According to his longtime consigliere, Edwin Meese, President Ronald Reagan must have told the “pony joke” at least a thousand times. The story involves the super-optimistic child whose parents take him to a psychiatrist, along with his super-pessimistic twin, so the doctor can evaluate their extreme personalities. The pessimistic little boy is brought into a room full of toys and immediately bursts into tears. “Don’t you want to play with the toys?” the psychiatrist asks. “Yes,” the youngster bawls, “but if I did, I’d only break them.” The optimistic child is taken to a room filled with horse muck. Does the child turn up his nose? No, the little boy starts digging. “What are you doing?” the startled psychiatrist asks. “Well, with all this muck,” the child answers, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”
Amid the detritus of Synod-2019, which included everything from blatant heterodoxy to guerrilla theater to a senior churchman denouncing responsible critics of the synod as hired guns of oil companies, there is, in fact, a pony to be found. For whatever else it may or may not have accomplished, Synod-2019 was an unmistakable moment of clarification and a stern summons to responsibility. That’s the pony amid the muck.
To understand what all that might mean, I offer some synthetic conclusions on Synod-2019, attempting to draw together many of the threads of conversation and controversy that unfolded in Rome these past three weeks.
The Cards Are Now Face-Up on the Table. Most importantly, Synod-2019 served the very useful purpose of casting in sharp relief the grave doctrinal and theological issues facing the Church, today and in the immediate future. During the synod, positions were taken; the theological orientations and pastoral stances of various personalities were identified; and as of October 28, 2019, it is impossible for anyone in a position of ecclesiastical responsibility to deny what is at stake, save for reasons of inattention, indifference, or fear.
And what, precisely, is at stake, after this synod and its predecessors during the current pontificate? Conversations with both elders of the Church and knowledgeable observers suggest that we have reached several bottom lines.
At stake is the reality and binding authority of divine revelation as conveyed to us by Scripture and Tradition. Does revelation judge history—including this historical moment and its legitimate concerns about the environment—or does history judge revelation (and thus demand, for example, that 21st-century Catholicism jettison the biblical view of humanity’s unique, and uniquely responsible, position in the natural world)?
At stake is the magisterium of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI as the authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council—an interpretation that underwrites the vitality of the New Evangelization in the living parts of the world Church.
At stake is the teaching of the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor on the reality of intrinsically evil acts—actions that can never be justified by any calculus of intentions and consequences.
At stake is the teaching of the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on whom the Church is authorized to admit to Holy Orders.
At stake is the teaching of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the declaration Dominus Iesus, on the unique role of Jesus Christ as Savior, a declaration that was personally affirmed by St. John Paul II during the Great Jubilee of 2000.
At stake is the relationship of the universal Church to the local churches: Is Catholicism a federation of national or regional churches, or is Catholicism a universal Church with distinctive local expressions?
At stake is the very nature of the Church: Is the Catholic Church a communion of disciples in mission, sacramentally constituted and hierarchically ordered, or is the Church to understand itself primarily by analogy to the world, as a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to good works in aid of the poor, the environment, migrants, etc.?
At stake is the realization of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19–20: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”
That is what is at stake. Those with primary responsibility for the Church’s future according to the teaching of Lumen Gentium (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) have a solemn obligation, undertaken when they accepted ordination as bishops, to address those issues. Reticence, in the hope that “God will provide,” is not an option at this Catholic moment.
Saving “the Project”: A colleague from Latin America, deeply knowledgeable about the continent in all its diversity and well-informed about the maneuvers before and during Synod-2019, reported this past week that one of the synod’s Brazilian architects, leaving the Aula Paolo Sesto a few days earlier, had said aloud (with more passion than discretion), “This is our last chance.” To which the obvious response is, “the last chance for what?”
The answer to that question does not simply involve certain issues long-agitated on the Catholic Left, such as the ordination of married men (viri probati) to the priesthood and the admission of women to some sort of “ministry.” The “last chance” to which that indiscreet synod father referred was the “last chance” to realize a comprehensive, ideologically-driven project, typically thought to be native to Latin America, but that in fact was exported to that continent from the theological faculties of a dying Catholicism in Northern Europe in the decade and a half after the Second Vatican Council.
