Something weird happened last week.
Okay, lots of weird things happened last week. If you stick with this post, you’ll find out what I think about the Pope and the Synod that went “splat.” But one weird thing that made me giggle was the spectacle of thousands of people streaming through the streets of the nation in righteous outrage to protest the unjust firing of . . . Jeff Sessions.
You remember Sessions, America’s darling, pictured here in happier times:
Tee hee, just a little joke. But you do recall that, when Trump picked Sessions for Attorney General two years ago, there was a lot of tooth gnashing, and not undeserved. The man does appear to be a bona fide nativist, if not a racist, and that’s why Trump chose him. Back in 2016, when Trump assumed he could utterly control him, Jeff Sessions was the new Jim Crow, said The Root, for instance. Nancy Pelosi, as many have pointed out, thought in 2017 that “anything less than [his] resignation or removal from office is unacceptable.”
But now 2018 is winding down and who is Jeff Sessions? Why, he’s the only thing saving us from being annexed by Russia, that’s all! La Pelosi now weighs in on the scandal of his resignation or removal from office that she demanded:
She’s right, of course. The Muller investigation is wrapping up and Trump hasn’t managed to fire his way out from under it yet, so he finally got rid of Sessions. And now everyone who very recently wanted to redecorate their condo with Jeff Sessions’ head on a pike is now weeping tears of blood because the Tyrant Trump has quashed our savior, Jeff Sessions.
Please don’t mistake me here: Everybody is terrible. Sessions is terrible, Trump is terrible, Pelosi is terrible. Russia is terrible. And one more time, for good measure: Trump. Terrible.
But also terrible is the terribly, terribly short memory of the news-consuming public. We can’t even remember what we were mad about six months ago, because right now there are different headlines in front of our faces. Different headlines, do you hear? And we forget what we’re supposed to be outraged about, and why, and who the perpetrator is.
I don’t actually care much about Jeff Sessions, but here’s something I do care about: The recent Synod, and how useless everyone knew it was . . . until the Pope quashed it.
A few weeks ago, every American lay Catholic who hasn’t been in a coma for the last five years was disgusted beyond measure with our bishops. After spending decades playing pervert valet, they finally got caught out; and they responded first with silence, and then by blaming priests and blaming the laity, and then by rolling out countless tone deaf, toothless, worse-than-useless statements and action plans.
We were pretty mad. One fellow on my Facebook wall (and I probably should have saved a screenshot for the FBI) wanted the bishops beheaded in St. Peter’s; but even those non-crazy among us wanted metaphorical heads to roll. We wanted mass resignations from the worst offenders, and we wanted true contrition, true repentance, and true reform. Remember?
And they offered us guidelines, mission statements, and ass-covering; they bought themselves pretty houses, were swatted down, and then bought themselves more pretty houses; and they gave each other awards for how much money they raised. They complained that donations were down.
Remember when Cupich said “we have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this,”— “this” being the sex-abuse scandal and cover-up — and told a seminarian “I am sleeping OK”? I remember!
And so the one thing we all knew was the Synod was going to be useless. We were mad when they went ahead and whooped it up at World Youth Day, and we were violently skeptical that anything useful or self-aware could come from this group of men working together and overseeing each other.
And yet, the last few days of Catholic social media have been full of laymen outraged at the Pope for how he treated our beloved USCCB, for how he undercut, humiliated, and castrated them with his brutal, top-down swat-down. And that’s insane. I’m still mad at the bishops, and you should be, too. Nothing has changed except the narrative.
Don’t mistake me. I’m not defending the Pope’s actions or motives. The way he handled this situation was crappy. I pray for his soul and I pray that his future actions won’t cause more harm to the Church, but I don’t see a single reason to hope that he’ll suddenly become the man to dig out the institutional church’s deep, deep roots of corruption. I have given up on this pontificate. He doesn’t have some satanic plan to oversee the deliberate degradation of the Church; he just doesn’t want to see how bad things are, he doesn’t want to know why they’re so bad, and most of all, he just plain doesn’t like it when people don’t knuckle under. Thus the stunningly bad optics of his actions, which predictably came across as “I heart child abuse.”
But for crying out loud, bad optics is all this is. Nothing more. Nothing good was spoiled here. Nothing worthwhile was quashed. No ground was lost. I say this with confidence despite not knowing the first thing about what the bishops decided in their synod, because there’s not a scrap of evidence that most of them (not all, but most) ever understood what the hell the problem even was. Unless Our Lady of Fed-Upness stopped in and smacked the synodial hors d’eouvres out of their hands and made them smarten up, I guarantee you they came out of there just as clueless and self-serving as they were when they filed in.
And so it’s bizarre and dispiriting to hear so many howls of despair over this allegedly crushing blow to synodality. Oh, no, they didn’t get to vote! Oh, no, the synod came to naught! So what? Remember who got us here. Don’t let the latest outrage sway your focus and turn the bishops into some kind of victims who are trying so hard to reform things but the mean pope won’t let them. That’s not what’s going on here.
As canonist Ed Peters said on Twitter:
While Rome has (needlessly but not illegally per Canon 455) forbidden US bishops from adopting NATIONAL standards for episcopal accountability, nothing prevents individual bishops from presenting PERSONAL provisions for same, whereupon other bishops might choose to copy them.
Let’s see some of that, your eminences. Let’s see how well you understand your flock and what they need. You wanted to be able to act, so let’s see some action. I haven’t given up on you. But I’ll need more than a “big bad pope” narrative to make me trust you.
We Are All Loyal Klansman image uploaded by Bcrowell at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,
Photo by Simcha Fisher of painting titled “The Cardinal’s Portrait” by Toby Edward Rosenthal