We will better understand what I'll call "the roots and the fruits."

Liberal Catholics Will Better Understand the Roots

One of the things I try to do in this blog and in my book (the chapter on social conservatism in American politics) is to use stories to discuss larger issues.  I like to tell part of the story of creation from Genesis in a lighthearted, amusing way:

God brings the animals, male and female, to Adam to see what names he would give them.  Adam notices something:

"This one here," he is pointing to the male, "has something I have too."  He is looking down at his own midsection.

"But he also has something I don't."  He is pointing to the male's female partner.

God walks about in the cool of the day and Adam calls out;

"Yo, God, what's up with this?"

God comes over, smiles, chuckles and says: "Yes, I can see that it is not good for man to be alone."  And so he creates the woman...

The point of the story is that the order of creation - the heterosexual complement of nature - occurs to Adam in observing the animals.  This isn't decreed on the tablets of stone Moses would later carry down the mountain.  It is not something we believe because it was taught to us.  It is something we believe and teach because it was obvious before there was anything to believe and teach.

By opening the topic for discussion, I hope the Holy Father will lead Liberal Catholics in a path which recognizes that the moral reasoning of the Church - the roots - comes before what the Church believes and teaches (theology and doctrine).  The Church can no more change this than it can decree a change in human genetics, anatomy and biology.

Conservative Catholics Will Better Understand the Fruits

In his letter to the church at Galatia (Ankara in modern-day Turkey was the capital of Galatia in biblical times) St. Paul lists things he called the 'fruits of the Spirit'.  (This is a bit of 'church-speak' that church-going folks like me can easily fall into when talking with others.)  Paul's list included: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Notably absent is a 'good argument'.  This is notable because during the time of early Christianity 'wisdom' - being skilled in oratory and argument - was thought in other Christian circles (e.g. Corinth - Korinthos in modern day Greece) as a mark of spirituality.  The passage in the New Testament popularized in weddings that starts with "love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant..." (1 Corinthians 13:4-13) is Paul's answer to the Corinthians' misunderstanding of what spirituality is all about.

Another passage in the New Testament which is very familiar even among people who have never darkened a church door is the story of the Good Samaritan.  But there is more here than just the story of a Samaritan man who had compassion on someone.  This is a contrast of intentions and motives.

An 'expert in the law' wants to 'test' Jesus, and so asks: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus answers (and I am obviously paraphrasing): "You're the lawyer; you tell me!"

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

"You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."

Notice that the expert in the law has answered expertly.  He is right.  But he is about to find out that his expertise - his being right - is not quite up to the hope he is seeking.  St. Luke (the Gospel writer here) opens wider the window into the lawyer's intentions and motives which he opened at the beginning.  Now "wishing to justify himself..." he asks "And who is my neighbor?"

And Jesus tells the story we all know well.  The story opens the window into the Samaritan's intentions and motives.  He has compassion on the man left for dead by robbers.  And in the dialog we learn that he will return to settle any extra costs incurred by the inn-keeper in nursing the man back to health.

So Jesus asks the expert in the law: "Who was the neighbor to this man?"

The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say 'Samaritan'; they were reviled by the Jews of Jesus' day as religious half-breeds.  He entertains himself with a lawyerly dodge: "The one who showed mercy toward him."

It is what Jesus says last that is most compelling.  We are presented with the choice between making a good argument and being a good neighbor.  We are not left with any wiggle room.  There is no lawyerly parsing of the language which will get us out of having to make this choice.  Jesus looks at us and simply says: "Go and do the same."

We conservatives are the 'experts in the law.'  We are wonderfully articulate and nuanced (and hopefully I have been a little entertaining too) as we make the 'Natural Law' argument for the heterosexual complement of nature.  And we see in the Gospel a message of hope for eternal life.  I hope the Holy Father will lead conservative Catholics in a reflection which asks this basic question: Are our arguments - and all of the parsing of the language we seem to be so highly entertained by - up to the hope we are seeking?

I believe the answer must be no.

Orthodoxy, Evangelism...

This push and pull between "orthodoxy" (being right) and evangelism is not new to the Church.  Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552 - 1610) went to China with his expertise in mathematics, astronomy and cartography.  He sought to join what was known by the West to what was believed by Confucian scholars, looking first for how Confucian ideas corresponded to the teachings of the Church.  As part of this effort, he translated the New Testament into Chinese - adopting indigenous words for "God" rather than imposing Latinisms on the Chinese language.

This became controversial because Ricci taught that Chinese rites for deceased relatives were not properly "worship" as understood by the Church and thus were not incompatible with Christianity.  This and the use of indigenous language in biblical translation exposed a rift between orthodoxy (argued then mainly by the Dominican order) and evangelism (argued then by the Jesuits).

While the landscape has changed somewhat since, the defenders of what was thought to be orthodoxy won the day in Pope Clement XI's decision to ban rites for the deceased among Chinese converts and the use of Ricci's choices in the translation of Scripture.  The repercussions for the Church's mission reverberate to the present day.

In Ricci's time Korean Confucian intellectuals traveled to Peking to inquire into Ricci's astronomy.  They returned to Korea with the implements and rudiments of the Mass.  Later Catholic missionaries would gain entrance into Korea and be shocked to see the basics of the Mass already being celebrated.  Scottish Protestant missionary John Ross would use Ricci's approach to translation and produced a Korean New Testament.  He succeeded in getting it into Korea before missionaries themselves could enter.  When they did, they found the beginnings of Christianity already present.

To travel in Asia, visiting places like Japan and China, is to see what happens when the language of orthodoxy swallows up whole the language of evangelism.  And then to visit South Korea is to see and experience what happens when the language of orthodoxy is put in the service of evangelism.  When these two things are allowed to compete, both lose.  When they are joined together, the Gospel flourishes.

...and the Family as a Mission Field

The Church will reflect in the coming year leading up to another Synod in October of 2015.  It is expected that the results of that meeting will inform Pope Francis in a more formal promulgation of the pastoral direction of the Catholic Church into the future.  None of this challenges the roots of Catholic moral reasoning.  But it does challenge the Church to examine the fruits of a history which pits orthodoxy against evangelism as competing interests.

My hope is that conservative Catholic participants will see the family as a mission field and not allow "being right" to swallow up whole the imperative of the Gospel to be a good neighbor.  I also hope that conservative non-Catholics like myself will see themselves as participants in the larger history being made here and pray that Pope Francis and the bishops will be led to a transformation of the pastoral ministry of the Catholic Church.

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