Constructive Conversations: #1 Altieri, #2 Ruff, #3 Altieri

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?”, St. James asks (4:1). “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” The introduction to this series is found at the end of this post. Below is #1, Christopher Altieri’s initial statement, and #2, Anthony Ruff’s response to that, and #3, Altieri’s response. The most recent post is given first.

#3 Altieri (9-21)

Anthony — I’m glad we agree on the point about the synod being fairly innocuous. All the same, I would not characterize all the concerns over doctrinal integrity or disciplinary revision as irrational, nor would I characterize the fears of a significant portion of the faithful as absurd. In many cases, those fears are misplaced. The are too often overblown. Nevertheless, I suspect they are very rarely irrational or absurd.

You ask, “[W]hy is there such irrationalism and absurdity at loose in the Catholic Church? And why is it being given positive coverage by some influential right-leaning media?”

The fears certainly are being ginned up a good bit, but I can’t say exactly how, nor ought I speculate more than I already have on the motor of either the fears themselves, or the efforts to excite them. There does seem to me to be no shortage of legitimate concern, reasonably expressed. For parcondicio, I will say that the talk of dissent and schism coming from the other side of the spectrum is also unhelpful, and in my view also misplaced.

We already have broad agreement on mandatory celibacy for secular priests, so I won’t spend a good deal of time on the issue. I’d only like to say that you’re quite right: the idea that relaxing the discipline in limited local and exceptional cases for reasons of pastoral force majeure is a pipe dream. Everybody knows it. So, why did Pope Francis float it as such?

On synodality, I think you’ve mistaken my point. That will likely be my fault. I wrote densely, almost telegraphically. The point warrants clarification. Let me unspool a bit.

We have the substance of an idea — synodality — to the articulation of which Pope Francis has devoted significant intellectual energy. He has spoken eloquently of synodality, but mostly analogously: through images at once evocative and allusive, always thought-provoking and often charged with great emotion. I cannot think of any single place in which he has attacked the subject prosaically, in concrete, practical, pedestrian terms. I think the place in which he came closest to articulating such a vision was here:

“A synodal Church is a Church which listens, which realizes that listening ‘is more than simply hearing’. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: all listening to each other, and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the ‘Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17), in order to know what he ‘says to the Churches’ (Rev 2:7).”

He described the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops as, “[A] path of solidarity, a ‘journey together’,” thus appropriating a powerfully suggestive etymologie sauvage.

The Synod of Bishops, however, is a creature of Pope St Paul VI, who created the body in response to the express desires of the Fathers of the II Vatican Council. The Synod of Bishops  only very recently got a permanent juridical structure. No one had quite figured out how to use the instrument — John Paul II employed it largely to keep tabs on the worldwide episcopate, and Benedict mostly used it as a talking shop — until Francis, who has permanently erected the Synod of Bishops — through its General Secretariat — outside the Roman Curia.

Pope Francis has certainly taken steps toward altering the mechanics of ecclesial governance more generally, though those steps have often been rather toward greater centralization.

The extent to which the law permanently establishing the Synod of Bishops gives any real power to the body as such, is an opinable question. It seems to me fairly clear that the new special legislation erecting the Synod of Bishops places the body squarely sub Petro, making that position the guarantee of its work cum Petro. (I discuss this at some length, here and here.)

I mention this only so we understand each other’s points de depart as fully as possible.

I will pause to press you a little on one specific point, regarding Pope Francis’s politicking. You say: “One way to look at his political machinations is that he’s propping up minority voices that have been suppressed and shut out for two papacies so that a real discussion with varying voices can happen.”

I’m not entirely sure which “minority” voices are the ones you have in mind, but I am certain John Paul II’s approach to the worldwide episcopate was essentially that of ecclesiastical détente achieved by a very careful — and not perfectly successful — effort to create and maintain a dynamic equilibrium within the worldwide episcopate. When it comes to the idea that voices favoring experimentation and innovation stemming from a commitment to what is essentially a hermeneutic of rupture — I speak descriptively and technically, not polemically — have been suppressed and shut out, I must confess I find the idea simply incredible.

