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Having covered the Vatican for more than 40 years, I learned long ago that about half of Vatican “news” can be filed under déjà vu.

The internal debate over the Vatican’s China policies. Failures of accountability in sex abuse cases. Ongoing Vatican financial scandals, despite reforms. Tensions over use of the Tridentine rite. All these and more have been perennial issues over the last three pontificates, periodically stepping into the media spotlight.

The latest example of déjà vu arose this week, when U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke weighed in on the upcoming Synod of Bishops. He argued that the synodal vision of the church espoused by Pope Francis – that is, a church that listens before it teaches – is a dangerous “slogan” that is leading Catholics astray:

“Synodality and its adjective, synodal, have become slogans behind which a revolution is at work to change radically the Church’s self-understanding, in accord with a contemporary ideology which denies much of what the Church has always taught and practiced.
It is not a purely theoretical matter, for the ideology has already, for some years, been put into practice in the Church in Germany, spreading widely confusion and error and their fruit, division – indeed schism, to the grave harm of many souls. With the imminent Synod on Synodality, it is rightly to be feared that the same confusion and error and division will be visited upon the universal Church. In fact, it has already begun to happen through the preparation of the Synod at the local level.”

Cardinal Burke’s comments, predictably described as a “bombshell,” came in a foreword to a just-published book titled, The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box. If all this sounds familiar, it should. Back in 2014, Cardinal Burke was among a handful of cardinals who warned against doctrinal concessions in that year’s Synod on the Family. The critique came in a book published shortly before the start of the assembly.

Whether these warnings affect the outcome of synods is a debatable question. I think they represent a minority view among cardinals and bishops, but it’s a minority that seems to have an outsized influence. Synods try to operate through consensus, and even a few participants pumping the brakes can slow things down considerably.

So far, the 75-year-old Cardinal Burke, a canon lawyer who once headed the Vatican's highest tribunal, has not been listed as a participant in this fall’s synod. But a few like-minded prelates will be inside the synod hall, including German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who has described the synodal process as part of a “hostile takeover” of the church. It should be an interesting event.

  • jthavis

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Pope Francis disclosed today that he’s working on a “second part” of Laudato Sì, his groundbreaking 2015 encyclical on protecting the environment. The announcement came in a brief talk to European legal experts.

"I am deeply appreciative of the care that you show for the earth, our common home, and for your willingness to work for the development of a normative framework aimed at protecting the environment. It must never be forgotten that future generations are entitled to receive from our hands a beautiful and habitable world, and that this entails grave responsibilities towards the natural world that we have received from the benevolent hands of God. Thank you for your contribution in this regard. I am currently writing a second part to Laudato Si’ in order to address present problems."

The pope offered no details about content or timing of the new document. But it’s easy to assume that among “present problems,” the pope would include global heat waves, flooding, wildfires and smoke pollution, as well as the effects of a deadly land war in Europe.

An “update” to an encyclical that’s only eight years old marks a departure from the typical glacial pace of papal teaching. Clearly, Pope Francis follows the news and wants the church to be part of the discussion when it comes to policy changes.

I wouldn’t expect new arguments from the pope. I think he probably wants to suggest ways in which Laudato Sì can be applied to real-world situations. His interest in what he termed a “normative framework” on the environment may offer a clue to his intentions. The policy framework being developed by the European Union establishes targets for greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy and infrastructure efficiency, among other things.

The pope’s announcement caught Vatican observers by surprise. There’s a tendency to view this fall’s consistory and Synod of Bishops as a winding down of his pontificate, but it seems there is more on the pope’s agenda.

Pope Francis is preparing to spend four days in Mongolia, a landlocked country surrounded by Russia to the north and China to the south. That geographical fact is arguably the primary reason for the pope’s Sept. 1-4 visit.

The country is home to only 1,500 Catholics – one of the smallest Catholic communities to ever receive a papal visit. But officials in China, and to a lesser degree Russia, will be watching and listening closely to the pope’s events.

Asia is considered by many Vatican officials as the church’s next great evangelizing opportunity. The number of Catholics in Asia has more than tripled over the last century, but still represents only about 3 percent of the total population.

China, of course, offers the biggest prospects for growth. But Pope Francis is unlikely to knock too loudly on China’s door while visiting Mongolia. Instead, he’s expected to deliver a low-key explanation of the church’s role in Asian societies. As he said last year in Kazakhstan – another country that borders Russia and China – Christians are called to immerse themselves “in the joyful and sorrowful events of the society in which we live, in order to serve it from within.”

The message is that Catholics are good citizens, at home in every culture, and do not operate as representatives of a foreign power. The theme will be compatibility, not competition.

The papal visit comes at a delicate time in China-Vatican relations. A 2018 agreement between the two states foresaw a new level of cooperation in the naming of bishops, but China has at times continued to act unilaterally – most recently when the government transferred a bishop to Shanghai without Vatican agreement, prompting the Vatican to issue a statement of regret.

The Vatican’s China policy has prompted internal church debate, with critics arguing that Vatican diplomats have conceded too much and gained too little. It’s not a new criticism, however; both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict were at times accused of diplomatic moves that betrayed the “underground” Catholic community in China.

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