No, that’s not a disease of the respiratory system. With Synod 2015 wrapping up, I’d better get my predictions posted so I can look smart later. (By the way, the context of this post is the Catholic faith and that the Church should follow it. Comments about the validity of Church teaching or the authority of the papacy will be deleted. I’m not opposed to doing apologetics in other posts sometime, but that’s not the point of this one, and if I let it go there, the purpose of this post will be lost. Please restrict comments to the topic.)
First, a look back to see if we can learn from history. In 1963, in the midst of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII created a commission to study the question of birth control. Over the next few years, this group grew to dozens of members, eventually including several bishops. Its role was entirely advisory, and it had no authority to change anything, but a majority of its members recommended that the pope allow some form of contraception for married couples. Gaudium et spes, one of the documents to come out of the Council, seemed to suggest that such a thing might be possible.
In the end, in 1968, Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae, reaffirming Catholic teaching that completely bans all use of artificial contraception. But the damage had already been done. Simply by considering the question for several years, the Vatican had given Catholics the impression that the teaching was likely to change. After all, Vatican II seemed to be changing everything else. The Mass was changing radically; Communion rails and high altars were being torn out and replaced with tables and carpeted mezzanines to accommodate a shift in theology about the Mass. Priests and nuns were trading in their cassocks and habits for sweaters and pantsuits. Most Protestant denominations had already reversed their positions on birth control, so it seemed like this change was inevitable.
What are the kids supposed to think? What will they think? If the parents were confident about the rule and their reasons for it, it wouldn’t require a long discussion. A discussion suggests it’s a close call, with valid arguments on both sides. Most of all, it makes the rule look arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t make the rule look like an absolute, something with clear-cut foundations. If the parents come back and say, “Nope, cookies are still off-limits, and we’re going to go back to the strictest punishments,” the kids are going to feel like the parents are just being stubborn.
The way Catholicism works adds another layer to this. There’s nothing wrong with a pope calling a Synod or even a Council to help decide some matter that isn’t already settled doctrine. That’s been done many times, and surely will happen again. That’s part of what the Church is for: to increase our understanding of Divine Revelation and preach it wider and better. So if there’s a belief that’s generally been held but never written down as established doctrine, or a teaching that’s being abused because the doctrine on it isn’t clear enough, then it’s proper for the Church to discuss it and better clarify and establish the doctrine (e.g., Trent clarifying indulgences, among many other things). But when the doctrine in question — such as the fact that divorce is not allowed and people who remarry are in mortal sin and thus cannot receive Holy Communion — goes back consistently to the Church Fathers and is founded on the words of Jesus Christ in Scripture, then “discussion” is not an option. It’s settled. Raising the topic for discussion treats the Deposit of Faith like the US Constitution, where every item is the law of the land only until we decide to amend it. That may be American and democratic, and it may seem fair to many people, but there’s one thing it’s not — it’s not Catholic.
Anyway, the cookie-grab analogy is what happened with Humanae Vitae. Merely considering the question signaled to Catholics — and especially to progressive bishops, priests, and theologians who were embarrassed by the Church’s behind-the-times position — that change was coming soon, so they started taking it for granted. When it didn’t come, they mostly acted as if it had, because if a pope needed five years and a commission of 58 members to decide on it, it no longer looked like Divine Revelation, but simply the current opinion of some old dudes. Fifty years later, polls show that over 90% of Catholics happily use artificial contraception according to their personal conscience, and many of the remainder use Natural Family Planning illicitly as contraception for convenience, even though official Church teaching still prohibits both.
Now, I don’t know whether that’s the result that John XXIII and Paul VI intended. Maybe they were just naive. But if it wasn’t obvious what would happen then, it is now in hindsight, and we should be able to apply that lesson in the future.
So apply it to Synod 2015. First of all, it’s important to understand that a Synod has no authority whatsoever. Like the commission appointed by John XXIII, its role is only advisory. It is completely under the authority of Francis, and can do nothing without his approval. He created the Synod, chose its members, and gave it its parameters. He can shut it down any time he likes. It can publish no results without his approval, and he can edit anything it releases before publication, as he did in the last Synod. If any changes are made to Church teaching on sexual sin and Communion, they will be made by Francis and Francis alone.
So why call the Synod? Why doesn’t he just change what he wants to change, as he did recently when he made annulments even easier to get? Well, you might think, “Maybe he really wants advice on these issues.” If so, I’d suggest you don’t know Francis very well. He’s not big on listening to opinions that vary from his own, and he’s shown that again in the petulant way he’s reacted to statements by some of the Synod’s members in support of traditional Catholic teaching. He’s been quite active in trying to steer them and smack down those who aren’t on board with a certain program.
So if he’s already decided what he wants to do, why call the Synod at all? Two reasons: laying the groundwork for major changes, and cover.
First, it lays the groundwork, just as John XXIII’s commission laid the groundwork for changes on contraception. In the end, Paul VI didn’t make those changes (though Humanae Vitae did introduce a subtle shift in the way the Church talks about marriage that weakened the teachings even as he reiterated them), but five years of considering them had much the same effect, as a practical matter — Catholics started using contraception and drastically cut back on procreation. If Paul VI had made some camel’s-nose-in-the-tent compromise on contraception in the name of “mercy,” those five years would have been instrumental in getting Catholics to swallow that change.
It’s also cover. That’s why people — people who should know better — keep talking about what the Synod is going to do, or what changes the Synod will make. Again, the Synod will make no changes. It has no authority to make any changes. But if people believe it can, then the Synod can be blamed for anything that goes too far. More importantly, it can let Francis look like the moderate: the Synod, led by the homosexual-loving German bishops, can release something radical, the “conservative” bishops can rail against it, and then Francis can scale it back 25% and make it his own and look like he’s defending Catholic teaching even while he overturns it.
That’s pretty much what I expect, though Francis is enough of a wild card that it’s hard to say for sure. He could follow the example of Paul VI and affirm Catholic teaching officially, throwing in some subtle changes in emphasis that will chip away at it over the years, and allow the fact of the discussion to signal to those living in sin that they have tacit approval to go ahead and receive Communion, and to heterodox priests and bishops that they won’t be punished for giving it to them. But I don’t know if he has the patience for that. He seems determined to change the Church drastically during his own papacy. I think he’d prefer to make significant changes while using the Synod as cover.
For that, though, he needs the Synod to release radical recommendations that he can be seen as scaling back, and he may have miscalculated and not packed it with enough radicals to make that happen. For instance, the Synod could say that divorced-and-remarried Catholics and active homosexuals should be allowed to receive Communion according to their own conscience, and then he could “moderate” that by adding a requirement that they get the approval of their confessor. That’s more or less what I expect — if the Synod cooperates and plays its role.
If the Synod doesn’t cooperate, he’s in a tight spot. He could make his desired changes by fiat, but that has the real possibility of causing a schism, which isn’t what he wants. So in that case, maybe we’ll get nothing now, but start preparing for Synod 2016: Harder And Faster With More Gay Germans.