According to this observer and others, in what seems to me an incisive analysis, that is what has been afoot in Rome during October: a last effort to rescue “the project.” That “project” is often subsumed under the rubric of “liberation theology,” and “the project” was certainly informed at one stage by various theologies of liberation. But “the project” was always, and is now, more ambitious than the effort to re-align the Church politically in Latin America. The scope of “the project” was neatly captured by the Latin American prelate who claimed, months ago, that after the Synod on Amazonia, “nothing will ever be the same.”
That is certainly not true. But the breathtaking ambition of the claim suggests the magnitude of “the project” for which Synod-2019 was the “last chance.”
“The project” was, and is, nothing less than the creation of a New Model Catholicism, in which the Church is conceived primarily as an international non-governmental organization advancing the progressive agenda globally. Various forms of liberation theology, wedded to a certain interpretation of Karl Rahner’s notion of the unevangelized as “anonymous Christians,” informed the first attempts to realize “the project.” The addition of eco-theology to the mix (itself the import of a quasi-religion from Western elites), and a new reverence for indigenous religiosity, seem to have filled out “the project’s” understanding of what the Church is, and what the Church is for.
The fact that “the project” is a northern European export has long been clear, although digging deeply into the history of ideas in modern Catholicism is necessary to grasp the point. For over forty years now, the world media’s presentation of liberation theology as an indigenous, populist phenomenon native to Latin America—a bit of fake news amplified by Catholic enthusiasts for “the project”—has done a good job of obscuring who-taught-what-to-whom. The fact of the matter, however, is that virtually nothing in the various Latin American liberation theologies criticized by St. John Paul II at the 1979 Puebla conference of the Latin American episcopate, or rejected in the 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was native to Latin America. The reading of history, the ecclesiology, the concept of the sacraments and the ministry that shaped most liberation theologies was exported to Latin America from Belgian, French, and German theological faculties through which Hegelian and Marxist winds had blown with considerable force in the late 1960s. Those radical reconsiderations of the nature of the Church, its mission, and its relationship to both the unconverted and to politics—some of it the work of very intelligent but deeply wrongheaded men—was carried home by romantic and passionate young Latin American priests who had studied in those faculties, and who would become bishops in the latter part of the twentieth century. These currents of thought were highly influential in the Brazilian bishops conference in particular.
With the aforementioned overlay of ecological “consciousness” and eco-theology, also native to western Europe and its dying Catholicism, those themes were a powerful force in shaping Synod-2019’s working document and debates—a process made easier because the roster of synod participants was carefully selected to reflect this cast of mind by an overwhelming majority.
Thus the collapse of Catholic faith in Northern Europe, which has led in those lands to the displacement of the Church-as-Mystical-Body-of-Christ-intent-on-converting-the-world by the Church-as-well-funded-non-governmental-organization-reflecting-the-concerns-of-global-elites, has metastasized in Latin America. This is the true “new colonialism.” Yet it was rarely identified as such at Synod-2019, save by a few brave souls who deplored the hijacking of the synod by western European progressive agendas, which frustrated the attempt by some synod members to think seriously about the evangelization of Amazonia and to find answers to the question, “Why do the Pentecostals grow while we Catholics decline?”
Still Stuck to the Tar-Baby of Power. This ideological form of globalization—“the project” for which Synod-2019 was a “last chance”—has not only had a deleterious effect on the evangelical zeal of the Latin American Church. It has also had a bad effect on the politics of Latin America and the Church’s capacity to shape a decent public order. In that respect, Synod-2019 was a massive, if tacit, confession of failure.
Catholicism has been present in Latin America for over half a millennium, often as a vital force. Yet throughout the continent, one sees today a pandemic failure to form and sustain civil societies capable of buttressing democratic self-government, and capable of supporting responsible economic development that creates wealth and empowers the poor. And as the Church’s primary task in public life is forming civil society by forming the men and women who make up civil society, Catholicism bears a large measure of responsibility for that cultural failure.
