Synodality and the perennial temptations of power, pleasure, and wealth – Catholic World Report

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

When we look at the issues that dominate the conversation around ecclesial life, we see that so often they relate to matters of authority in the Church, of sexuality, and the Church’s relationship to money.

Synodality and the perennial temptations of power, pleasure, and wealth – Catholic World Report
A program for a Mass opening the synod process in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., is seen at St. Agnes Church of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Blackwood, N.J., Oct. 17, 2021. (CNS photo/Dave Hernandez, Catholic Star Herald)

If one looks back on the Synods of Bishops during the pontificate of Pope Francis, and the controversies that have accompanied them, one can notice that even with such disparate themes as the family, youth, the Amazon, and synodality, many of the same topics have arisen again and again: divorce and remarriage, contraception, LGBTQ issues; the role of the laity in church governance, the ordination of women and married men; the role of the laity in Church governance, especially in gaining control over Church finances and property. That these same issues have bubbled up again and again is, oddly, both surprising, and not surprising at all.

It is surprising because it’s often difficult to see why some of these issues would be the most pressing, or even related to the main theme at all. Out of all the challenges facing families today, is communion for the divorced and remarried the most urgent? Are Catholics in the Amazon really clamoring for clerical celibacy to be optional? When we try to discern what it means to be a synodal Church, is the appointment of women as cardinals a top priority?

Yet it is not surprising because all of these issues, at a fundamental level, boil down to three essential desires that are constants in our battle to set aside the self and to love God: the desires for power, pleasure, and wealth.

These three desires cut to the very core of us. Power relates to the will, to our ability to do what we wish. Wealth and pleasure relate to the intellect and passions. What do we desire? What do we think is the good for which we ought to strive?

Thus, when we look at the issues that dominate the conversation around ecclesial life, we see that so often they relate to matters of authority in the Church, of sexuality, and the Church’s relationship to money–in other words, to power, pleasure, and wealth.

These are not new struggles. Look at the history of lay investiture and lay trusteeism. Look at the canons of ecumenical councils back to the beginning decrying clerical concubinage, or bishops having themselves appointed ordinary of several dioceses and living in and serving none, yet gladly collecting the benefices and church taxes. It’s the temptation to power, pleasure, and wealth, all the way down.

Consider the Garden of Eden. What are Adam and Eve tempted with? The fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The fruit looks good for eating (pleasure), and they wish to possess it (wealth) so that they can be like God (power).

Consider Jesus’ temptation in the desert, the beginning of His recapitulation of human history. The devil tempts Jesus with these same categories of temptation we face: turning stones to bread (pleasure), compelling God to do as Jesus wishes (power), and possessing all the kingdoms of the world (wealth).

Consider what Jesus exhorts us to by the evangelical counsels. Jesus calls us to leave all things behind and follow Him, embracing poverty, which combats the desire for wealth. Jesus calls us to be chaste, to not even look upon another with lust in our hearts and to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” if that is our call; this chastity combats the desire for pleasure. And Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him, imitating the obedience He gives to the Father–this obedience combats the desire for power.

The Church recognizes this pattern, and invites us during the season of Lent, when we attempt with greater ardor to turn away from sin, to practices which combat these basic temptations. Prayer builds us up in obedience to God’s will, which negates the desire for power. Fasting turns our hearts away from physical goods and is a kind of chastity, which negates the desire for pleasure. Almsgiving makes us focus on others’ needs rather than our own wants, embracing poverty, which negates the desire for wealth.

The Gospel message is the call to be freed from these temptations through the grace of Jesus Christ. That message so often has a hard time being heard in the world because it challenges us in those precise areas that we find so difficult to turn over to God. These temptations will always be with us, in some form or other, because our fallen human nature is so vulnerable to them. They prey upon our weakened will, darkened intellect, and disordered passions.

Every age faces these challenges, yet each in its own way. The Church of today does not face the challenge of kings attempting to appoint bishops, but it does wrestle with the problem proposed by lay governing boards making themselves equal to the bishops. The Church does not see quite so many examples of priests taking secret wives, but it is still dealing with the self-inflicted wound of sexual abuse and cover-up committed by clergy. The abbots of Monte Cassino no longer live opulent lives, but dying German dioceses seem to be more concerned with the Kirchensteuer than their plummeting numbers.

Now, to give maximal benefit of the doubt, some of the more radical proposals we see are said to be attempts to combat precisely these problems of power, pleasure, and wealth. Perhaps fewer candidates with abusive inclinations would make it into the priesthood if the field of candidates were widened (in the Western rite) to include married men (or women, as some more radical proposals have it). Perhaps bishops could not so easily cover up abuse if they were subject in some way to their flocks. Perhaps the Church would be less concerned with holding on to its institutional wealth if the bishops did not have sole authority over its finances.

One can debate or reject the propriety or orthodoxy of some or all of these suggestions. But it is curious to see that even those on opposite sides of the ecclesiological spectrum seem, perhaps unwittingly, to identify the same root causes of the Church’s problems: the desire for power, pleasure, and wealth. No doubt each side would accuse the other of capitulating to these desires in their own way. But if we are to find any path ahead other than ecclesial cold war, we need common ground.

Bearing this in mind, when looking ahead to the worldwide phase of the Synod on Synodality, perhaps we should look upon the more controversial proposals put forward by some as an unintentional diagnosis. Such proposals identify the ways in which many today, including many Catholics, struggle to overcome these temptations to power, pleasure, and wealth, or perhaps fail to see them as temptations at all. In hearing why the Gospel is not deemed credible by some, the Church can better attune its call so that it might be heard. That is the opportunity before us. Let us pray it is an opportunity seized.

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