Post-Synod, what's the shape of Catholicism in the Pope Francis era?

If readers can tear themselves away from Donald Trump and the ever-evolving Republican Party political drama, how about some old-fashioned Vatican politics?

Media chatter will continue long into the future about Rome’s October Synod of Bishops on the family. Many who closely follow such matters were probably awaiting the Synod response by George Weigel, official biographer of Pope John Paul II and probably the most influential U.S. lay voice from the staunch conservative party.

Weigel weighs in at 6,000 words in the January issue of the journal First Things. Newshounds should read this if only for his ridicule of the “mainstream media” and the blogosphere. He’s especially peeved with the Italians and reporters elsewhere who are influenced by them: “There is no fixed border between fact and fiction in Italian journalism, but only a membrane across which all sorts of material, some of it in the form of waste, flows.” Hmm. Sounds about right.

Turning to his church complaints, some involve over-centralization of power andinordinate secrecy at the Vatican. It’s fascinating to hear this sort of protest from a Catholic traditionalist. As for the substance of the Synod, like those benighted mainstreamers, Weigel portrays the event as a contest between revisionists on the divorce and gay issues, over against upholders of orthodoxy. In his interpretation, the latter side (that means his side) triumphed.

One topic to pursue for further comment is Weigel’s contention that Catholicism in northern Europe is largely in “a de facto state of schism” from the rest of the world church. True?

Then this big theme. Astute readers will observe that there’s a missing person. Isn’t Pope Francis the head of the Vatican and of the universal church? Didn’t he decide to summon 2014 and 2015 confabs to re-examine such issues? Wasn’t he in a position to shape the initial working paper that Weigel so despises? Weren’t the liberals at the Synod energized by some of the Pope’s past remarks? Etc.

Perhaps Weigel is ultramontane enough that loyalty forbids mention of conservatives’ anxieties about the throne of Peter.

No such hesitation limits his fellow lay conservative Carl E. Olson, the editor of the online newsmagazine Catholic World Report. While secular observers hail the pontiff, Olson’s sharp-elbowed editorial about the Synod and Francis’ stewardship otherwise is titled “The Off-the-Cuff and Out-of-Focus Papacy.”

Olson agrees with Weigel that too many of today’s bishops are theologically ignorant. But he also targets the very top of the hierarchy. He calls Francis’ closing address at the Synod  “a sort of papal tantrum, quite unbecoming both the office and the man,” a “new and disconcerting low” for the papacy with its “scathing remarks” that branded traditionalists as “loveless, stone-throwing, backward hypocrites.”

To Olson, the current pope has “a deep aversion to theological precision. ... Let’s face it, this pontificate is often confusing and even incoherent” and causes chaos. “We are faced with a troubling pattern: scoldings, ambiguities, inconsistencies, mixed messages, imprecision, thinly veiled insults, and language that is sometimes more imprudent than it is papal.”

Since he sees no end in sight, is Olson announcing the start of a civil war at the highest levels of Catholicism as conservatives, so contented during  the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, see themselves thrown on the defensive against what they view as a rogue pope?

The same issue of First Things carries an important and related speech text by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat titled “The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism.” Click here for that video.

Obviously, a major story will continue to be whatever the unpredictable Francis is up to.

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