Cardinals Thomas Collins of Toronto and Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, Venezuela, talk as they arrive for a session of the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 14. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Which Canadian way will alter the Tiber?

  • October 15, 2015

VATICAN CITY - Canadians had a rather prominent role in the first week of the Synod on the Family. Two of the language- based discussion groups elected Canadians as their moderators — Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto for one of the English groups, and Cardinal Gerald Lacroix for one of the French.

More notable, the Canadian delegation reflected one of the key global dynamics evident at the Synod. That global dynamic was expressed in a memorable fashion by esteemed Vatican journalist John Allen on last year’s Synod: “The Rhine Flows into the Tiber Again … and Hits the Zambezi.”

In 1967, one of the most influential books on Vatican II was published under the title The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, arguing that many of the dominant themes of the council flowed down to Rome from the German theological world. Allen adapted the image to express that German ideas again seemed to dominate the Synod — particularly changing the Church’s teaching and practice on the indissolubility of marriage and the Eucharist — but were emphatically rejected by the African bishops. The Rhine hit the Zambezi.

This year the dynamic of the “young churches” of the global south resisting the priorities of the northern European bishops was a major theme entering the Synod and was manifest in week one. Many of the language group reports heavily criticized the Synod’s working text — instrumentum laboris — for being too “Euro-centric.” St. John Paul’s biographer George Weigel put it more bluntly at the end of the first week.

“Why are issues of primary concern to northern European countries so prominently a part of the Synod’s work, when those countries, for all their noble history, are now among the most religiously desiccated places on the planet?” Weigel asked. “Is there something a little strange about dying local churches instructing living, vital, local churches on what ‘the issues’ involved in the 21st-century crisis of marriage and the family really are?”

Those dynamics characterize not only the universal Church, but the experience in Canada, where there are many dioceses that are like the dying local churches of northern Europe. There is also present the Church of the global south.

For example, Archbishop Paul- André Durocher of Gatineau got worldwide attention for his speech in the Synod’s early days proposing the idea of ordaining women as deacons. Women’s ordination for generations was the ne plus ultra cause of the north. It has almost no purchase in the global south. Indeed, Archbishop Durocher was brave to raise the issue in front of Pope Francis, first Pope from the south, who is cool to an approach that he regards as being clericalist, imagining somehow that the lay vocation somehow finds its fulfilment in clerical orders.

Those unfamiliar with Gatineau should know that exploring the possibility of deaconesses is a step toward orthodoxy for a diocese which for many years more or less assumed that priestly ordination for women was the inevitable future. Indeed, enthusiasm for women’s ordination by Archbishop Durocher’s predecessor led to a corresponding lack of interest in promoting priestly vocations among men, which is why Archbishop Durocher is amongst the youngest priests in his diocese.

The archbishop is one of Canada’s most intelligent, articulate and engaging preachers, and I rather doubt that he thinks the prospect of women deacons would have much effect on the number of couples marrying and raising Catholic children in Gatineau. Yet the proposal to look at it, as well as his suggestion for lay preaching at Mass, does reflect the general approach one finds along the Rhine — and on the north side of the Ottawa River. As the dominant culture moves ever farther away from the Christian Gospel, the Church attempts to accommodate herself to it, not least by blunting, rather than sharpening, the counter-cultural challenge of the Gospel. The debate at the Synod over modifying sacramental theology to accommodate the divorced and civilly remarried is the most ambitious of such accommodations.

In contrast, there is Toronto, which has also experienced the tiredness and sterility of the aging northern Church in, for example, the decline and death of the ministries once undertaken by religious orders. The Toronto difference is that it is already a Church of the transplanted global south, with many of its most vibrant parishes filled with Catholics from the Philippines, China, India and Africa. It is easier in Toronto than in Gatineau to see that the Gospel has not lost its power to attract and to change lives.

Not surprisingly then, Cardinal Thomas Collins devoted his Synod speech to the story of Emmaus and Jesus drawing close to the discouraged disciples to convert them. Conversion is a concept rarely mentioned by the northern churches, as if marriage was not part of the fundamental vocation to Christian discipleship, which always begins with conversion away from worldly thinking to the teaching of Jesus.

The Synod’s first week showed a few glimmers of hope. Most of the Synod fathers expressed their dissatisfaction with the instrumentum laboris, with Cardinal Collins’ language group expressing its dismay in the most pungent way. (So devastating was the analysis by Collins’ group and others that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila likened the document prepared by the Synod managers to a corpse.)

But dissatisfaction with a document widely considered to be inadequate does not bring hope. What was hopeful was the widespread view in the Synod that consideration of marriage and the family had to begin with the good news of the Gospel, and the confidence that comes from the many witnesses who courageously live it out. Canada brought both Gatineau- on-the-Rhine and Torontoon- the-Zambezi to Rome. Which will alter the course of the Tiber?

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-inchief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:

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