I promise -- honest -- that the following post is not a covert Sunday school lesson. You see, I have a journalistic reason for taking us into the Gospel of St. John, chapter 8.
As you read the following passage, journalists, try to figure out who might be who, in terms of interpreting the Vatican synod that has dominated the Godbeat this week. The story begins with Jesus arriving at the Jewish Temple in the morning:
... (All) the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
Now, the reason I brought this up was because a reference to this passage showed up -- imagine that -- in the New York Times story about the end of the synod.
I thought this was interesting because it was one of the rare journalistic references to a very important word, in terms of basic Christian doctrines, a word that may or may not have played a major role in the synod debates. We don't know, however, because most of what we know about the meetings has come through press reports and the word in question is not commonly used in the news.
The word, of course, is "sin."
Here is the context for this reference, in the holy writ of the Times (which helped ignite a media firestorm earlier in the week by using the term "lenient" to describe the synod's new approach to marriage, divorce, gay unions, etc.):
The preliminary version of the report set off a furor, with phrases implying that the church was shifting toward understanding and acceptance of gay couples. Earlier on Saturday, before the final report was issued, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy said it would be “welcoming” to gays, but not approving of them.
“Like Christ with the adulteress, his response is to welcome her, but then he tells her not to sin again,” Cardinal Ravasi said.
The final document drops the language in the preliminary draft that spoke of “welcoming” gays and that they had “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.” The final version says that gays must be met with “respect and sensitivity,” phrasing also in the church’s catechism, but emphatically asserts there is no basis whatsoever for comparing same-sex unions to marriage between a man and a woman.
The image used in many of the synod discussions was that the church should not be a place for picky Pharisees who have the law nailed down tight, but a hospital to bring healing to those who are hurting and sick. These are powerful images. However, it does help if everyone shares a common definition of what it means to be sick or to agree that, in the eyes of faith, certain types of behavior are sinful and cause damage and pain.
My impression is that the most controversial aspects of the synod, the parts focusing on doctrine, boiled down to whether or not leaders from the postmodern West wanted to send signals that it was possible for millions of wayward Catholics -- in the eyes of the Catholic Catechism -- to find their way back into the embrace of the Church (key issue: taking part in Holy Communion) without confessing their sins and seeking healing.
Everyone agreed that doctrine would not be changed. There seemed to be disagreement about whether doctrine, in the name of kindness and good PR, would be ignored. Guess which side the assembled press seemed to favor?
You can see the "sinner" issue again in the following Washington Post article about the final address by Pope Francis (full text here) which was said to have drawn a four-to-five minute ovation from the much-divided participants.
This includes some important material paraphrase, with spots of crucial direct quotes from @Pontifex. Let us attend:
In a 10-minute speech at the end of the closed meeting, Pope Francis sought to walk a middle line. He said the church can neither “throw stones” at sinners nor be too accommodating to “a worldly spirit.” ...
Some longtime Vatican-watchers saw reports of bitter politics inside the synod as a proxy for feelings about Francis. The pope approved the small group of top clergy -- which included Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl -- who on Monday released the mid-meeting summary paper, which said the church must “turn respectfully” to people in relationships it once labeled “disordered,” such as unmarried couples who live together or same-sex couples who are raising children.
The document at times used language that echoed a therapeutic, self-help style: People must “take care of themselves, to know their inner being, and to live in greater harmony with their emotions and sentiments.”
The backlash from conservatives was swift. “The message that has gone out is not true,” South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier told reporters Tuesday.
The politics of the meeting gets lots of attention in the rest of the article. I was curious about what the pope said (full text here), since the only quotes attributed to him were actually pretty interesting and pointed toward the Pope Francis mix that some conservatives have actually applauded -- a warmer, more flexible approach to pastoral care paired with an ultimate goal of getting Catholics into Confession and a renewed practice of the Sacraments.
There is some evidence, you see, that this pope doesn't seem to think that mercy is separated from the confession of, yes, sins. But is that element of his work getting into news reports, as opposed to the waves of coverage of the new "tone" of church work with cohabiting couples, gays, the divorced, etc.
Does the pope still believes in sin and confession? That may be the heart of this story.
First there is the full passage mentioned earlier, the sort-of pox on both warring camps passage:
- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans: rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called -- today -- “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
- The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
So, in the eyes of the pope, what was all of the fighting about, the divisions in the house? Pope Francis said he welcomed the days of strong talk, even as he watched various groups of bishops struggling with different temptations.
While the fighting got all the digital ink, the pope stressed the ultimate goal. Read this passage carefully. I know it's hard to spot headlines in this, but this sounds, to me, like the passage that drew the applause. He starts with a quick reference to the arguments during the synod:
... (This) always -- we have said it here, in the Hall -- without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).
And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wounds; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Once again: Open the doors to those who are seeking forgiveness. Ah, but what if modern Catholics do not agree with the church on whether they have any sins to confess?
Stay tuned. And keep digging beyond what makes it into the first stories in the usual newspapers and wire services.