In recent months, some devout and well-meaning Catholics have been organizing and sending petitions to Pope Francis urging him not to change the Church's teachings on marriage and the family during the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family scheduled for this coming October. Most, if not all, of these petitioners are basically good, faithful Catholics who sincerely try to believe everything the Church teaches and strive to practice their faith with admirable consistency. At a time when the Church is under enormous and constantly growing pressure from an increasingly secularist world society to change her teachings on morality, human life and sexuality, marriage and the nuclear family, these loyal sons and daughters of the Church are full of concern that their Holy Mother will cave in to the wishes of her enemies—or, that she is in fact already beginning to do so, as evidenced by the controversial midterm report issued by the Extraordinary Synod last fall. These apparently rock-solid Catholics see themselves as faithful defenders of the one true Church of Christ against the malignant forces of heresy and radical secularism. Their goal is to ensure that the Church of our time will continue to faithfully adhere to and proclaim her 2,000-year-old doctrines on marriage and family life in all their splendor and integrity.
But these otherwise praiseworthy and well-intentioned Catholics appear to have overlooked the fact that they have grounded their seemingly noble campaign on a few blatantly false assumptions. One of these assumptions is that the Bishop of Rome has the ability to make changes to the Church's teachings as he sees fit. If that were true, the teachings would have been changed many times by 265 Popes throughout the last 2,000 years, and the deposit of faith would never have survived intact to our own day. As Catholics, we believe that the office of the Successor of Peter is protected in a special way by the charism of infallibility, which means that the Pope is incapable of erring when teaching the whole Church on a matter of faith or morality. Pope Francis can no more change any part of the Church's doctrine than could Pope Benedict XVI, or Saint John Paul II, or any of the other Popes preceding them.
Another false assumption undergirding this petition campaign is that Pope Francis himself, in his heart of hearts, is intending to change Church teachings on marriage and family life to accommodate modern viewpoints, or is at least considering doing so under pressure from a handful of heterodox bishops, clergy, and laity. Nonsense. Anyone who really knows this man knows better than to even think such a thought. From his earliest days as a Jesuit priest right up to the present, and often amid difficult and hostile circumstances, Bergoglio's spoken and written words demonstrate an unswerving commitment to Catholic orthodoxy. Anyone who reads his homilies, letters, addresses, interviews, and other public statements as priest, bishop, Archbishop and Pope can verify his record as a faithful son of the Church in that regard. There is no talk whatsoever of changing any part of Catholic doctrine to better suit modern tastes. On the contrary, Bergoglio's clear affirmations of traditional Church teaching on all manner of topics is both refreshing and reassuring.
But the worst assumptions of all by these Catholic petitioners are 1) that the Church herself has the ability to change some of her teachings, and 2) that she is actually going to do this at the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family, that it will be a “heretical” Synod. Both these fears are groundless. To begin with, the Church cannot change any of her teachings any more than the Pope can do so. As Catholics, we believe that the charism of infallibility is bestowed not only on the visible Head of the Church on earth, i.e. the Pope, but on the Church herself as a whole as well. We believe that the Holy Spirit protects the Church from teaching error. Specifically, the Church is infallible when the Pope, and the bishops united with him, declare that such and such a doctrine of faith or morality is to be definitively held by all the faithful.
An Advisory Body
Secondly, it should be pointed out that the primary task of the Synod of Bishops—a relatively new institution in the Church which was created by Blessed Paul VI following the Second Vatican Council—is to advise the Pope on matters of Church governance and discipline, and thereby to assist His Holiness in applying Church doctrine to current pastoral situations throughout the universal Church. The purpose of the Synod is to foster greater collegiality within the Church by facilitating more effective collaboration between the Pope and the bishops in the governance of the Church. By means of the Synod, bishops from every part of the Catholic world in union with Rome freely and frankly communicate to the pontiff the problems and concerns of their particular Churches, along with their discussions and opinions on such problems and concerns, related to a certain theme chosen by the Holy Father (i.e., “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”). The Pope listens to all of this feedback and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, uses it to make wise and sound decisions for the future of the Church.
