Synod: The Tectonic Altar Plates are shifting…slowly

Synod: The Tectonic Altar Plates are shifting…slowly


The centerpiece of Pope Francis’ reform agenda – Communion for divorced Catholics – squeaked through the Synod plenary by one vote above the two-thirds super majority of 177 (or by two votes, according to some media reports). It will now be up to the diocesan ‘presbyterate’ (priests), acting in accordance with the teaching of the Church and the guidance of the local Bishop, decide the matter.

On the issue of gays, there was strong pushback against a more welcoming Church attitude from bishops in the developing world, particularly Africa. The result is a reiteration of the classical definition of marriage, along with the imperative of respecting each person (however intrinsically disordered the person might be).

What have we learned from the three week “14th ordinary general assembly of the Synod of the Bishops,” a mechanism devised by Pope Paul VI during the mid-1960s in the turbulent aftermath of Vatican II? Here are some impressions.


The geographical center of gravity of the Roman Catholic Church is shifting as Southern Hemisphere continental blocs are bringing forward their distinct viewpoints.

The number of Catholics in sub-Sahara Africa passed the 200 million mark in 2013, and with the help of robust demography, in perhaps one generation Africa’s Catholic flock will probably overtake Europe, which is currently at 290 million faithful; and note that this total makes no allowance for the very elderly demographic profile of practicing Euro-Catholics, as well as growing numbers of lapsed Catholics.

The ever-present fault lines under the Church are multi-layered and run deep in ways not easy to map:

a) On the surface there is the conventional spectrum of progressive/conservative/traditional; but other fissures are visible, namely:

The continental blocs mentioned above v the Northern Hemisphere Church groupings (North America and Europe);

b) The Vatican’s Curial apparatus v the diocesan ‘peripheries’, i.e. the Bishops.

It is remarkable that the resolution of Communion for the divorced was to devolve the solution down to 3,000 dioceses and eparchies.

Presumably this compromise created the paper-thin two thirds majority, since local Bishops and priests will now have considerable latitude.

But this is the opening gambit of much more devolution, which raises the question: what will happen to the Church’s unity?

The next Shoes of the Fisherman to drop will probably be at the spring session of the Council of Nine Cardinals, tasked since April, 2013, with reviewing the structure of the Curia Romana.

Don’t forget how the pope gob-smacked the Curia Romana in his traditional pre-Christmas address in the Sala Regia of the Palazzo, mentioning that it seemed to be afflicted with a kind of ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s’.

The traditional alliance in the College of Cardinals between North American and Western European prelates has wielded influence way out of proportion to the numbers of practicing Catholics in their territories. And at the core of this alliance one finds the comfortable condominium of Italian and American Princes of the Church. But this arrangement is now being overtaken by events.

The Electoral College condominium between the Italiani and the Americani has been the bedrock of Vatican governance since the end of World War II. But the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio in March, 2013, broke this arrangement.


In a peculiar way the duopoly of Italian and American cardinals mirrors the duopoly of Germany and France as the senior partners running the 28-member European Union (with 24 official languages!).

In the case of the Vatican and the EU, recent events indicate that the dominant entities are losing their grip, as reality intrudes; read on.

The European refugee crisis which spiked over the summer is a game changer, not only for the EU but also for the Church. The EU is on the front-lines, literally, and it is not covering itself in glory. It almost makes one nostalgic for the good old days of periodic Euro currency crises, all resolved within the time limits of the lavish Brussels dinners scheduled for visiting heads of government.

But how does the Church Universal get pulled into this mess, which is beyond the platitudes of declarations and pious platitudes?

The gateway into the EU from the Middle East runs through a belt of EU countries with majority Catholic populations: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia.

And the most sought-after destination for refugees is Germany which has a sizable Catholic population (24 million) concentrated in its prosperous southern Länder.

From an observer’s perspective, the Synod’s energies were mostly consumed in Communion for the divorced and attitudes towards gays. But this focus is very hard to reconcile with the spiraling humanitarian crisis across Europe brought on by millions of displaced people, and – not to forget – the spreading wars (plural) in areas with 20 million Eastern Rite Catholics in communion with Rome.

As a few have reported (cfr. Global Pulse), the voices of the national bishops conferences have been strangely muted, notably in Hungary.

Finally, a discomfiting comment about the Pope’s global rock-star popularity.

In the not-very-distant past there were three charismatic political leaders who captured the attention of the world media, but did not fare very well within their home fields:

Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.

They came to power in the1970s to mid-80s period, and were faced with gridlock at home. And they had sharply defined reform agendas that in retrospect proved to be unacceptable in their respective constituencies.

Sadat paid for his trip to Jerusalem with his life. And the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be a menacing presence.

Thatcher had a damn close call with the Brighton bombing of October, 1984, which resulted in five deaths.

And although Thatcher bragged that she never lost an election, she was ousted by a coup organized within her own party.

Gorbachev was neutralized by drunken comic-opera plotters; in the hands of more determined (and sober) conspirators, the putsch might have succeeded. Now after the intermittently sober Yeltsin interlude, we are back to the USSR.

When the crunch came, the world-wide popularity of these reform leaders didn’t do much for their political (or biological) survival. Which brings us to Pope Francis.

Francis’ predecessor was driven to resignation by the Vatileaks scandal with an Agatha Christie twist, the butler as the culprit. How the butler operated an industrial-sized theft of 200+ sensitive documents from the Pope’s private study, and managed the copying and distribution, seems to be beyond the abilities of one guy. Who knows.

However, with the butler caught, sentenced and paroled, what do we have today? Son of Vatileaks.  Consider the strange stuff, overlapping the story line of the Synod:

Monsignor Krzystof Charasma who outs himself before the Synod opening, complete with press conference and a book-signing coming soon to a Barnes & Noble in your neighborhood;

A ‘private’ letter from 13 prominent cardinals complaining about a rigged Synod and now acknowledged; with one American signer, NY’s Timothy Dolan;

The very recent benign brain tumor story about the Pope, attributed to a Japanese doctor, and officially denied by the Vatican three times in one news cycle. Given the limited attention-span of many media outlets, it has escaped notice in the U.S. – mostly – that the Japanese doctor who allegedly made the diagnosis has some peculiarities:

He is under investigation by prosecutors in Salerno for alleged kickbacks; and it took him three days to issue a denial.

The internal resistance to Francis is out in the open. It comes from many sources and special interests, but it is there. Beyond the usual Roman maneuvers, which are a centuries-old tradition, it is clear that this is a serious turn of events.

Two end comments:

The Church’s hierarchy is dominated by cardinals and bishops installed over 35 years by Francis’ two predecessors. That is the theater of operations where this process is unfolding; and,

The multiple crises now besetting Europe – economic stagnation, tidal waves of refugees, a menacing neighbor to the East, and multiple wars – are as serious as anything that has confronted the Old Continent since the 1930s.

In many European countries on the front lines, the Church has deep roots. Yet the Church by-and-large is consumed by internal issues.

Legend has it that as the Ottomans were at the gates of Constantinople in 1453, the city’s assembled best and brightest were debating the sex of angels. Probably false. But at its core there lurks an inconvenient lesson:

There is a leadership vacuum across Europe, and the Church’s voice should be louder and clearer…  







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