The example you adduce regarding the introduction of the vernacular illustrates the problems with the notion (the example does not vanquish the notion, but this is a Constructive Conversation).

Whatever one’s opinion of the Consilium’s work, they far exceeded their mandate, and their descendants have enjoyed free rein since the promulgation of the new books. The old books (with due regard for convenient fictions) were suppressed. Priests and faithful devoted to their use became  suspect in the eyes of their brethren of the cloth (from whom many of the faithful learned suspicion). When those devoted to the old books did not face exclusion from the Church’s counsels, they were often the object of derision among Catholics possessing the fashionable sort of erudition.

Perhaps all that will prove to have been the hard and needful thing, which, in another hundred years, will have shown itself to have been the thing that saved the Church. I have no crystal ball. History happened, though. It always does.

These historical remarks shade perceptibly into the core of your reply.

First, let me register a perplexity: “[T]he synod will not be deliberative,” you say. Quite right. Then, you offer, “[I]t won’t be redefining any doctrines such as the Trinity or the Real Presence or the sacramentality of Holy Orders[.]” I do not think that any body, however vested, could redefine any one of the elements in that list. Those are settled matters.

On one point — Holy Orders — there is room for change in taxis, but the II Vatican Council has definitively taught us which degrees of Holy Orders that participate in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

One thing we might see in the not too distant future, for example, is a restoration of the Order of Deaconesses, with recognition of the Order as a Major Order on par with the old Subdiaconate, i.e. a Holy Order but not part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Deaconesses were listed among the Kleros/Clerus of the Churches that had the Order, so there is no question but that they would be clergy. This “compromise” — in scare quotes because it really represents the whole of what is historically and theologically possible in these regards — is warranted by what we already know and would not be impossible to introduce. It could even lead to red hats for women.

(Pope Francis could have done it without a committee, and would have done it if he had a mind to do it. So, I’ll bet more than a nickel this doesn’t happen on his watch, if it happens at all.)

Speaking strictly personally, I think such a solution would cause lots of trouble and solve very few problems. We’ve barely begun to understand the spiritual place of “permanent” Deacons in the life of the Latin Church, let alone figure out how best to employ them in their mission of service. Once we do, we’ll need to figure out how to avoid situations like those we had in the Middle Ages, when archdeacons controlled diocesan and metropolitan purse-strings, and did not always manage affairs with perfect purity of heart.

“[The Synod Assembly] could make a real difference in ways that will influence the church at large.” Indeed, and let me say: for good as well as for ill.

In your eloquent paragraph regarding liturgy, which I will not reproduce here, I can see my own way to every word, except these four: “[L]iturgy isn’t just liturgy.” The point is not that liturgy does the things you say liturgy does, in addition to being liturgy. The deep truth the Fathers of the II Vatican council recovered — with the help of the Liturgical Movement that was a century old when the Council opened, and of the theologians of the Ressourcement, which owes a debt to the Liturgical Movement that we are only now beginning to understand — is that liturgy is all those things.

Let us leave aside for the moment the historical objections and semantic quibbles I have with your saying that the Fathers voted down retaining Latin as the universal bond of unity in the solemn liturgy. It is a fair construction, and fairly captures the effect of the matter. I am confident  you will agree when I consider your affirmation, “There’s no opposition between the horizontal and the vertical here, and no place for useless alleged polarizations between God-centered and human-centered liturgy,” and note that not every particular and concrete attempt to express the spirit of the liturgy will be (will have been) therefore equally successful.

The Council Fathers registered what I would like to describe as a crescent opacity of order in the life of the Church, of which the loss of the liturgy’s cosmic significance was a major driver and at once a major symptom. They desired a recovery of that significance, with a view — I hasten to add — to a recovery of the true basis of our koinonia, the sense of which rather developed theologically, ritually, and devotionally in the Middle Ages (which did not happen in a vacuum).