The bright promise of the “third wave” of democratic and market revolutions in Latin America in the 1980s has been dashed by this civil-societal incapacity—and by the Church’s failure to do much about it. At Synod-2001, many Latin American bishops told me that the gravest problem the Church’s social doctrine faced on their continent in the twenty-first century was corruption—this, after more than five hundred years of Catholic life in Latin America. Yet political and economic corruption remains pandemic from the Rio Grande to Tiera del Fuego, frustrating the construction of decent societies and the eradication of gross poverty just about everywhere (notable exceptions at the moment being Costa Rica and Uruguay, as one veteran observer of the world scene put it to me). And some measure of responsibility for that plague of corruption lies at the feet of Latin American churchmen who failed to take seriously the call of their own 2007 Aparecida Document for a robust New Evangelization of the continent. For that New Evangelization would certainly have had to include the proclamation of the virtues required to sustain the free and virtuous society of the twenty-first century.
The inability to come to grips with this during Synod-2019 was, or should be, deeply disturbing. Was there any reference made, during either the synod’s general debates or in its language-based discussion groups, to the colossal failures of corrupt leftist regimes in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela (from which some 4 million people, 13 percent of the population, have fled during the “Bolivarian” regime of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro)? Did any synod father or auditor note publicly that the much-deplored deterioration of environmental and human conditions in Brazilian Amazonia has taken place over the past two decades during the presidencies of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010) and Dilma Roussef (2011–2016), both corrupt, hard-core leftists of the same general cast of mind as Bolivia’s Evo Morales (he of the famous hammer-and-sickle-cross given to Pope Francis), Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and the aforementioned Venezuelan tyrants? If so, it escaped public notice.
In several major cities of Latin America, especially the old viceroyal capitals, the visitor cannot help but notice the proximity of the viceregal palace to the cathedral, usually in a great plaza. Has that historic linkage between Church and state power—whatever its historic accomplishments—become an obstacle to realizing the evangelizing mission of the Church in the twenty-first century, especially when the alliance today is with failed socialist regimes? That certainly ought to have been a topic of discussion in a synod dedicated to “new paths for the Church.” Was it? If so, its echoes outside the Synod Hall were faint.
Which brings us back to, and further clarifies, an earlier point. The “last chance” of which that Brazilian prelate spoke so imprudently involved yet another attempt to become a Church of power: in this instance, well-funded, non-governmental organizational power allied to left-leaning political regimes and international organizations for whom the realities of nations and states mean little (and the convictions of the Catholic Church on questions of population control mean even less). Surely, surely, it is long past time for the Church in Latin America to recognize that such alliances with political power are futile over the long haul and disadvantageous to the proclamation of the gospel here and now. There must be some Latin American alternative to the choice between imported western European progressivism (political and ecclesiastical) and the similarly unevangelical, nostalgia-driven traditionalism of some wealthy Latin American Catholics.
It was once thought that the social doctrine of John Paul II could provide that alternative. It still might. But that social doctrine must be understood, embodied, and implemented by both the leaders and people of the Catholic Church. That understanding, embodiment, and implementation was not evident at Synod-2019, not least among senior churchmen who had come to prominence under the Polish pope to whom they once pledged fealty.
German Money and the Church-as-NGO. Not just here but throughout the world, the Catholic Church in Germany—currently on life-support as a sacramental community but immensely wealthy—is having a disproportionate effect on Catholic life. Many of the preparatory meetings cueing up Synod-2019 were funded by the German Catholic development agencies “Adveniat” and “Miserior,” and so was a lot of the Off-Broadway NGO activity during the synod—including the sundry indigenous rites and displays at the Church of S. Maria in Traspontina on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue (and now, alas, trash dump) leading up to St. Peter’s Square.
