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Journalists need to ask: Are emerging Catholic synod fights about “ideology” or “doctrine”?

Journalists need to ask: Are emerging Catholic synod fights about “ideology” or “doctrine”?

The Synod on Synodality is here and there are many, many angles for journalists to pursue.

Let’s put it this way (with much, much more to come), I don’t think Clemente Lisi will have lots of time for soccer (he is an internationally known reporter on all things futbol) in the days ahead. For starters, readers can dig into these Lisi features at Religion Unplugged, where he is editor: “Everything You Need To Know About The Synod On Synodality” and “Pope Francis Open To Church Blessing Of Same-Sex Unions.”

The same-sex blessing story is huge and, frankly, leaders in some mainstream newsrooms (scan this Google News search file) seem to be waiting for a clear signal from their usual Catholic sources on the degree to which it is appropriate to celebrate.

I would like to back off and examine an important word in recent statements by Pope Francis and, thus, the elite press. That word is “ideology.” You can see what is going on in the Associated Press report with this headline: “Ideological rifts among U.S. bishops are in the spotlight ahead of momentous Vatican meeting.”

The subject, of course, is the Synod on Synodality. Read this carefully:

The synod is intended to be a collegial, collaborative event, though the agenda includes divisive issues such as the role of women in the church and the inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics.

If there’s Exhibit A for how elusive consensus might be, it’s the United States’ participation. In effect, there are two high-level U.S. delegations widely viewed as ideological rivals — six clerics appointed by Pope Francis who support his aspirations for a more inclusive, welcoming church; five clerics chosen by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who reflect a more conservative outlook and more skepticism of Francis’ priorities.

The assumption, of course, is that the divisions among U.S. representatives and, one can assume others around the world, are essentially political.

As always: Politics is real. Religion? Not so much.

Let’s keep reading, before we return to that loaded word — “ideological.” It’s time for this story’s designated expert from New York City:

Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York, worries that the synod, which starts Oct. 4, might widen rifts among U.S. Catholics rather than narrow them.

“The polarization of the country has infiltrated the church in such a way that I worry we can’t see our way out of it,” she said.

“The synod is supposed to be about listening, and humility, and willingness to change, but that’s not what clergy are trained to do,” she added. “There’s this unwillingness among much of the clergy to be taught anything, and that’s going to be a real problem.”

Francis himself recently evoked the resistance he faces among some conservative Catholic leaders in the U.S. At a meeting in August with Jesuit priests in Portugal, he assailed the “backwardness” of some of those conservatives, saying they have replaced faith with ideology.

The polarization in America is, of course, seen in politics. However, many of the most divisive issues in American politics — for DECADES — have been rooted in disagreements about morality, culture and, thus, religion. Think about the most divisive U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the past generation or two. Spot any patterns?

But back to the words of Pope Francis. In the statement being quoted, he directly links ideology and the word “doctrine.”

“The vision of the doctrine of the church as a monolith is wrong,” he said. “I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”

Some conservative American clerics vehemently disagree, saying high-level discussions of such issues as women’s empowerment and LGBTQ inclusion could tear the church apart.

The question for journalists: Is this dispute, at its heart, about contemporary political issues or about 2,000 years of Christian doctrine?

Let me be clear. This is a journalism question. We are trying to find the most accurate word to use when covering these discussions. Yes, Pope Francis chose to use “ideology,” which puts that word in play. The question is whether journalists should accept that, for participants on both sides, these debates are primarily about politics instead of Catholic Catechism-level doctrine.

Consider this important 2022 quote from a strategic player in the synod, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg. As the pope’s pick to be “relator general” for the synod, he will be in charge of shaping its formal documents. Read this carefully:

“The Church’s positions on homosexual relationships as sinful are wrong,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, in a recent interview with KDA, a German Catholic news agency. “I believe that the sociological and scientific foundation of this doctrine is no longer correct. It is time for a fundamental revision of Church teaching, and the way in which Pope Francis has spoken of homosexuality could lead to a change in doctrine. …

“In our archdiocese, in Luxembourg, no one is fired for being homosexual, or divorced and remarried. I can’t toss them out, they would become unemployed, and how can such a thing be Christian? As for homosexual priests, there are many of these, and it would be good if they could talk about this with their bishop without his condemning them.”

Are these quotes essentially political or, as Hollerich states, about the potential for changes in “doctrine”? Is Hollerich a political ideologue or is he a progressive on Catholic doctrine?

Journalists, what does “ideology” mean? Here are some typical dictionary definitions:

… a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.

Here’s another:

ideology, a form of social or political philosophy in which practical elements are as prominent as theoretical ones. It is a system of ideas that aspires both to explain the world and to change it.

Let me restate the crucial journalism question: Are these Catholic conflicts, at their heart, about 2023 political issues or about two millennia of Christian doctrines?

My hot take: If the topic being debated is in the Catholic Catechism, then we are talking about a matter of doctrine.

FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from a YouTube video of lightning striking St. Peter’s in Rome, after the resignation of pope Benedict XVI.

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