With Pope Francis’s forceful championship of our duty to care for creation, for example, I am surprised that more bishops have not returned to the practice of Ember and Rogation Days, which are a public expression of our participation in the rhythm of created order, and an official acknowledgment of the deep truth: All things are of [His] making, all times and seasons obey [His] laws. To be perfectly frank, I am disappointed I had to learn of Ember and Rogation Days from devoted friends and obscure literature, rather than from my mother, who practiced them in the Catholic chapels and fields of Ohio in her childhood, and never mentioned them because she thought we’d simply done away with them.

On the narrow question of “liturgical uniformity”: the universal use of Pius V’s books in the Latin Church was arguably a gain for her, but the loss of local Rites in the wake of the Tridentine reform was undoubtedly an impoverishment. The Council Fathers recognized this. They knew that turning back the clock was impossible, that we cannot undo what is done, and that the great thing for the Church was to adapt to the world’s changed — and rapidly changing — circumstances, without conforming to the world. I will only say that one may fairly construe the recovery of our common liturgical patrimony as part and parcel of that effort, and that in any case, to have devotion to the old books is not eo ipso reactionary.

What has all this to do with the Amazon Synod, though? In a word: nothing — but also everything. The irreducibly diverse cultural milieu of the Amazon has a great deal to teach us, but the peoples of the Amazon have a right to the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is up to them to allow the Gospel to challenge, transform, convict, and confirm their ways of life. It is not ours to dictate that process, but it does belong to the whole Church to participate in its direction. Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet.

Acknowledgment of that basic tension is rather conspicuously absent from the Instrumentum laboris, which seems to me rather to give a rather rose-colored gloss, at time approaching an ill-informed paean to a synthetic Amazonian cosmology and biology. In short: the romantic tone in which much of it is couched bothers me at least as much as the theological content of the document. If you were to say, “So, what?” I would have little in the way of rejoinder at this point. We need to let the thing play out.   

Allow me to delay you a little while longer, for a word about rupture and progressivism. Leave aside the narrow question of the II Vatican Council Fathers’ understanding of their work’s relationship to the history of the Church, and focus with me on a broader, prior issue: theological anthropology. Specifically, focus with me for a moment on the perduring effects of Original Sin on human nature, hence the effect our wound has on human affairs generally.

The persistence of Original Sin means that our brokenness will be with us until we are ready to enter celestial Jerusalem. Looked at from the other side, this anthropological truth is also the true ground of any sane progressivism, for it means that man is infinitely perfectible. However much better we become, there will always be something left undone. Socially, this means at once that we cannot eradicate evil: there will always be suffering, violence, waste, poverty and all manner of injustice. It means as well that none of the foregoing is an acceptable excuse for not making a go at getting better.

Whatever opinion one has of Pope Francis’s governance, his constant exhortations to the practice of the corporal as well as the spiritual works of mercy — in essence calls to live as though Our Lord said what He is recorded as having said in Mt. 25:31-46 and meant it, are trenchant. Indeed, they are urgently necessary. We ignore them at our souls’ peril.

It also means that, whatever we do in our efforts to order our lives together, we will make things worse for some people, often in ways we cannot possibly envision, but sometimes in ways we can. We cannot help this. It is inevitable. This is, in its turn, reason for great care in our counsels and caution in our proceedings.

Fearless and indefatigable willingness to face our brokenness utterly and unflinchingly, coupled with perfect and tireless caution in vigilance before and behind our every step: this is the twofold attitude that will keep us to the way. His scriptis, all the theology in the world will not avail men destitute of common sense, precious little of which is on display in the Instrumentum laboris.

Then, to the extent there is anything discernibly theological in a meaningfully Christian sense to be found in the Instrumentum laboris, it is there as a sort of drape or dressing thrown over the skeleton of a practical address, which does not bear the marks of the needful disposition and wears the wrap very poorly. That could be merely a stylistic infelicity, but I did not want to leave it unremarked.

