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James T. KeaneApril 19, 2022
Pope Francis leads the Way of the Cross outside the Colosseum in Rome April 15, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The first reading for the Feast of Pentecost (June 5 this year) is Acts 2:1-11. It tells the story of the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles in Jerusalem, appearing as tongues of fire and enabling them all to speak to people of every language. It speaks to us in the Catholic Church today in a way that would be recognizable to the crowd awaiting the apostles: We too live in a religious community where we seem incapable of understanding each other, where the confusion of tongues is present in every crowd, even among our bishops.

We hear in Acts that the apostles’ neighbors are drawn to the commotion brought by the Holy Spirit:

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Scripture scholars tell us that this is a crucial moment in the early Christian community’s understanding of itself, the kernel of what would become the “ad gentes” call to bring the Gospel to all nations. (It is also worth noting that this is the moment the Holy Spirit reverses the curse of Babel, where humanity was divided by the confusion of languages.) Just as early decisions in the Christian community about circumcision and unclean food made it possible for non-Jewish believers to become Christian, so too this moment allows for speakers of every tongue to hear the good news—to know of the mighty acts of God, spoken to every people.

In every age in the church, the people of God have spoken in different languages—both literally and figuratively, deliberately and not. When we cannot speak the same language, we require translation, a carrying over of concepts (literally a transfer, if you recall your Latin: trans-ferre) that is never perfect and sometimes disastrous.

At Pentecost, no one stood up and said “mine is the voice of God, and if you can’t hear me, you’re speaking and listening in the wrong tongue.”

Remember the old chestnut about the English monarch who called Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in London “amusing, awful, and artificial”? Those three words at the time meant something far different from what they mean today: Wren’s accomplishment was described as amazing, awe-inspiring and well-crafted. And in that case everyone was ostensibly speaking the same language. How much harder is it when we have to speak to one another across wider divides?

The current moment

One could argue that Pope Francis’ decision to encourage greater diversity of opinion and expression during the worldwide church’s three-year synodal process is his Gorbachev moment: a glasnost that brings new freedom to the church but also imperils its long-standing institutions at an already uncertain moment. Nowhere is this newfound freedom—and apparent danger—more clear than in Germany, where a “synodal process” in the church has seemingly opened up every possible can of worms, from priestly celibacy to same-sex unions to suggestions for widespread changes to canon law regarding governance.

More dramatically, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx (a member of Pope Francis’ advisory Council of Cardinals, and also the president of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy), called for a change in church teaching on the morality of homosexual acts—and further, stated that he himself had blessed same-sex couples. “The catechism is not set in stone,” Cardinal Marx told the German weekly magazine Stern on March 31. “One may also question what it says.”

Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler in the United States took to Twitter to offer his opinion: “Cardinal Marx has left the Catholic faith. He needs to be honest & officially resign.” Cardinal Marx didn’t respond—it is unclear if he knows who Bishop Strickland is—but it was an eye-opening moment. When’s the last time one bishop publicly demanded another resign? Called another bishop an apostate? How far from this is schism—and who’s in danger of being schismatic here? To be fair, Bishop Strickland is an outlier among the Catholic bishops of the United States. Nor is this the first time he has been in the news for sandbagging another bishop—in the past year he has used Twitter to question decisions made by Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., over their local jurisdictions.

And he is perhaps most infamous for tweeting his support of a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, the Rev. James Altman, whose ministry had been restricted by his own bishop for, among other things, calling progressive Catholics "left-wing fascist Nazis" and claiming that Catholics who voted for Democratic candidates could "face the fires of hell.” 

The synodal process is not a new Pentecost. We don’t need a new Pentecost, any more than we need a new Incarnation, a new Resurrection. Once was enough.

However, Bishop Strickland has not been the only American episcopal voice in opposition to the synodal path undertaken by the German church. On Holy Thursday, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco published an essay in First Things, “Why I Signed the Open Letter to the German Bishops.” The letter in question was “A Fraternal Open Letter To Our Brother Bishops In Germany,” sent not to the bishops in Germany but instead released online by 74 bishops during Holy Week, which argued that the actions taken by the German church in their synodal process “undermine the credibility of church authority, including that of Pope Francis.” Of the 74 initial signatories, 49 were bishops of the United States. Further criticisms and concerns came from the bishops of the Scandinavian countries and from Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki, the president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, the president of the German bishops' conference, responded in a letter dated April 14 to the signatories of the "Fraternal Open Letter" that “the Synodal Path in no way undermines the authority of the church, including that of Pope Francis, as you write.” Germany’s synodal path, he wrote, “is not oriented to short-lived sociological theories or secular ideologies, but to the central sources of knowledge of the faith: Scripture and Tradition, the magisterium and theology, as well as the sense of faith of the believers and the signs of the Gospel interpreted in the light of the Gospel.”