The Holy Father then communicates his decisions to the bishops and the whole Church by means of a written document called a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, in which he “confirms his brothers” (cf. Luke 22:32) in their faith and issues binding pastoral guidelines. Such an infallible papal document is the only text having anything to do with a Synod that carries official magisterial teaching and decision-making authority for the whole Church. As a representative institution, the Synod of Bishops is first and foremost an advisory body to the Holy See; it has no decision-making authority or magisterial teaching authority apart from the Successor of Peter. Thus, the idea that a Synod can alter Church doctrine is contrary to the fundamental nature of the Synod itself as an advisory organ. Every few years, the Pope calls his brother bishops to meet with him in the Vatican for a few weeks to hear what they have to say. The bishops do not go to Rome to help the Pope change Church teaching, which he can’t do anyway—and even if they were to try to abuse the Synod to that end, their efforts would come to nothing thanks to the charism of infallibility.
Upsetting and misleading as some of its statements were, the highly controversial 2014 Synod midterm report issued last October was not an official teaching document of the Magisterium and was never intended to be treated as such. It was nothing more than an inaccurate and heavily biased summary of the bishops' discussions up to that point that reflected a heretical agenda by certain groups of people who are attempting to manipulate the Church's internal affairs in order to advance their own agenda. Such attempts to influence the Church to change certain of her teachings have been made by rebellious bishops, priests, and laypeople on numerous occasions over the course of 2,000 years—most recently in the decades following the Second Vatican Council—but none have ever proven successful. In each case, what actually happened was that those bishops, priests, and laity who pridefully rejected certain Church doctrines found themselves ipso facto estranged from their Holy Mother—i.e., instead of changing Church teaching to suit their own ideas, they found that they had voluntarily renounced their membership in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church and were now marked for all time as heretics and schismatics.
Although not an official teaching document itself, the final report of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod clearly reaffirmed traditional Church doctrines on marriage and family life and the incompatibility of certain lifestyles with Catholic moral teaching, thus offering considerable reassurance to the troubled and confused faithful that the Synod on the Family is indeed on track to fulfill its mission. Even the three most controversial paragraphs in the document, nos. 52, 53, and 55, did not attack Catholic doctrine or indicate that the norms regarding reception of Holy Communion are about to be changed in any significant way; nos. 52 and 53 merely called for close theological examination of sacramental and spiritual Communion in regard to those who are divorced and remarried. It does not necessarily follow that there will be any change in the current discipline. Pope Francis will certainly listen to and consider the recommendations he is given by theologians who are commissioned to study the subject, but it is he who will make the final decision for the whole Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Following the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic theological experts urged Paul VI to approve the use of artificial contraception by Catholic married couples. The pontiff proceeded to write and publish his magnificent encyclical Humanae Vitae, which explicitly reaffirmed unchangeable Church teaching on the matter, and the rest is history.
Myth v. Reality
Catholic doctrine cannot change; that much is clear. Church discipline and pastoral practice, on the other hand, is subject to a certain degree of flexibility in order to suit the needs of different times; therefore, it has gone through various, necessary, and occasionally even significant revisions over the past two millennia, usually as a result of Church councils and for purposes of reform. This legitimate mutability of discipline has some people very worried at present. One of the chief fears of the good Catholics referred to above is that, as a result of the upcoming Synod, traditional Church teachings on marriage, family life, and mortal sin will be severely undermined by the official approval of new pastoral practices that directly contradict the teaching. But, as with the other false assumptions discussed above, it is simply not possible for this to occur. Official Church discipline must always reflect official Church doctrine; it cannot be altered to the point where it flies in the face of Church teaching. The discipline can only change within the narrow limits set by canon law. For example, a Catholic who is conscious of being in the state of mortal sin has always been forbidden to partake of Holy Communion until he or she receives the Sacrament of Penance. That norm cannot and will not be changed by Pope Francis or the upcoming Synod.
