I have been thinking lately about the forthcoming Peoples Synod in Dallas, set for October 12-14, 2018. Life is in the air! Reformers talk in terms of change, but it’s really no more and no less than becoming more faithful to the Gospel lived and pached by Jesus Christ.
What does this mean for our relationship to the larger institutional Church?
It is important not to be focused onpersuading the larger Church to change – too much like deer in the headlights. Yet there may be a view – off to the side from the headlights – that draws the various reform groups together. Reformers haveput in a lot of time and energy, and that will not be wasted.
A major contribution of Vatican II was recognition that the Church must be a learning Church as well as a teaching Church, and inparticular learning that it is not a Societasperfecta. The sex abuse crisis and governance issues make clear the humanity of this “Barque ofpeter”. In these respects the role of thepeople – at least those willing to accept the role – is like an Ombudsman. The work of the reform community – in its many and varied facets – can BE a virtual institutionalization of the Ombudsman role.
In other respects the various reform groups have been trying to get the Church to changepolicies that fail to measure up to the Gospel. To thesepolicy issues – including women called topriestly ministry, LGBT lived experience, lack of welcome for divorced and remarried, to name some of the most neuralgic – the Church has seemed intractable. Thus the frustration.
It may be opportune to reimagine the “teaching Church”. With respect to the neuralgic issues especially, “teaching” has been about norms and where lines should be drawn. “Teaching” has meant holding fast to traditionalpolicies and resisting pssures to relax thesepolicies. It is a line drawing approach. Ironically, isn’t this approach pcisely what Jesus criticized when he challenged the law of divorce (Deut. 24:1)? We are called to love one another, not draw lines. Loving one another brings the joy ofpossibility, whereas line drawing opts for clarity: “here, and you receive a gold star” or “there, but no further.” Yet the response of the early Church to Deuteronomy 24:1 was another clear line – marriage once, forever. A higher aspiration, surely, but a drawn line rather than opening up love’s joy ofpossibility.
What if the “teaching Church” were reimagined? Francis is already doing that with his emphasis on “what the church most needs is growth in discernment” (remarks to Chilean Jesuits, 1/16/2018) and his advocacy for discernment in Amoris Laetitia. What thepope is doingpicks up on the Vatican II shift from revelation as “propositional statements” to a Trinitarian view of revelation (“God’s self-revelation in Christ by thepower of the Spirit”, Dei Verbum #2) which relies on building a relationship with the Spirit, i.e. discernment.
Reformers have been focusing on unjust rules. But why are they unjust? Under the p-Vatican II model of the “teaching Church” asprotector of lines drawn by biblical and traditional “propositional statements”, changing unjust rules is fighting on the wrong battlefield. The importance of choosing the right battlefield to fight was famously understood by Julius Cesar.
We’ve known this all along. It’s about theprimacy of conscience. But on the wrong battlefield “primacy of conscience” looks like it’s in opposition to God’s “propositional statements”. Conscience appears to have no anchor in God, because “propositional statements” pempt God. We need to change the battlefield, which means reimagining the “teaching Church”. We need a Church whose teaching focus is on discernment of the Spirit rather than “propositional statements” from God.
Francis is moving us in that direction. But it’s not aboutparticular unjust rules. A rule can be helpful and just much of the time, and yet fail to be just some of the time. If it is applied in blanket fashion it becomes unjust on those occasions. Yet a rule lends itself to blanket enforcement. That’s theproblem with a rule-based, line-drawing approach to teaching. Francis is saying very little aboutparticular rules. This may be a strategic decision, because it minimizes the “deer in the headlights” effect. But it frustrates reformers who want Francis simply to change unjust rules.
We need a different image of the “teaching Church”. Injustice is still injustice, so reformers are right to keep up that drumbeat. But thepath to change is through a reimagining of the “teaching Church” so that it is more faithful to Christ and the Gospel, and less poccupied with “propositional statements”. Discernment is the key. Conscience anchored in discernment of the Spirit has itsproper voice.
The common voice of those interested in reform finds its unity in both the Ombudsman role and the vantagepoint of a reimagined “teaching Church”. The Ombudsman role requires independence from the institutional Church, and a vantagepoint for reimagining requires stepping back fromparticular injustices.
These kinds of questions are likely to come up at Peoples Synod in Dallas. participants will be organized into “listening circles” of about a dozen. The underlying synod theme of “tension between law and love”parallels the shift between “propositional statements” toward a more Gospel oriented focus. The intention of theplanners is to sendparticipants home both energized about what ispossible and bonded for mutual support. That psumes, of course, that we get enoughparticipants to make a difference. The Spirit is willing but we the flesh are weak. To help, go to the Peoples Synod Facebookpage and “like it”!