You asked me to identify some of my specific concerns with the document, but at this stage, having taxed you surely beyond my rights, I’ll punt: what are yours?

#2 Ruff (9-18)

Christopher, let me begin by thanking you warmly for such a constructive, irenic, and thoughtful piece. You come at this with a perspective and expertise other than my own, and I appreciate that.


Christopher, you’re ratcheting down the irrational fears and absurd accusations of heresy flying around this synod – good for you. I agree. This synod doesn’t pose the threat to the church that some think it does.

But why is there such irrationalism and absurdity at loose in the Catholic Church? And why is it being given positive coverage by some influential right-leaning media? That might be something worth talking about.


I’m not sure the synod doesn’t pose a threat to the church because it’s not a deliberative body and can’t do much, though. There are indications that Pope Francis is encouraging the Synod to do some pretty big things that could change the church significantly. I’ll say more about liturgy below, but start with your point on clerical celibacy. Allowing some older married men to be ordained in some exceptional circumstances – if Rome agrees to this, will it be like the vernacular after Vatican II, which immediately spread everywhere?

I share both your ringing affirmation of the value of celibacy and your openness to married priests. If celibacy is made optional for secular (diocesan) priests, though, I’m not very hopeful that the Catholic Church, at least in the West, has the inner strength to maintain celibacy among diocesan priests in meaningful numbers for very long. And then recruitment for religious orders when the dominant norm is married clergy? Maybe… probably… I’m not sure.

If we’re moving toward optional celibacy, it seems to me we should be honest and admit that married priests will probably become the practical norm within a generation or three. We might as well accept that there will be huge changes to our ecclesial identity and huge spiritual losses in this change. And then, I suppose, think about the huge gains that will also come.


You affirm the rightness of the Church standing up for victims of horrible injustice in the Amazon. I agree.


Christopher, you say that under Francis synods are managed affairs, as they’ve been under every pope since Vatican II (which they certainly have been). You go so far as to say that Pope Francis is using synods as an “institutional counterweight” to synodality!

But I see differences between Francis and his predecessors in this. John Paul II in particular strong-armed synods to repeat what he had already decided. (There’s the joke about John Paul sitting in the front row reading during the interminable speeches no one listened to – was he reading his office book… or the final synod report?) John Paul’s handling of synods was a part of his larger campaign to roll back the collegiality and synodality affirmed at Vatican II – think Apostolos suos. Or his issuing (with Ratzinger’s support) Liturgiam authenticam on liturgical translation, which violated the letter and the spirit of Sacrosanctum Concilium, until Francis set things right with Magnum principium, which follows faithfully what the Council said.

Francis brings his strong convictions to both the family synod and the Amazon synod, and I grant that he does a bit of stacking the deck to advance his convictions. But he gets the bishops talking and allows them to have real input into the final document. This is new. One way to look at his political machinations is that he’s propping up minority voices that have been suppressed and shut out for two papacies so that a real discussion with varying voices can happen.


I want to turn to a focal point of this Constructive Conversation: liturgical inculturation. This is another issue where the synod will not be deliberative – it won’t be redefining any doctrines such as the Trinity or the Real Presence or the sacramentality of Holy Orders – but it could make a real difference in ways that will influence the church at large.

Here’s the point: liturgy isn’t just liturgy. This is a central point of the liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium which hasn’t yet taken root. Liturgy expresses the nature of the church (SC 2). It isn’t just a delivery system for the commodity of grace to be delivered to individuals, as it had become at least since the high Middle Ages and was before Vatican II. Liturgy does its (Christ’s) work of saving and reconciling and empowering precisely in the way that the community, by its active participation, is drawn into Christ’s work and necessarily drawn closer to each other. There’s no opposition between the horizontal and the vertical here, and no place for useless alleged polarizations between God-centered and human-centered liturgy. A dynamic variety in how the Catholic liturgy is inculturated in various locales is a feature, not a bug. It expresses the nature of the church, of Christian and human community, of transformative grace, of the Spirit’s creativity, of the Kingdom to come.

