Kings and Popes Playing with Fire

The mere expectation of a change to Church teaching is damaging because it creates, or reinforces, the idea that doctrine is a political plaything

As a monarchist who grew up in Canada, I went through a phase of obsessively reading the history of the Tudors, the Hanovers, the Stuarts, and those who, since World War I, we have called the Windsors, including the present queen, Elizabeth II. The abdication crisis of 1937 shone an unwelcome light into the lives of the Windsors, and greatly damaged the monarchy. When George VI was crowned in place of his brother, the family policy for the next three decades was to keep out the light of publicity in order, it was said, to “preserve the magic” of the monarchy and recover some of its luster squandered by that pathetic loser Edward VIII.

But then in the 1960s—when else?—that changed, with the first officially authorized television show released in 1969 showing the royal family at work and play, at home dining, or out riding horses. The queen and her family had permitted the glare of television lights into their quotidian lives, but this quickly proved to be a double-edged sword—beneficial in some cases but not others (for instance, the ghastly first marriage of Prince Charles lived out in competing televised interviews with his then-wife, Princess Diana).

Is there not an analogy here for the pope and the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church’s “media strategy” began to change around the same time as the Windsors. As with the royal family, in the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council began to allow some new light and fresh air into the Catholic family we call the Church. Sometimes this has been beneficial, but sometimes not.

The pope did, however, keep some things off limits, and for very good reason. Like King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, he knew there had to be limits to throwing open doors and windows. Thus John XXIII removed from the council’s agenda one especially difficult topic, birth control, and gave that to a secret commission.

But then came Pope Paul VI (whom some may see as the hapless “Hamlet” that Prince Charles has been accused of being by certain critics), who opened the commission, appointed new people, and let the whole debate carry on for years in public in a manner that, in hindsight, can only be seen as disastrous. It’s not so much that he let in too much light or destroyed any “magic” but that he created expectations he simply could not fulfill.

The whole train wrecked painfully and publicly in July 1968 when Paul VI published Humanae Vitae and rightly—even heroically—held the line on contraception. But the expectations for much of the preceding decade had been that a radical change was coming, and when it didn’t, the levels of disappointment, dissension, and defection from the Church skyrocketed. In many ways the Church has not yet recovered. Sadly, Paul VI apparently did not recover either. The Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy has argued that the reaction to Humanae Vitae was so shattering for Paul VI—who will be beatified on October 19th by Pope Francis at the closing of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops—that he never wrote another encyclical in the remaining ten years of his life.

This, I submit, is precisely the danger we now find ourselves in with Pope Francis and the public infighting over Catholic marriage discipline. The expectations have been whipped up, and regardless of the outcome, this is probably not going to end well for the Church. If a change comes, there will be mass confusion and outcry. And if a change is refused, the outcome will still be confusion and outrage.

When the unmarried Edward VIII succeeded his father King George V in January 1936, the former was wildly acclaimed as his own man who did things differently and who deliberately flouted expectation (he sought to live at the much smaller and rather déshabillé Fort Belvedere rather than the much larger and more lavish Buckingham Palace). His father was portrayed as a musty old curmudgeon who scorned jazz, cocktails, and anything new, whereas the playboy Edward was celebrated in all the right circles and held all the progressive social views of his time, and was therefore popular with the press. Edward rode a mounting tide of expectations that he could get away with chucking every legal and religious convention in order to marry an “unscrupulous foreign adventuress” (to borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh).

But in the end he could not persuade his own government, nor they the dominion governments, to approve his marrying a twice-divorced American. He had created expectations he could not fulfill, and as a result abdicated in order to marry “the woman I love.” The monarchy spent decades trying to recover from the body blow it had thus suffered.

This, I fear, could be the fate awaiting the Catholic Church because of these ongoing public expectations of decisions coming out of the upcoming synods on marriage and divorce. The debates between cardinals and others have all created a mounting tide of public opinion that a change is coming. Regardless of whether there is any change of any sort, the mere expectation of a change is damaging enough because it creates, or reinforces, the idea that doctrine is a political plaything to be taught or set aside according to papal (or perhaps occasionally episcopal-synodal) fancy, which can be influenced by fanning the flames of popular sentiment one way or another. This is no way to run a Church.

For perhaps the first and last time in my life, I will channel W. G. Ward here and say I’d far rather have this debate taken off stage and, in a year or two, open my Times to read details of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation’s fait accompli. The result may still be objectionable, but we will have been spared the unnecessarily gruesome public process of getting to it. For that process cannot but harm the Church in the intervening months, and as a faithful son of the Church, I have no wish to see my mother gratuitously tortured without even a shining crown of martyrdom at the end as reward. Some of her leaders are playing with fire just now, and we all risk being burnt in the coming conflagration. Exeunt omnes. 


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 82 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).