Tuesday, October 22, 2019

In Synod's Home Stretch, The "Revenge of the Statues"?

As trade-offs go, it would be one for the books – after traditionalist opponents of the Pope stole the much-ballyhooed statues of Amazonian women from a Roman church early yesterday and tossed them into the Tiber, actual Amazonian women could just emerge from the "river" of this Synod clad in the stole of Holy Orders.

With the draft of this weekend's Final Document now in discussion among the gathering's 12 language-based workgroups, a report earlier today from Chris Lamb of the London-based Tablet said that a proposition for the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate in Amazonia has made it into the current stage of the all-important closing text.

While unsurprising given the explicit openness to the idea from a majority of the circuli minores in their Friday reports, that the sheer prospect of ordaining women would be contained in a Vatican document – even in preliminary form – is staggering to a degree that, on this beat, few things genuinely are. Yet even as the ultimate product lies in the hands of the 13-man drafting team led by the Relator-General, the Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes OFM, you can bet the house that nothing would be put on the table without Francis' implicit approval... and even so, the notion of extending the priesthood to married men in the Amazon – and, for that matter, the admittance of women to the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte – suddenly doesn't feel so big after all.

That said, as discussion on and proposed amendments to the draft Final continue from within the small groups, there's still a long way between now and Friday, when the finished proposals – usually over 100 in all – are presented in the Aula before Saturday's voting, where each proposition must receive two-thirds approval from the 185 clerical members (i.e. 124 "placets") to pass. And again, given the now-explicit possibility that the Pope can simply ratify a Synod's Final Document as a text of the Magisterium at will, the stakes are higher than most would've anticipated.

Along those lines, it wouldn't be surprising if yesterday's vandalism and dumping of the indigenous images of a naked, pregnant woman – which various commentators deemed as representing everything from the Madonna to Mother Earth to "pagan idols" – had at least some effect on the vote-count for a female diaconate, or a significant step toward it... and to be sure, that effect likely wouldn't be a surge of opposition to the proposal, but its opposite. If anything, even before yesterday's brazen spectacle was circulated by its perpetrators on YouTube to the delight of Francis' critics worldwide – while being blasted by the Vatican as an act of "hatred" and "contempt" – it doesn't take much to see the hysterics of "Statue-gate" as having muffled a reasoned sense of concern and criticism over an enhanced ministry for women in the Amazon, especially due to its potential global impact. So if that ends up being Saturday's outcome, the longtime campaigners on the issue – who, until recently, made for the most outré of the lobbyists who flood Rome for events like these – might well have their even more crazed counterparts on the "other side" to thank.

In any case, the axiom remains that "process is process," and should the proposal remain in Friday’s final edition, its precise wording will be determinative of the result. Accordingly, it's notable that the drafting team for the Final Document has four figures particularly adept at handling the nuances of procedural thickets: beyond Hummes, the newly-elevated Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ (who recently said that the ordination of women as priests "shouldn't be off the table") is an ex officio member of the group as a secretary of this assembly, as is the Synod chief Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri (a veteran top-level diplomat with a specialty in negotiations), and above all, Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schönborn OP – the editor of the universal Catechism as a wunderkind theologian – who's expressed palpable caution in recent days about "viri probati priests," but has shown no such qualms about "one day" ordaining women to the diaconate.

Perhaps most intriguingly of all, Saturday's vote will come 10 years to the day when Benedict XVI published a motu proprio (Omnium in mentem) enacting a slight tweak to the Code of Canon Law, altering Canon 1009 to read that while "those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas" – that is, by contrast – "deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity."

As the canon's original 1983 text included deacons among those who "fulfill, in the person of Christ the Head, the offices of teaching, sanctifying and governing," Benedict's alteration has long been seen in some quarters as potentially removing an obstacle to the proposal now at hand. Yet again, then, it would appear that Papa Ratzinger's precedents have come home to roost.