This Vatican II notion of liturgy is a development which was large enough to represent a sort of rupture – a term which I know some have difficulties with, but I don’t think it can be avoided to do justice to the matter. The fathers of Vatican II voted down retaining Latin as the universal bond of unity in the solemn (sung) liturgy, and thereby bade farewell to liturgical uniformity as a mark of the Catholic Church. When SC 23 counsels avoidance of “notable differences between the rites used in adjacent regions,” this can only mean that there will be regional differences. And I hope everyone reads, ponders, and prays over SC 37-40 on liturgical adaptation to culture between now and the Amazon synod, which crescendos in each successive article until it arrives at “an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy” by article 40.

I repeat: all this isn’t merely about superficial, ceremonial ornaments. It’s about the nature of the Church and of salvation in Christ. This is why Liturgiam authenticam and Summorum Pontificum are so problematic – a step backward – from the standpoint of the breakthroughs of Vatican II.

This is also why one can say that Vatican II both changed nothing and changed everything. No central doctrines about the Trinity or Christology or soteriology or the like are redefined in SC. But the very nature of the church and the human-divine relationship is reconceptualized. This is why it is misleading to call Vatican II “merely” a pastoral council because it didn’t change doctrine. Its vision leaves virtually no doctrine unaffected, near as I can tell. This is how I understand Vatican II to be pastoral in a way which is substantive, binding, and irrevocable.

The Amazon synod, even if not deliberative and not redefining doctrine, offers the real possibility that increased liturgical inculturation involving “radical adaptation” will happen in local churches. That could enrich the entire Catholic Church’s understanding not just of liturgy, but of the church itself. It’s not for me to say how this could or should be done in the Amazon. As a white guy in central Minnesota, my only role is to affirm on Vatican II grounds the goodness of this happening in the Amazon – and elsewhere.   


I’ve said a lot, Christopher, probably too much for you to respond to. Take up what you will, ignore the rest. Oh, you mention “theologically problematic elements” in the Instrumentum Laboris. What is theologically problematic, and why? I’m not trying to stir the pot. Oh, actually, I am.


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#1 ALTIERI (9-18)

Christopher Altieri

The approach I will take to the business is that of a political philosopher (and an Augustinian at that, though an atypical one, who reads Eric Voegelin through the lens of St. Augustine of Hippo, and also happens to read Machiavelli in the Florentine original — something I intend both literally and figuratively — so I tend to view ecclesiastical politics with a degree of circumspection).

I do not write here as a journalist, but only as a concerned citizen of the Church. Readers familiar with my journalistic work, however, will perhaps recall the pieces I wrote for The Catholic Herald and the Catholic World Report, in both of which I recognized that the Instrumentum laboris contains some theologically problematic elements, and also attempted to articulate the sense I have, of those elements not really being cause for concern — at least, not of the sort that has given rise to fears of institutionalized ambiguity, doctrinal creep, or even official defection from divinely revealed and definitively formulated dogma.

The reasons for which I think those concerns misplaced, are complex.

They boil down to these: the Synod of Bishops is not a deliberative body and the Special Assembly has no brief for the exercise of deliberative function; the Instrumentum is meant to be a “kitchen sink”, a catch-all document allowing the organizers and managers of the Assembly to say they heard everyone invited to contribute; their agenda is primarily disciplinary, and regards a matter not essential to the faith.

The leaders of the Church in the Amazon region are trying to hear and make heard the people who live there, who have been victims of greedy and unscrupulous foreign interlopers and local potentates for five centuries. Robbed of their labor, their wealth, their very children, the peoples of the Amazon are impatient. The Church has not only the right, but the duty to speak in their behalf and to stand with them in solidarity.

Unfortunately, it appears the Assembly’s organizers and managers are interested in using the gathering to further an experiment in ecclesiastical sociology: obtaining permission for a controverted proposal — the local relaxation of discipline with regard to secular clerical celibacy — thus removing obstacles for other Ordinaries in other places, who would plead similar pastoral emergency and ask the same relaxation.

