March 21, 2023 // Perspective

What to Make of the Great Synodal Debate

The Catholic Church today can, in an important sense, be described as a Church in upheaval. A significant part of that reality arises from the fact that the Church does not exist in isolation from our broader culture. At some points in history, that culture has both been animated by, and has deeply animated and served, the Church’s work of worship and evangelization. But when the culture and the Church increasingly diverge, tensions foment, and furors erupt. We are in one such moment today.

That rupture between Church and culture sparks debate among even the highest-ranking prelates because no easy solution is readily available. There is no clear plan to navigate the tempest of our culture. Some Church leaders are more open to embracing current cultural trends in hopes of putting them to use in the service of the Gospel. Others are more wary and long for clear warnings of potential danger to protect the flock.

Experiencing this kind of turbulence, we may be tempted to paint a picture of the earliest age of the Church in which the disciples always agreed. After all, Scripture attests to such harmonious moments, like the day of Pentecost, when they were all gathered together as one (cf. Acts 2:1).

But even in the Lord’s own time, when Our Savior walked among men, disagreement was to be found. Recall Judas’ infamous objection to the woman who anoints Christ’s feet with oil: “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” (Jn 12:5).

Or perhaps even more germane, consider the great debate about whether Christians needed to follow Jewish religious law, like circumcision or abstinence from pork. Scripture tells us, “Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question” (Acts 15:2). The disciples had received the Holy Spirit, and yet there were fiercely opposing views on how the followers of Jesus would resolve the dispute concerning whether it was necessary to continue to observe Mosaic law.

Since those early days of Christian history, it has always been so. Consider that Arianism, the view that Jesus was not co-eternal but created by the Father, was at one point held by a majority of the Christian world. It took centuries for orthodox teaching to be widely accepted, even after the matter was settled formally at the Council of Nicea in 325.

Why would our own age, so full of unrest, be any different than these former times? Longing for a Church without discord is truly commendable. But the Church is composed of and led by human beings, and therefore the working out of the way forward will more often than not be a rumbustious affair.

The language we are now seeing used by some of the Church’s most prominent shepherds signals the urgency of these debates. Take, for example, Cardinal Walter Kasper’s recent caution concerning synodal efforts in Germany. “The Synodal Path repeatedly emphasizes that it doesn’t want any schism, and I believe that,” Cardinal Kasper said. “But one can also stumble into a schism,” he continued. “Sort of like how the great powers stumbled into World War I, although nobody really wanted it.”

In the United States, Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, recently wrote in First Things magazine, “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon today to hear Catholic leaders affirm unorthodox views that, not too long ago, would have been espoused only by heretics.” Bishop Paprocki’s article resonated with many because it acknowledged the destructive nature of sexual sin.

Words like “schism” and “heresy” are not to be bandied about lightly. When used seriously, by reflective men, they are heavy terms, and the fact that they have been deployed should be the cause of serious reflection by bishops, clergy, and laity alike. And while we lament the conditions that have led to their use, appearance on the scene should hardly be distressing. They are welcome words to see in public discourse, because at least the discourse has become public.

Debates that have long simmered behind closed rectory doors have now entered the common life of the Church. As hard as it may be to believe, this is the first step toward healing and progress. Unity can only be achieved and charity can only be lived when opposing views are enunciated clearly and boldly. Then those divergent views can be examined and accepted or rejected on their merits and conformity with Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.

Rather than discouraged, we should be encouraged by these public exchanges among Catholic leaders. Only when division is brought to light can resolution be found.

The Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board is comprised of Father Patrick Briscoe, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, and York Young.

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