MRBlog | Synodal Spin and the Authorized Jesus

Pope Francis


By Thomas J. Whitley

Now that the much-discussed, oft-maligned Synod on the Family has concluded, we can engage in everyone’s favorite pastime: spin. Those who follow the world of American politics closely will be well acquainted with the Spin Room, the room in which candidates and their proxies go immediately after a debate to explain why they “won.” What’s great about the Spin Room is that everyone — the candidate, their spokespersons, the media, the viewers — knows what’s going on. The message is “spun” to fit a narrative that benefits that particular candidate or party. It is pure, unadulterated propaganda — and we love every second of it.

It should come as no surprise, then, that not only has there been so much spin following the Synod, but that we have lapped it up so. Once the Synod ended and the final votes were cast, the Pope, cardinals, bishops, and members of the media began interpreting Francis’ defeat for us. Or was it his victory?

Damian Thompson wrote for The Spectator that the conservatives won because the final document did not include any specific language about divorced and remarried Catholics being able to take communion.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that conservatives basically ‘won’ this synod — they fought successfully behind the scenes and in the debates to block changes to pastoral practices that (a) they believe go against the teaching of the very anti-divorce Jesus of Nazareth and (b) would have outraged the increasingly powerful churches of Africa.

This rings a bit hollow, though, when at the end of his article he notes that Francis may simply “choose to overrule the synod,” something very much in his power to do.

The Wall Street Journal boldly proclaimed “Bishops Hand Pope Defeat on His Outreach to Divorced Catholics.” The same logic employed by Thompson was employed by Francis Rocca here:

Catholic bishops handed Pope Francis an embarrassing defeat Saturday by withholding support for one of his signature initiatives — a pathway for Catholics who have divorced and remarried to receive Communion — thus showing the strength of conservative resistance to the pope’s liberalizing agenda.

We’ll just ignore the uncritical assumption that the pope has an “agenda” to “liberalize” the Church, and point to the refreshingly logical piece on Breitbart that points out how misleading this WSJ article is. It’s two main points are that we shouldn’t assume that the pope had a particular plan going into the Synod and, again, bishops do not have the power to overrule the Pope.

While all religion is politics, and this is especially conspicuous when dealing with an institution such as the Catholic Church, we cannot simply map religious disputes onto a traditional political system.

Though David Gibson asks over at Religion News Service who won and who lost, the five points he offers support the narrative that Francis won. At the base of his reasoning is that the lack of a clear conservative win means that Francis won:

But the broader reality is that conservatives, as many of them acknowledged, did not get what they wanted or needed at this synod, and their prospects going forward look even dimmer.

And then, over at the New York Times Elisabeth Povoledo gives us the especially confusing “Catholic Paper on Family is Hailed by All Sides, Raising Fears of Disputes.” We’ll give Povoledo the benefit of the doubt and assume that she didn’t write the headline, but there’s still this to try to make sense of:

Both conservative and liberal commentators and news outlets, deliberately or not, seemed to interpret the passages in a way that reinforced their views, raising the question of whether what the bishops had billed as a consensus document may widen divisions over critical issues, rather than bridge them.

First we have the question of where “bishops,” which reads in an all-encompassing manner in this sentence, actually billed the document as a consensus when she used only two Catholics who suggested as much in her piece and many more that claimed otherwise. (More did say that this was a consensus document but she does not establish this as a narrative with any wide-spread support but rather seems to assume it based on one article and one tweet.) Second, she claims that this document is “deliberately uncontroversial in controversial areas.” But the voting tallies would seem to suggest otherwise, as this “deliberately uncontroversial” document saw the most divided voting on paragraphs 84, 85, and 86 — those that deal with the question of divorced and remarried Catholics. Finally, anyone who has given the synod even a cursory glance over the past few weeks knows that disputes have been present from the outset and that they did not disappear with this final document. The spin in the aftermath of the synod does not raise the question of whether the document will widen divisions; it serves as evidence of the divisions that were already present.

And then we have those claiming that Francis won. La Republicca said that it was “a prudent opening to divorced remarried Catholics.” Il Messaggero’s headline was, “Yes to communion to divorcées.”Il Giornale offered, “Divorcées yes, gays no.” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl did not say that Francis “won” the Synod, but he did say that the synod changed the frame of reference from law to mercy:

The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, “What does the gospel really say here?”

James Martin made a similar point for CNN. He says that many Catholics have collapsed together dogma, doctrine, and practice such that “a change in one is seen as an attack on everything.” Pushing back against these Catholics that he thinks are so afraid of change, he too makes the mercy turn:

St. Paul understood the need for change, even if it went against some cherished practices. So did Jesus. He did not hesitate to bend over or even set aside the rules if it meant applying more mercy. When he healed an infirmed woman, painfully stooped over from arthritis or scoliosis, in the Gospel of Luke, on the Sabbath, he was critiqued for not following the rules. In response, he excoriates those who sought to lock him into unchanging legalisms: “Hypocrites!”

The move that Wuerl and Martin make here is a smart one: assert that the admittedly ambiguous document supports your point of view by making recourse to Jesus as pro-mercy above all else. Of course, the “Jesus is very anti-divorce” narrative makes the same move. Which is more authoritative, Jesus’ anti-divorce message or his merciful, rule-breaking practices? Is Matthew’s Jesus who said of the law and prophets, “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” the Jesus that should be followed? Or is it Luke’s Jesus who makes it a point to focus on the plight of the downtrodden and outcast?

The question has been billed as whether Pope Francis or conservative bishops won the synod. The post-synod spin is evidence that most parties are thinking that way, either in their attempt to persuade whoever will listen that their side won or in their investigation of such claims. But the question at the heart of this may not be whether Pope Francis won or lost the synod, but which version of Jesus did. In other words, while the spin appears prima facie to be about Pope Francis, maybe it’s actually about which version of Jesus should be authorized by the church as the Jesus.


Image via Wikimedia Commons