Lobbying by interest groups has been a part of Catholic life for a long time. The various forces contending for or against a definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1869–1870) had lobbying groups and publications; prominent among the latter was the Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica, which promoted the most expansive possible definition of papal infallibility (and continues to do so today, if from a dramatically different ideological position). There was considerable Off-Broadway activity at Vatican II (1962–1965), with various Catholic organizations, journals, and institutes sponsoring lectures and discussions that often had resonance within the Council’s debates. Synod-2014, Synod-2015, Synod-2018, and the “abuse summit” earlier this year were similarly lobbied by various Catholic interest groups.
This lobbying seemed to have grown by an order of magnitude at Synod-2019. Rome was awash in German Catholic money, which paid for a great many things, from the transportation of indigenous peoples from the Amazon to the Tiber, to lobbying efforts on behalf of this, that, or the other environmental, political, or ecclesiastical cause. This funding and these organizational efforts were often coordinated with the lobbying of secular NGOs and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) interested in environmental, development, and population-control issues: NGOs and INGOs that typically have a considerable presence at the United Nations, the European Union, and other international forums.
One can, of course, imagine some benefits to all this lobbying activity. But it also tends to create an atmosphere, inside and outside the synod proper, that is more political than ecclesial, more a matter of power-brokerage than spiritual discernment and serious theological reflection. When this phenomenon meets Latin American Catholicism’s historic linkages to political power, the picture is not exactly that of a poor Church for the poor, but of a well-heeled Church-become-non-governmental-organization, marching in step with agendas that have little to do with the proclamation of the gospel to those who have never met Jesus Christ and who have never been invited into the communion of Christ’s friends.
German Catholic money, the lobbying it supports, and the messages it carries with it are facts of contemporary Catholic life with implications far beyond Synod-2019. The German Catholic development agencies, and gifts from German bishops to their Third World confreres from archdiocesan funds raised by the German Kirchensteuer (church tax), are also crucial to the financial support of Catholicism in Africa and Asia. That funding does not come without certain messaging (whether those messages are happily received or not). Nor does it come without the assumption of a certain influence in future Church deliberations—including the next conclave, whenever that may be.
There is a deep, even painful, irony here: German Catholic generosity—the riches of a dying Church which, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once put it, is a “task force for old ideas”—is helping build the infrastructure of Catholicism in the most evangelically vibrant areas of the world Church, especially Africa. In yet another irony, though, it has become clear at Synod-2019 that African churchmen do not share the enthusiasm for “indigenous religions” displayed by many of their German-funded Latin American counterparts, and find something scandalous in an Austrian missionary bishop with thirty-five years of experience in the wilds of Brazilian Amazonia bragging that he had never baptized a single indigenous person.
African Catholicism does not seem much interested in the-Church-as-NGO; it’s too busy evangelizing. Yet African Catholicism depends in considerable part on the largesse of the wealthiest local Church in the world, the Church in Germany, which is firmly locked into the-Church-as-NGO model in its own bureaucratic life and public presence. This tension, and its resolution, will play a considerable role in determining the Catholic future in the years ahead.
One final note on this front. On the penultimate Sunday of the synod, the Relator General of Synod-2019, the Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, preached a sermon in the Catacombs of Domatilla in which he inveighed against money as the source of all the world’s evils. Yet it was large sums of money—often German—that made possible the years of work Cardinal Hummes and his colleagues in the Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM) put into preparing Synod-2019. And it was money—again, largely German, and not miserly—that made possible the Off-Broadway lobbying that was a crucial part of the strategy of Cardinal Hummes and his compatriots for Synod-2019. Something is not-quite-right here. A harsher critic might call it hypocrisy. I’ll just call it serious confusion.
The Celibacy Question. While there was some pushback against the demand for the ordination of trusted married men—so-called viri probati—during the synod, there was far more support for the practice than there was principled opposition expressed to it. The synod’s Final Report recommended by a large margin that the pope authorize the ordination as priests of married deacons in Amazonia after suitable training.
Three typically unremarked facets of this issue should be flagged for the future, and certainly ought to be considered by the Holy Father as he prepares his post-synodal apostolic exhortation.
