Another day, another must-mention John L. Allen, Jr., Crux think piece about the 2015 synod in Rome.
Which reminds me that, since I've been on the road for several days, I never got around to discussing his essay on how the format of these meetings, with the crucial content being shaped behind all-but closed doors, is pushing reporters into territory that makes it hard to do basic reporting. As Allen put it:
The dirty little secret is that we’re not really covering the synod at all. For the most part, we’re covering people telling us about the synod, which is an entirely different enterprise.
To actually cover the synod would mean being inside the hall during the discussions, being able to develop our own impressions of what’s being said, to gauge the reaction, to watch body language and intonation and atmosphere, and to get an overall sense of emerging themes for ourselves.
That’s how one would cover a session of Congress, for instance, or a UN summit, or any other important gathering, but that’s decidedly not how things work at a Synod of Bishops.
At the synod you have the public documents, but little direct information about how the documents came into being. At that point, reporters have to interview people who claim to know the inside stuff, but cannot talk openly. At which point readers should hear warning sirens, since sources who work like that have agendas about 99.9 percent of the time.
As a rule, your GetReligionistas try to dig into hard-news products, although we do point readers toward "think pieces" that point readers toward essays that directly focus on issues linked to mainstream religion-news coverage. Allen writes a ton of those.
So this brings me to his analysis about the winds that are swirling around the "letter-gate" controversy (coverage here), in which a circle of bishops -- precise size uncertain -- signed some version of a letter to Pope Francis in which they criticized the way this synod on family issues is being run, or directed, or steered, or undermined, or all of the above.
Allen's essay -- it is not a news report, yet it contains quite a few names and sources -- focuses on the major theme at the synod that is emerging from the doctrinally conservative leaders who do not want to see major changes that either change church teachings or make them harder to enforce, at the level of disciplines linked to the sacraments.
The slightly tongue-in-cheek headline: "‘Yes We Can!’ emerges as rallying cry at 2015 synod."
What's that all about? He is talking about how to describe one side in these doctrinal debates. A key passage:
As the synod rolls into its second week, yet another way of understanding the fundamental divide is coming into focus: The gap between those who believe the demands of classic Catholic teaching on sex, marriage, and the family may be unrealistic or inappropriate for some share of the contemporary population, and those convinced that it’s widely attainable in the here-and-now.
Perhaps one could call the latter position the “Yes We Can!’ brigade at the 2015 synod. ...
Many in this camp suspect that advocates of a more “pastoral” approach on matters such as homosexuality and divorce have quietly thrown in the towel on the idea that it’s reasonable to expect lifelong faithful marriage to be the norm, or that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics shouldn’t be sexually intimate, and so on.
The “Yes We Can!” faction wouldn’t deny that many people don’t actually live those teachings, but they insist that it can be done, and fear that by not encouraging people to do so, the Church clearly risks selling them short.
In effect, these Catholic leaders do not want to throw in the towel and, in effect, say that Catholics who are actually living lives consistent with the church's doctrines on sexual morality, and who openly advocate those pages of the Catechism, are now the strange birds in their own parishes and Catholic schools. Of course, by lowering the doctrinal bar, the church would also create a kind of "second-string Catholic" status -- people who the church simply assumes are no longer willing or able to repent and be forgiven.
No one in the synod would deny that there are Catholics out there, perhaps more than one might imagine, who do accept the full version of Church teaching. Virtually everyone could probably agree that such folks deserve whatever pastoral backup the Church can muster.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who’s also at the synod, posted a blog item on Monday suggesting that these people form a “new minority” in the contemporary world, writing that “they are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement.”
The question is, how should the Church treat people who can’t, or don’t want to, make those choices? ... The “Yes We Can!” camp ... believes Church teaching isn’t just an ideal, but a practical way of life, though without minimizing the sacrifices it may entail. As they see it, the synod’s message ought to be, “You’re called to this, and we’re going to have your back in pulling it off.”
While "Yes We Can!" is a reference to the rhetoric of President Barack Obama, the artwork at the top of Allen's essay is a portrait of St. John Paul II. I kept looking for the clear connection to be spelled out -- other than a single reference to a 1981 statement by JP2 about marriage, divorce and sex.
Maybe the larger link is something like this. Here is my question, for the journalists who are covering this story. Might the "Yes We Can!" camp that believes that ordinary Catholics can, even in a time of cultural darkness, truly follow church teachings, actually be considered a "Be Not Afraid!" camp? I am referring to the cry of blunt hope at the heart of John Paul II's criticisms of the modern world and, especially, what he called the Culture of Death.
Will some people now strive to point modern Catholics -- including the documents of this synod -- toward the "Theology of the Body" legacy of the pope who is now a saint?