Trusting—or distrusting—the process

One year into a three-year global synodal process—and in the midst of deepening church crises over a dearth of vocations and widespread defections from the church across the globe—we should not expect hot-button issues and their promoters to vanish, nor for such public disagreements to cease. Indeed, to some degree this is what Pope Francis seems to have wanted: more open discussion, less Pravda. Perhaps we will all have to decide—without the papal interventions we have been so accustomed to, if not always happy with, over the past century—what is on the table and what is not, what is the perpetual teaching of the church and what is a matter of local discipline or practice.

Perhaps we will all have to decide what is on the table and what is not, what is the perpetual teaching of the church and what is a matter of local discipline or practice.

That will require some consensus. Is that consensus possible in such a fractured church? It won’t just be bishops from the United States and Europe, either: It will require listening to the church in the Global South, to the church as it exists in marginalized populations we ignore at home, to the 95 percent of the church that is more accustomed to pew than altar.

History and reality

In a recent interview in America, the Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, an ecclesiologist who knows more about synodality than anyone, noted that unity need not always mean uniformity. As the saying goes, what works in New York doesn’t always play in Peoria. That can be true in matters of church practice and discipline as well. “You don’t need to have a worldwide regulation on everything, and you should give more opportunities for local bishops to make decisions,” Father Komonchak said of the church in an interview with Kenneth L. Woodward. He noted that in the 1980s, “it took something like eight years for two or three Roman dicasteries to decide whether or not girls could be altar servers. And then they passed a regulation that is supposed to apply everywhere from Alaska to Zululand!”

Another reality: Prior to the advent of modern communications (in other words, for 1,850 of the church’s 2,000 years of existence), dictates and clarifications from Rome and and even from local bishops could take weeks or months to reach all the local churches of any region. Well into the 20th century, for example, the vast majority of American Catholics would not have known the pope’s name. Be he a Pius or a Benedict or a Leo, the pope lived across the sea (or, for Europeans, over the mountains), far from the local church.

But note that this distance—and the accompanying lack of uniformity in everything from liturgy to church-state relations—did not result in an American Catholic Church, a Mexican Catholic Church, a Canadian Catholic Church. Rather, it resulted in local churches that were inculturated in their regions and largely autonomous, if not autochthonous.

What holds a church like that together in the 21st century, when every opinion, every dispute is immediately visible to the gaze of Catholics everywhere else? The answer: much of what held it together for the last 20 centuries, which was certainly not papal authority or an absolute reliance on traditions. It was a trust in a communion held together by Gospel teachings and presided over by the bishop of Rome. Father Komonchak again: “I think the Catholic Church as a totality exists concretely in local churches. There is no separate church called a universal church. There is a church which is Catholic and whose web of relationships—founded in faith, hope and charity—is worldwide. So in that respect it is universal, but it is also very concrete.”

"There is no separate church called a universal church. There is a church which is Catholic and whose web of relationships—founded in faith, hope and charity—is worldwide."

“You can’t abstract the local church from the historical moment,” Father Komonchak said. “So if you are asked today, ‘What is the great challenge of the contemporary moment that the church has to address?,’ your first question must be: ‘Where are you talking about? Who are you talking about?’ Because we have one set of challenges here in the United States, and the people in Mali have others.”

This can be hard for many Americans to understand, that the church worldwide does not look like our parishes, that what is important or essential in Mali may not be what is important or essential in Peoria. And this goes both ways, in terms of ecclesial and political perspectives. Can we accept a universal church with distinct local practices around issues of governance, cultural norms, the way the sacraments are received and more? Or must we insist that the church is the same in every age and every locale? If so, Americans and Western Europeans will have to give up more idols than anyone else. (That medieval church teaching against charging interest on loans? It’s still on the books—read “Vix Pervenit.” It’s part of the universal teaching magisterium, as is “Laudato Si’.”) But in the meantime, no good comes from hurling anathemas at one another, be it bishop at bishop or neighbor at neighbor.

What next?

What does all this have to do with Pentecost? When we read the story of Pentecost in the New Testament, we see one thing clearly: The disciples did not suddenly all begin speaking in the same voice, using the same language. Rather, each community present heard them speaking in their own native language “of the mighty acts of God.” That community was not univocal or unicultural or even geographically distinct, and no one stood up and said “mine is the voice of God, and if you can’t hear me, you’re speaking and listening in the wrong tongue.”

The synodal process is not a new Pentecost. We don’t need a new Pentecost, any more than we need a new Incarnation, a new Resurrection. Once was enough, and we should be wary of the mention of a new one every time. The original from Acts remains instructive and apt. But we do need to hear in our own voices a message of communion, of many brought together as one, a sharing of the mighty acts of God in our midst. What that looks like in the long run might be disconcerting or even frightening, but it doesn’t have to mean we spend our days trying to excommunicate one another. More than a century ago, Pope Benedict XV made this point rather explicitly in “Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum”:

As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline—in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See—there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline.

Let us consider his words an unchanging and essential element of the eternal tradition of the church.

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