As the much-ballyhooed family synod lurches into its final days, with no clear consensus on even the most mild of reforms suggested by Pope Francis and lots of backbiting and political posturing (one prelate even suggested that Satan was at work), it’s increasingly clear that Pope Francis has a problem: a recalcitrant, right-wing faction is holding his synod hostage to their vision of a conservative utopia. It looks more and more like Pope Francis has his very own Tea Party to contend with.
The similarities are considerable. For one, like the Fox News-consuming, gerrymandered-district representing Tea Partiers, they live in their very own right-wing echo chamber via the conservative Catholic media and their conservative functionaries and underlings. From last year’s synod to the recent World Meeting of Families, the actual Catholics they meet with are carefully selected to make sure they only hear about the joys of life-long marriage, big families and natural family planning.
As a result, they keep claiming with a totally straight face that the biggest problem the church faces is that it just hasn’t proclaimed its teachings on marriage and the family LOUDLY ENOUGH. As Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez told the synod:
We must proclaim the beauty of God’s plan of love for creation, for the human person, and for the human family. Our new evangelization must proclaim an integral human ecology that reveals the nature, vocation and teleology of the human person as created by God.
In their final report, the small group headed up by Australian Cardinal George Pell, who has emerged as the ringleader of the conservatives, and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the real problem with marriage was that Catholic couples weren’t getting strict enough marriage preparation in the Catholic vision of the family, which must be taught with “clarity and attractiveness of language, making the Church’s teaching more comprehensible and accessible.”
And, just like the Tea Party, the conservative bloc at the synod refuses to cooperate or find solutions. The entire point of the synod was for the bishops to come together and find some common ground on making the church’s teachings regarding the family—particularly marriage and divorce—more relevant and accessible to Catholics. The German bishops suggested some kind of “penitential path” to communion for remarried Catholics. Conservative hardliners countered with…nothing. Not a single suggestion for reaching Francis’ goal, which is to make the church and the sacraments a “field hospital” for the wounded, not a prize for the perfect.
Even the suggestion that decisions about communion for the remarried could be devolved to the national level, with bishops’ conferences responsible for formulating local solutions, is now anathema, as signaled by Pell:
You cannot have two people in the same situation with the same dispositions [where] one goes to Communion, and it [is] a sacrilege, and in the country next door, it is a cause of grace…“‘Catholic’ means ‘universal,’ not ‘continental.’
Kurtz warned pointedly that allowing different communion practices would “fracture” the church.
Which brings up yet another way that Catholic conservatives are like the Tea Party: They threaten to bring down the church via talk of a schism if they don’t get their way, much like the Tea Party threatens to bring down the government if they don’t get theirs. Talk of schism has been in the air for months, with the supposed threat by some participants to walk out of the synod only adding to the sense that any evolution of church practice on divorce and remarriage is a deal-breaker.
And, like the Tea Party, with its distain for any kind of party authority (as evidenced by the Freedom Caucus’ demand for an essentially leaderless caucus and legislative free-for-all) the conservatives are less-than-deferential to the authority of the pope, suggesting that a raw majority of conservative bishops should prevail simply because they are the majority.
“Never in my lifetime have I heard of bishops and cardinals being so disrespectful of a pope, challenging his organization of this synod, even a few referring to him as a Protestant and threatening a fractured church if he goes against their wishes,” writes Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter.
In the end, they win if they can gum-up the works to the point where nothing gets done. Sure, they’d like to take their doctrine in an even more conservative direction, but barring that they’re perfectly happy to make sure that nothing gets done so that nothing changes. Having called the synod to build consensus for some middle-ground reforms to practice that might drag the church into the twentieth century, Francis now faces the very real possibility that little or nothing will be achieved. Or, as Reese put it, “Francis has the same problem that Obama had. He promised the world, but Congress wouldn’t let him deliver.”