The first was pointed out to me by a knowledgeable Latin American who admitted, with considerable sadness, that there were serious problems of clerical concubinage in the Latin American presbyterate, especially in Amazonia: priests taking mistresses and having children with them. What effect, this Catholic leader asked, would the de facto detachment of celibacy from the Latin-rite priesthood have on the challenges to living celibate chastity faced by men already failing in the obligations they undertook when they were ordained deacons? The impact on the problem of clerical concubinage, he suggested, would not be a healthy one. It’s hard to imagine that he was wrong.
The second aspect of the issue involves the question of local churches and the universal Church. Synod-2019 was a regional synod concerning the affairs of a small percentage of the world’s Catholic population and involving a group of participants carefully selected to produce a certain result. Yet in more than a few of the debates at Synod-2019, synod fathers acted as if they were conducting an ecumenical council—an attitude further expressing the claim, noted before, that after Synod-2019, nothing would ever be the same. This is very, very bad ecclesiology and it has global consequences. For if an exemption were granted to Amazonian bishops to ordain viri probati, there is little doubt that, however constrained the language of the exemption, bishops from European countries where the ordination of married men has long been a progressive cause would request similar exemptions, citing similar pastoral reasons.
The discipline of celibacy in Latin-rite Catholicism involves the entire Church. No proper decision about possible exemptions from that discipline can be made on the basis of a small part of the world Church, for any such decision would have vast implications for the entire Church. Therefore, it is imperative that bishops concerned about the impact of a celibacy exemption for Amazonia on their vocation recruitment programs and their current seminarians would seem to be under a serious obligation to make those concerns known to the Holy Father, exercising their role as members of the episcopal college that governs the Church “with and under” the Bishop of Rome.
Finally, it should be noted that the attack on celibacy is another facet of “the project.” Celibacy only makes sense as an expression of the Church’s eschatological self-awareness: the Church’s confidence in the Lord’s proclamation that the Kingdom of God is now among us (Mark 1:15), and the Church’s faith in the capacity of the baptized to live the most radical form of Kingdom-life here and now, with the aid of divine grace. To abandon celibacy as normative for the ordained ministry would thus be another step toward turning the Church into a global NGO. NGOs by definition have no eschatological horizon to their work; they work for change now, change here, and change achieved through politics, not through the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
Catholic Women and the New/Old Clericalism. There was considerable agitation within and outside Synod-2019 about a possible synodal recommendation that women be installed in some form of “diaconal service” in the Church, with some pressing for the inclusion of women within the diaconate as presently constituted and others advocating some new form on “instituted ministry.” The Final Report called for a ministry for “women’s leadership of the community” to be created and recognized in light of the changing demands of evangelization and community care.
There was more than a small whiff of good (really, bad) old-fashioned clericalism in the synodal debate and the Off-Broadway synodal agitations on this front, as if nothing “counts” in Catholicism without a clerical collar. This bad old clericalism was contradicted by the testimony of those women and men who described all the things that women already do in Amazonian Catholicism—including baptizing (as any lay Catholic can do in cases of necessity). What adding a clerical gloss to this vast work—which includes evangelization, catechesis, medical services, secular education, and social service—would accomplish, except to reinforce a clericalist mindset (deplored by Pope Francis) while scratching the itches of some Western elites among Catholic women, was never seriously discussed.
There was a certain unreality about this entire debate, which is often the case. If the diaconate is part of a triple sacerdotium composed of bishops, priests, and deacons (as has long been taught by the Church), then certain conclusions necessarily follow: If the Church is only authorized to ordain men to the priesthood, as definitively taught by St. John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, how could the Church be authorized to ordain women to a diaconate that is part of the same sacerdotium as the priesthood? And if—against the testimony of the Church’s Tradition—the diaconate is not part of a triple sacerdotium, but stands apart and distinct from the priesthood and episcopate, why would those agitating for the ordination of women as deacons be interested?
