The Pope’s Reign and Ruin

Pope Francis closed out his summer by praising the Mongolian and Russian empires for their tolerance and humanity, before criticizing American Catholics for their backwardness and narrowness. No, you read that right the first time. He praised the horde of Genghis Khan and the imperialism of the Russian czars for their tolerance, then went on to criticize American Catholics for a sin he made up, called “indietrismo” — which means backward-looking. This from a man occupying an office whose occupants used to vow to shed blood if that’s what it meant to keep “inviolate the discipline and ritual of the church just as I found and received it handed down by my predecessors.”

Now, back in Rome, the pope is getting back to one of his favorite pastimes: rehabilitating a well-documented sex-pest because he has the right progressive friends in the curia. This time it’s Fr. Rupnik, a Jesuit and plainly terrible artist. Rupnik serially abused a group of nuns. The Vatican’s investigation into Rupnik and his religious center finished with a report — I kid you not — praising his confreres because, despite a media uproar, they “chose to maintain silence” and “to guard their hearts and not claim any irreproachability with which to stand as judges of others.” In other words, good job keeping the omertà and not being so judgmental about the sexual criminal in your midst.

All this is preparation for the ballyhooed “Synod on Synodality,” which is literally a conference of bishops dilating on the authority of conferences of bishops. The aim of the Synod, rather plainly, is for a large group of bishops to debate each other about survey material they guided some small number of lay Catholics through in their home diocese, and whether this pile of papers gives sufficient cover for the pope to begin chucking certain moral and dogmatic teachings of the church overboard in favor of newer understandings. It’s a truly strange exercise meant to obscure the pope’s role in changing the faith. Basically, he’s going to ask a bunch of bishops to write up a document showing that the church in general has come to a new understanding of itself.

It’s hard to unpack how much of a failure this already is. The very idea of a “Synod on Synodality” is like having a Meeting about Meetings. That uncomfortable guttural sound and hissing you are hearing from Rome is the ecclesial snake choking on its own tail. The pope’s constant comments on “backwardness” and condemnations of “ideology” are his attempt to get past the idea that the Catholic faith has real intellectual substance that has been defined, clarified, and distilled through the ages. This process whereby early scriptural and liturgical statements about the divinity of Jesus Christ, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and God the father are — over the centuries — expressed in new terms such as “the Holy Trinity” is what St. John Henry Newman called the “development of doctrine.” Newman had rules for distinguishing between true and false development, tracing all the way back to St. Vincent of Lérins. “A true development is that which is conservative of its original,” Newman wrote, “and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction.” The law of non-contradiction applies.

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