On the other hand, however, as a result of fallen human nature, the implementation of ecclesiastical discipline is not always a straightforward affair. As with Church doctrine, so also with Church discipline throughout history certain bishops, priests, and laypeople have attempted to substitute their own preferences for what the Church says, based on some excuse or other. This is exactly what happened with the Second Vatican Council, when all manner of heretical notions and illicit practices were justified under the vague mantle of "the spirit of Vatican II." Although the teachings of the Council itself were entirely orthodox and the liturgical, pastoral and disciplinary changes it introduced were fully in accord with those teachings, the general public perception of the Council was a far cry from the reality of what the Council Fathers officially said and did. As a result of this unfortunate discrepancy between the myth and the facts of Vatican II, the post-Conciliar period was marked by a great deal of confusion and difficulty for the Catholic Church. Heretical ideas proliferated among the hierarchy, clergy and laity; liturgical experimentation knew no bounds; millions left the Church, no longer recognizing their beloved Mother; small groups of schismatic traditionalists claimed to be the remnant of the “true faithful.” Blessed Paul VI, who had brought the Council to a successful conclusion, famously lamented that “the smoke of Satan has entered the Church.” At least for a time, the Bride of Christ appeared to have lost her way.
Here we must acknowledge that there is in fact a certain real danger for the Church at the present moment in her history. This danger is that—just as happened with the Second Vatican Council--certain bishops, priests, and laypeople will view the Synod on the Family through the colored lenses of their personal whims and wishes, and as a result will end up saying and doing anything they please using "the spirit of the Synod" as a cover. Unfortunately, those in the secular news media, which is increasingly hostile to the Church, have already embedded in the public mind their own grossly inaccurate portrayal of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod as the first clear step by the Church hierarchy toward a radical transformation of Catholic doctrine and discipline on the subjects of marriage and family life. By projecting this false and misleading image of the Synod on the Family—which is the brainchild of Pope Francis and has nothing whatsoever to do with changing Church teachings—unscrupulous journalists are raising vain expectations among the Church's enemies, including heretical dissenters, of official doctrinal and disciplinary changes that cannot and will not take place, while providing fresh fodder for schismatic traditionalist conspiracy theorists who claim that the Church is “going heretical” and that they are the sole remaining guardians of orthodox doctrine.
Reasons for the Synod
Given the considerable risks involved, one may ask why Pope Francis has called this Synod on the Family—an unusual double Synod at that—and what he hopes to accomplish by it. As someone who grew up in a closely-knit Italian family in Argentina, Francis understands the critical importance of the traditional nuclear family in God's plan for human society in general and for the Church in particular. He is painfully aware that this traditional family unit, the basic cell of society, is under tremendous attack and facing many difficult challenges in our increasingly secularized contemporary world. He realizes that the Church has a duty to reaffirm the truth of her beautiful teachings on marriage and family life and to examine how these timeless teachings should be applied to Catholic families and family members within the context of the present situation. Thus, Pope Francis has called this Synod primarily for pastoral reasons, in order to reassure modern Catholic families that the Church is there to offer them meaningful help and sound guidance in addressing the challenges they currently face.
As to what he hopes to accomplish through this Synod, clearly Pope Francis wants to strengthen intact Catholic families in order to help them more fully live out their beautiful witness of God's plan for marriage and family life in an increasingly individualist and radically secularist environment. At the same time, Francis wants the Church to more effectively reach out to the hundreds of millions of Catholics who are in mortally sinful "irregular situations"--e.g., drug addicts, those who are cohabitating, married couples who use artificial contraception, the divorced and remarried, those in homosexual relationships, those who no longer practice their faith, and so forth—in order to invite them to experience the Lord's mercy by repenting of their sins and returning to full communion with the Catholic Church. In this regard, Pope Francis simply wants the Church to do what Christ would do, which is to seek out sinners and call them to repentance and conversion—to go in search of the lost sheep that have strayed from the fold. Francis correctly perceives that the modern Church has grown a bit lax in this area, with many of her shepherds preferring to stay comfortably inside the fold with the "good sheep" while ignoring and forgetting about those wayward sheep in the wilderness who are in danger of being lost forever. Thus Francis, an experienced and genuine pastor, wants Church leaders to step outside of their comfortable offices and their comfort zones, to reach out to the peripheries of their parishes and dioceses and invite the lost sheep to return home.