That is not to say they are not genuinely concerned with the challenges and hopes of the Amazon region and its people. Quite the contrary, even the request for a change in discipline arises from the Amazon bishops themselves — some of them, at least — and is motivated by a real pastoral concern. The organizers and managers of the Synod Assembly are merely trying to make hay while the sun shines.

In the post-Conciliar era, Synod Assemblies have always been managed affairs. To his credit, Pope Francis has largely abandoned the pretense of their being anything else, and has gone so far as to make new law for their preparation, conduct, and issue. The result, however, is that Synod Assemblies are now an institutional counterweight to the “synodality” Pope Francis has championed in many of his speeches and some of his governance, rather than the embodiment of it.

When it comes to the broad question of secular celibacy, I do not have any particular insight to offer, but only what might be a helpful frame for discussion of the issue.

When it comes to Latin discipline, the real question is not whether celibacy is good for the Church or for priests — it is — but whether it should be a requirement for secular priests. There are powerful arguments in favor of changing the discipline. Take one: Admitting married men to the higher ranks of Holy Orders — viri probati — will break the strangle-hold bishops have over their clergy. A man who is established in life, familiar with the ways of the world, and independent of means, is harder to co-opt, corrupt, cow, or otherwise control.

We’re told celibacy frees men to give all in the service of the Gospel. The fact is, we have secular men in Holy Orders with very little real-world experience, no means of support, and no marketable skills, who are utterly dependent for their next meal on the good grace of the bishop. It was not ever thus. This reduction of the lower ranks of the secular clergy to near-total dependency is at most 150 years old. That’s only a little more than a blink of an eye in ecclesiastical terms.

Sed contra, one will urge that such a development will lead to a caste system in the secular clergy, with bishops being chosen from the lot most ambitious and least likely to be interested in marrying in any case (whether secular or religious). That is remedied by opening the episcopate to married men, though such a solution creates some “new” problems and exacerbates existing ones.

One might further note that the Latin Church instituted the current and long-standing discipline for known reasons. That point could be taken either way: On one hand, the old way has been tried and found wanting; on the other, the social conditions that made the change worthwhile a thousand years ago — feudalism, class distinctions, property and inheritance law (not to mention ecclesiastical organization and governance) — have all changed radically, so those old reasons may no longer apply, or may really apply in a qualified sense.

More narrowly, with regard to the proposal soon to be under consideration at the Synod Assembly, I would observe that the specific use to which any change in discipline would be put in the Amazon itself — i.e. putting “elders” in Holy Orders roughly as simplex priests, without training, faculties, or even most of the rights proper to the clerical state — is not without its own difficulties, lacunae, and serious counterindications, even among those of us generally sympathetic to the case for a relaxation in discipline.

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For this new series, we at Pray Tell took our cue from St. James. We thought about what Pray Tell could do to be helpful at a time when church and society are being torn apart by conflicts and disputes. “Constructive Conversations” is our response.

Each entry in this series will offer a running dialogue between two figures modelling honest and respectful exchange. The series will advance conversation on the topic itself, but even more so, we hope it will advance positive models of how to have a constructive conversation.

Our first topic is liturgical inculturation and the Amazon synod. (Any controversy there, do you think?!) Pray Tell moderator Fr. Anthony Ruff OSB will go up against engage Christopher Altieri, a journalist, writer, and editor based in Rome who has worked at Vatican Radio and holds a PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He writes for Catholic World Report and is a contributing editor to the Catholic Herald out of London.

In this series we wish to avoid both disrespectful flaming and false irenicism that papers over real differences. The goal is not to come to consensus, but to clarify what the differences are and what the legitimate concerns are of those with whom we differ. If the dialogue partners come to modify their position, or to restate their concerns after having learned from another viewpoint, that could be a good thing – but each person retains the freedom to hold and state their our own positions.