Meanwhile, it should be hoped that the heroic work of Catholic women in Amazonia and throughout the world Church is continually lifted up and affirmed by ecclesiastical authority and Catholic culture, without any overlay of clericalism. One need not wear a clerical collar to be a devout Catholic, an engaged Catholic, an evangelical Catholic, a Catholic servant of the disenfranchised, or an influential Catholic. Those who think otherwise might spend a few moments studying the life and work of Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein, Teresa of Calcutta; or considering the tens of thousands of religious sisters who built (and ran) a vibrant Catholicism in the United States; or pondering the generous labors of millions of Catholic mothers throughout the world.
Getting “Integral Ecology” Right. The synod’s debate on environmental issues was notable for its shallowness. Assertions about impending ecological catastrophe were made without any empirical buttressing. Little if any attention was paid to the inevitable trade-offs involved when desperately needed economic development and legitimate environmental concerns intersect, as they inevitably do. (Robert Royal’s recommendation of an article by the Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg was not taken seriously by the synod, alas, but ought to be by anyone serious about both the empowerment of the poor and the protection of the environment.)
As the world Church’s engagement with environmental issues unfolds in light of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’, several cautions, not in play at Synod-2019, should be observed, if Catholicism is not to be read out of these crucial debates as a fringe player advocating absolutist positions unmoored to real data.
Perhaps the most urgent of these cautions involves the long-established linkage between environmental extremism and radical population control. This is not an alliance in which the Catholic Church can participate without abandoning its biblical heritage. People are not pollutants, and the Church must insist on that, in and out of season.
The second caution I would raise is the need for the Church to avoid an eco-version of the Tercermundismo—the privileging of Third World experience—that has long been an integral part of the aforementioned “project.” For the fact of the matter is that the places on this planet with the cleanest water, cleanest air, most eco-friendly industry, and most stringent environmental safeguards are the developed nations with market-based economies—including Greta Thunberg’s Sweden, which is a “socialist” country only in Bernie Sanders’s imagination. To ignore this is to ignore what actually makes for the protection and stewardship of environmental resources. Observing this caution is not going to be easy for the anti-market partisans in “the project,” but reality is reality, and reality has its way in human affairs.
Courage Needed. So in the aftermath of Synod-2019 the Catholic Church is at a moment of crisis—in the typical sense of grave danger and the etymological sense of great opportunity. The post-synodal stakes are very high, not simply on a specific set of contested questions but for the very self-understanding of the Church and its relationship to God’s revelation. It is thus imperative that the bandwidth of responsible expressions of grave concern about the direction in which Catholicism seems headed be considerably expanded. That concern is not limited to those who have long been dubious about Vatican II. It extends far, far beyond that to those who understand (as I argue in The Irony of Modern Catholic History) that “the project” for which Synod-2019 was a “last chance,” and “the stakes” identified at the beginning of this essay, reflect a betrayal of the teaching of Vatican II and a rejection of its authentic interpretation by two popes who were themselves consequential participants in the Council as younger men, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Given the harsh realities of Vatican communications these days, that fact—the breadth of concern about the state of the Catholic Church as we prepare to celebrate All Saints Day 2019—will only become clear when more and more Catholic leaders speak out, challenging the false ideas and imprudent prescriptions that dominated Synod-2019. That challenge is not to the papal office; given the target-rich environment cast up by Synod-2019, the challenge can be raised with reference to issues alone. And it must be raised.
A senior churchman deeply concerned about the ideas dominating Synod-2019 and their deadening effect on the Church’s evangelical mission told me, at the beginning of the synod’s last week, that this may well be the “hour of the laity” in the Church. For, as he put it, lay people often see things more clearly than churchmen. I thanked him for his confidence but said that I thought the prescription, while flattering, was quite insufficient.
The Lord Jesus established a Church governed by bishops. The Second Vatican Council taught that each bishop shares responsibility for the world Church; his responsibilities do not stop at the boundaries of his diocese. It is past time for those bishops who share an understanding of “the stakes” as described at the outset of this essay to make their concerns known, both in their dioceses and to Rome.
Yes, that takes courage. Surely, though, the ordained and consecrated leaders of the Catholic Church have not lost sight of the Lord’s farewell promise and challenge, in his Last Supper discourse: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His most recent book is The Irony of Modern Catholic History.