In this context, the Synod on the Family is meant to help rebuild a worldly and weak Church, first by strengthening good Catholic families that are “inside the fold,” and secondly by healing and repairing many of those wounded and damaged Catholic families that are “lost in the wilderness”—the latter to be accomplished primarily by inviting many individual grave sinners to repentance and conversion. Altering Church doctrines on marriage, family life, and sin will not be part of this equation; nor will the basic norms currently in force regarding the proper reception of Holy Communion see any significant change. So regardless of unfortunate misunderstandings and misperceptions that swirl around the Synod on the Family generated by media pundits, heretics, and schismatics, and regardless of serious problems that may arise with its implementation, it is the opinion of this author that the Synod itself—like the Second Vatican Council—is the fruit of a genuine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who “leads us into all truth” (cf. John 16:13), who protects the Church from teaching error, and who in every age is the real Protagonist of needed reform and renewal within the Mystical Body of Christ.
As a result of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis is keenly aware of two opposing viewpoints within the Church today: there are some who correctly understand and heartily support his Christ-like mission to have the Church reach out more effectively to sinners, and there are others—misled by the mainstream media and their own irrational fears of doctrinal changes—who reject this courageous initiative for seemingly laudable reasons, preferring to take shelter within the secure confines of the Church they have always known and which they are afraid to lose. Francis himself neatly summed up this dichotomy and the merciful mission of the Church in his homily to newly created Cardinals on February 15, 2015:
There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.... The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the ‘outskirts’ of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: ‘Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners’ (Lk 5:31-32).
A Divine Institution
So while the petition drive currently underway to Pope Francis may in one respect be considered a hopeful sign of certain lay Catholics' fidelity to Church doctrine, it is a wholly unnecessary, quite useless, and ultimately misguided endeavor. If the Church were exclusively a human institution, built on the sand of fallible human ideas and protected and defended by human effort alone, their grave concerns about her future would indeed be fully justified. The Church, however, although comprised of weak and sinful human members, is fundamentally a divine institution, built by Christ Himself on the Rock of Peter, and we have His word that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (cf. Matt. 16:18). The fundamental problem with these otherwise good Catholics who are pleading with Pope Francis not to change Church doctrine on marriage and family life is that they do not really fully believe that the Holy Spirit protects the Church from teaching error, nor do they really fully trust that God is in command of His own institution. Because of this reprehensible lack of faith and trust, at the root of which is the original sin of pride, these Catholic fundamentalists run the risk of refusing to obediently submit to the magisterial teaching authority that God Himself has established and guaranteed, and instead taking it upon themselves to decide what the Church should do and teach. They share this lack of faith and trust in common with schismatic traditionalists, and in fact are just one step away from joining their ranks.
These worried and fearful Catholics would do well to reread certain parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and rediscover the basic truth that the Church ultimately belongs not to us, but to the Lord. As Pope Benedict XVI candidly declared not so long ago in his final General Audience address of February 27, 2013, at a time when many Catholics were filled with grave concern for the Church’s future: “I have felt like Saint Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee:…there were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the barque of the Church is not mine but his. Nor does the Lord let it sink; it is He who guides it.” We should also recall the oft-repeated words of Saint John Paul II, the simple words of Christ Himself: “Do not be afraid!” This is not a time for illogical fears and useless anxiety, but rather a time for renewed faith and lively hope. Instead of wringing our hands anxiously about what may happen to our Holy Mother the Church in the near future, let us take this wonderful opportunity of the Synod on the Family to renew our faith and trust in God, who will continue to protect His Church and guide her safely through the storms of temporary difficulties to the glory of eternal life.
Copyright © 2015 Justin D. Soutar. All rights reserved.