When John Henry Newman wrote that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt,” he had never taken a diocesan survey for the Synod on Synodality. Ours is the burden of judging whether the various theological difficulties raised by the synod generate doubt. It isn’t an easy question—particularly when one considers that the dubious assumptions of identity politics have been smuggled into the synodal documents and questionnaires.
The curiously titled Synod on Synodality is a sort of coming and journeying together of clergy, laity, and even non-Christians to reflect on the meaning of coming and journeying together. Imagine a synchronized swim meet on Synchronized Swimming to which the aquaphobic are invited, and you’ll start to get an idea of what the Vatican is doing.
While an initial reading of the Vatican’s preparatory document and handbook leaves one with the impression that the difficulties are so much gobbledygook adorned with a thin Scriptural veneer, a closer look suggests a kind of coherence that is borrowed from the conceptual framework of identity politics.
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The documents evince a late-modern attitude that is the source of much muddled thinking and is the animating spirit of identity politics, the ideology of the identitarian Left. I call it the obsession with the exception. Those animated by this attitude instinctually and obsessively seek out particular instances that seem to fall outside of a universal type or rule or norm. This attitude has its roots in nominalism, which has infected strains of Catholic theological discourse at least since William of Ockham. In the spirit of the old nominalists, the exception-obsessed effectively believe that particulars are the really real things and cast doubt on the idea that universals are part of the structure of the created order.
For the nominalist identitarian, a person is not a particular instance of a universally shared nature with universal features like intellect, will, passions, and (accordingly) the habits of thought and action that are essential to achieve the divinely prescribed telos of man. Rather, the person is conceived of as a bundle of group memberships assembled from a panoply of socially constructed categories.
Identity politics combines its nominalistic account of the person with neo-Marxist ideology, which sees oppressive power structures as the cause of the plights (unequal outcomes) associated with being an exception (a member of an allegedly marginalized identity group). As Joshua Mitchell has shown, identity politics transforms the Christian concepts of guilt and innocence from a matter of the person’s relationship to God into a matter of a person’s group membership (oppressor groups are inherently guilty; oppressed groups are inherently innocent).
The replacement for grace, mercy, and forgiveness is revolutionary critique: discourse that aims to smoke out and overthrow the insidious power causing the oppression or exclusion.
The Synod insists on the need to listen to persons who in some way fail to be an instance of a typical churchgoer (whatever that is). Accordingly, the documents deploy the language of “inclusion,” “diversity,” “marginalized,” and the like. Dioceses are directed to take extraordinary measures to reach out to persons at risk of exclusion: “women, the handicapped, refugees, migrants, the elderly, people who live in poverty, Catholics who rarely or never practice their faith, etc.”
Many dioceses have released questionnaires as centerpieces of their plan to “listen” to the laity and frame many of their questions with the language of identity politics. Some survey questions from my own diocese of East Tennessee are illustrative.
One question asks: which groups or individuals, if any, do you believe the local church leaves on the margins? One can select multiple replies, which include: the homeless; undocumented immigrants; persons with physical, intellectual, and mental disabilities; single mothers; and LGBTQ+ persons.
Other questions focus on the specific rights of various of these allegedly victimized identity groups. Should immigrants be allowed to come to the U.S.? Should women be ordained as deacons?
As the faithful Catholic takes the survey, questions and puzzles of his own for the Synod arise. The framework of identity politics helps us to provide the solutions and see into the mind of the synodal partisan. Consider just four.
First, which shadowy force is oppressing these groups? Reflect upon the following leading statement of the questionnaire: “Clericalism arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision—which interprets the ordained ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given.”
Translation: Don’t you agree that it is those elite clerics exercising power who are the oppressors?
Second, is the “scourge” of clericalism actually a red herring, since the legitimate authority of the hierarchy was always understood by faithful Catholics to be ordered to the common good?
Probably, since the aim of radical critique is to tear down oppressive power structures and institute “democracy,” (e.g., radically democratize the Church).
Third, why aren’t Traditional Latin Mass-goers or married Catholics with big families listed among the marginalized groups?
Because (despite the possibility that they feel marginalized by Traditiones Custodes or papal comments comparing pro-natal life to leporine behavior) they support foundational Catholic teachings antithetical to identity politics, such as Genesis’ teaching about created sexual difference and the need for an orthodox, all-male priesthood with the fortitude to exercise their apostolic authority. To the critical eye, they cannot be counted among the marginalized because they share the guilt of the oppressive patriarchal structure.
Fourth, why can’t the Synod simply provide fora for persons seeking to live a faithful Catholic life, whom the Church has traditionally struggled to serve, to voice their suggestions for how the Church could better serve them?
Because, the handbook suggests, that is insufficient for marginalized persons to “be heard.” The goal is to “force us to consider new points of view that may change our way of thinking.” Neither should the “listening” cleric exercise his apostolic authority to rebut heretical or scandalous views and charitably guide the interlocutor toward transcendent and unchanging truths. That is forbidden, since the Synod is “not about engaging in a debate to convince others.”
In other words, priests and bishops need to check their privilege, shut up, and listen to specific identity groups, especially those who are typically fallen away, uncatechized, or otherwise heterodox. After all, the handbook intimates, the Holy Spirit Himself could be speaking through the mouth of the radical critic.
Perhaps this is an uncharitable reading. Instead, Pope Francis could be seen as sublimating the language of identity politics into a genuine expression of Christ’s radical call to love those shunned by society. On this view, Francis’ papacy can be understood as a riff on the parable of the prodigal son. Reimagine, for a moment, that the father wakes up each morning and leaves the homestead, journeying further and further each day in search of the prodigal. He travels to faraway lands, sullying his tunic with muck and mire as he searches pigsties for his lost child. The father sees himself as audaciously merciful and radically loving.
But there is another perspective in this riff: that of the faithful son. He is left more and more with the day-to-day maintenance of the homestead and becomes concerned when the wolves start circling. He worries that the homestead is at risk of crumbling without his father’s support. The loyal son is not animated by resentfulness. His concern is preservative: to keep the homestead intact such that it is capable of welcoming home the lost brother. From his point of view, the father’s sojourn is a practical manifestation of the obsession with the exception.
Contrast the original parable. The father doesn’t leave the homestead, suggesting that going out to search for the prodigal would have the cost of leaving the homestead unguarded and untended. But, the moment he sees his lost son on the horizon, he sprints to him, hugs him, and showers him with love. The Lord’s suggestion is that radical mercy to the fallen away presupposes an act of repentance on the part of the sinner. The sin of the faithful son was to resent this act of mercy.
The problem of the prodigal was not that he “felt” excluded by his father. The father generously gave him an early inheritance. Similarly, the crisis facing the Church today is not that some individuals “feel” excluded by the Church. The crisis is rather that of rebellion. The Synod is not welcoming home penitent prodigals hungry for the sacraments, but rather it is stoking rebellious grievances in those who seek to revolutionize Church teaching and practice that doesn’t accord with their subjective feelings and/or their nominalistic “identity.”
As tempting as it might be to dismiss the Synod as a nonsensical spectacle, faithful Catholics ought to pay attention and participate. Let them provide an overwhelming response rate to diocesan surveys and listening sessions. For, the Synod must admit that the Holy Spirit might be speaking through them, too. Even He cannot violate the principle of noncontradiction. Then perhaps the difficulties will be revealed for what they are: the brain-spawn of bad philosophy, which cannot generate a genuine doubt.
[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]