While Hummes' opening day "roadmap" to the Synod made no explicit mention of female deacons – merely stating that, in light of the "great number of women who nowadays lead communities in Amazonia, there is a request that this service be acknowledged and there be an attempt to consolidate it with a suitable ministry for them" – the event's lead planner did have a more instructive passage elsewhere in his initial report, one all the more telling when read after the weekend fiasco:
It is moving forwards that makes the Church loyal to its true tradition. Traditionalism, which remains linked to the past, is one thing, but true tradition, which is the Church’s living history, is something else through which every generation, accepting what has been handed down by previous generations, such as understanding and experiencing faith in Jesus Christ, enriches this tradition in current times with their own experience and understanding of faith in Jesus Christ.

The light means announcing Jesus Christ and untiringly practising mercy in the Church’s living tradition. It means showing the path to be followed in moving forwards inclusively in a way that invites, welcomes and encourages everyone, with no exceptions, as friends and siblings, respecting the differences between us.

“New pathways.” One must not fear what is new. In his 2013 Pentecost homily, Pope Francis already expressed the idea that, “Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, programme and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences... (...) We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own. Yet throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness - God always brings newness -, and demands our complete trust.” In the Evangelii Gaudium (no. 11), the Pope portrays Jesus Christ as “eternal newness”. He is always new, He is always the same newness, “yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13, 8) He is what is new. That is why the Church prays using the words, “Send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.” So we must not fear newness, we must not fear Christ, the new. This Synod is in search of new pathways.
...and, clearly, any move toward women in orders would make for the "newest" thing of all.

*  *  *
While inculturation has squarely emerged as the flashpoint of this Synod – and if you're surprised, start paying attention – as previously reported, the Vatican gathering is but one element of this Fall Cycle in which the ever-charged topic is a central thread.

As next month brings the Pope’s long-awaited pilgrimage to Japan – a visit both especially deep in personal significance for Francis, not to mention his destination’s centuries-old status as the premier battleground of the tension between local culture and Rome-based decision-making – the Synod’s opening coincided with an open letter from the recently-retired archbishop of Tokyo, Peter Takeo Okada, that pleaded for an enhanced respect for inculturation as the first key to enabling ecclesial renewal: a path which, he said, needed to begin with Rome itself.

Noting the Vatican's historic resistance to petitions from the Japanese bishops – which has extended into recent years – Okada voiced his calls for "inculturation, decentralization, [and] spiritualization" in the hope that the Holy See might "become as holy as its name indicates."

"We humbly ask for acknowledgement of our qualification to decide" the optimal course for for the local church, Okada wrote.

While Francis hasn't yet issued a reply to the Japanese prelate, odds are the optics and messaging throughout the November visit will make for quite the memorable response.

Meanwhile, as Okada's calls came in the context of the conference of bishops, another proposal likely to figure in the ongoing Synod's closing text would "break down borders" of a different sort. Beyond the provision for an Amazonian Rite to reflect the region's unique "liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual" realities, a less dramatic, but still significant plan raised in Friday's "halftime" reports would see the dioceses of the Amazon's nine-country spread joined into their own, trans-national episcopal conference – itself a move without precedent in the Latin church.

Given the standard competence of bishops' conferences to regulate matters of liturgy and discipline within their respective territories (albeit contingent upon the recognitio of the Holy See), the erection of a pan-Amazonian structure of governance by Rome would ostensibly have the effect of letting the area's bishops determine their church's future path on their own – or, as it's been termed, to "Save Amazonia with Amazonia" – while likewise removing at least a few potential hot-button items from Saturday's voting agenda.

All told, for all the months of prep, suspense and cage-rattling, only now are things really getting interesting. Thing is, though, that's how process works – and whatever one's impressions, the process can't be thrown into the Tiber.

Again, all this is merely the first stage of a very full cycle over these next six weeks... and as ever, keeping at it here relies solely on your support:

To be sure, there’s some interesting stuff moving on other fronts – Buffalo among them – but for now, the Bills in this shop need to come first.