The Backlash Mounts Against Francis

It was inevitable, but the tenor of some of the comments coming from the more traditionalist cardinals at the synod in Rome is getting sharper. Below is Cardinal Pell laying into the outreach to the currently excluded and marginalized:

You’ll notice the phrase “going out of business.” Also the distinction between the “good people” in the pews and presumably the “bad people” who are trying to emphasize mercy as well as truth. The first, I think, is a troubling argument. It treats the church as a business seeking customers, and thereby opposes a weakening of the brand. It compares this brand with others and argues that the more traditionalist churches have a better record of retaining members than more reformist ones. I find this argument disturbing whether it comes from those saying that a more inclusive and welcoming church would be good for business or those who believe a Benedict-style small and purist church is what’s necessary to keep the pews full. All that should matter for the church is whether what it is teaching is true, regardless of how many “customers” it attracts. But there is another worry here: the fact that many of the biggest donors to the Benedict XVI church may well withhold their money if Francis’ impact endures. The power of right-wing money in the church is not a conspiracy theory. We saw how powerful it was in sustaining the cult of the Legion of Christ and the child-rape epidemic.

The second “good people” argument Pell uses is simply in conflict with so much that Jesus says in the Gospels, in Jesus’s radical refusal to endorse the conventionally virtuous and devout as opposed to the marginalized, weak and fallen. Jesus specifically repudiates that kind of division – saying that the first shall be last and the last first, that those whom we regard as self-evidently “good people” may in fact be something rather different. This is not some minor theme in Jesus’ ministry; it is fundamental to it. And it is what Francis is clearly trying to recover in the church’s outreach to those whom Jesus met where they were, in their lives as they were living them, among collaborators, sex-workers, and women in ways then profoundly opposed by the religious authorities.

And the Relatio does not endorse non-procreative sex; it does not endorse communion for the divorced or re-married. Instead, it simply insists on what seems to me to be undeniable:

that, for example, cruel and technical exclusion for survivors of divorce should be supplemented or replaced with much more mercy and understanding; and that committed, loving relationships that fall short of the church’s marital ideal are not therefore without any positive or redeeming aspects, and should be engaged rather than simply stigmatized.

On the homosexual question, what the Relatio does is actually live up to church teaching on not treating gay people as if we are “intrinsically disordered” moral lepers or somehow outside the church we have always been central to. The positive language about the way in which gay couples sacrifice for each other, take faithful care of children, or fulfill all the moral requirements of marriage apart from procreative sexual acts seems to me to be a recognition of the simple truth. Moreover, no heterosexual Catholic in a marriage with few children or none is ipso facto deemed anathema in the way an openly gay couple is. And when the church can fire gay teachers for sins heterosexuals commit with total impunity, or demand that faithful choir members in their senior years get a civil divorce and separate after decades of cohabitation if they are to continue in communion with the church, it is being both callous and unfair.

This is not about truth versus mercy; it is about the way the two interact:

The demands do not vanish. God does ask hard things of all of us. But in this field hospital that is the Church in the modern world, the image that the synod document brings to mind is that of Simon of Cyrene. Simon could not free the Lord from his cross. He could simply walk with him and help him carry it. The synod fathers seem to be asking how the Church can do the same.

The doctrine does not change, nor the call to repentance. But the Lord does rebuff those who would “tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). Our challenge is to help families in their struggles to carry their crosses.

The document that will emerge at the end of this week – probably Saturday night but maybe later – will doubtless soften some of the language in the first draft, and add much more positive language about the point of life-long monogamous always-procreative matrimony. Like many other reformist Catholics, I understand that this is a dialogue and a conversation, and that these themes deserve space and emphasis, and may have been minimized too much in the first draft. But equally, if the core themes of welcoming the currently ostracized, of mercy as the critical Christian ally of truth, and of new language to minimize unnecessary cruelty are explicitly revoked, it will be sign that this astonishing papacy is under siege from the establishment.

And then it gets really interesting, doesn’t it?

[Update: via Rod, here’s a rather convincing, traditionalist account of how Francis really is the motor behind this Synod – and how he has, in many ways, already achieved a profound re-orientation. Must-read.]