Between the Synods: Testing the Catholicity of our Faith

What will be the outcome of the Synod? There are signs both positive and disquieting.

When asked about the Synod’s hot-button issues in a TV interview conducted on March 6 last and broadcast on the Mexican Televista on the 12th of March, Pope Francis responded with the statement: “I believe that there are disproportionate expectations” (desmesuradas). He went on to intimate that Communion for remarried divorcees was not on the cards. In other public statements, he highlighted “the ideological colonization of the family” as a very serious problem and, in the same interview, went on to mention “gender” theory, “which is something that is pulverizing the family.” The Vaticanista, Sandro Magister, compiled an anthology of some 21 texts taken from statements made by the Pope since the Extraordinary Synod last October. They cover such issues as contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexual marriage, “gender” ideology, euthanasia, and were mostly ignored by the media. His 21 statements over a five-month period, according to Magister, do not differ one inch from the stance taken by his predecessors, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI (though they perhaps lack their precision). “And yet,” Magister comments, “in dominant opinion, both secular and Catholic, this pope passes as an innovator who changes paradigms and breaks with the dogmas of the past, also and above all on questions of life and death that were the cross of his predecessors.” 

This dominant opinion, it seems to me, has created an ethos within the Church that, on the one hand, gives encouragement to the 1968-type so-called “liberals,” and, on the other hand, causes dismay among Catholics trying to remain faithful to the Magisterium. Thus we have an Italian archbishop in an interview on the reform of the Church “according to the guidelines of Pope Francis,” again according to Magister, apparently condoning early abortion. And on the other side of the spectrum, as it were, we have those asking: is the Pope a Catholic? An article in Crisis Magazine by a young American theologian, Jacob W. Wood, is entitled: “Can a Pope Be a Heretic?” It tried to address what Father James V. Schall, SJ called the elephant in the room, namely the fear that the Pope might endorse Cardinal Kasper’s proposal. Many claim that his proposal is, if not actually heretical, then at least in contradiction with Church discipline and so implicitly heretical. Wood concludes: “Sure, he [Pope Francis] has expressed support for the way in which Cardinal Kasper wrote on marriage and the family, but he has never publicly and definitively endorsed what Cardinal Kasper said.” In fact, as I mentioned earlier, less than two weeks ago Pope Francis seemed to have ruled out that possibility.

Is it possible that Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, has seen the writing on the wall? At a recent press conference after a meeting of the bishops, the cardinal archbishop of Munich commented with regard to Communion for the divorced and remarried: “We are not a subsidiary of Rome. Every episcopal conference is responsible for pastoral care within its own sphere. We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we should act here in marriage and the family.” This, of course, raises more fundamental questions, such as the catholicity of the Church, to which I will return.

On December 9, 2014, the lineamenta (guidelines) for the coming Synod were published. It includes the Final Report, plus “46 questions covering much of the same ground as last time,” to quote John L. Allen, Jr. He adds: “…even if the wording is designed to make clear that the basics of Catholic doctrine aren’t in doubt. For instance, the term ‘indissolubility’ appears in the document four times, underlining the traditional teaching that marriage is permanent and hence divorce is taboo. There are also multiple references to ‘greatness and beauty’ of the ‘model of family formed by a man and a woman…and open to procreation.’ There are clear references to the Church’s ban on birth control, to condemning the ‘plague of abortion,’ and to promoting ‘an efficient culture of life.’”

But, of course, the basics of Catholic doctrine were never in doubt. What was, and is, in doubt in the minds of some is the praxis (canonical, sacramental) which has developed on the basis of this doctrine. What is disputed is whether or not a change in such praxis, such as that proposed by Cardinal Kasper for a limited number of remarried divorcees, would in fact be in contradiction with the traditional doctrine,[1] and would in turn have the knock-on effect of undermining the Church’s other teaching on sexual morality, including same-sex acts. At a roundtable discussion in Rome on November 11, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, in agreement with Cardinal Kasper—who was also present—put it this way: “We never wished to change doctrine, only to change the application of the doctrine to particular cases. The doctrine cannot change.”

But Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, responding within a month to Kasper’s address to the February 2014 consistory, had already made the following objection: “Those who advance this hypothesis do not have an answer to a very simple question: what about the first marriage, ratified and consummated? The proposed solution leads one to think that the first marriage remains intact, but that there is also a second form of cohabitation that the Church legitimizes. Therefore there is an extramarital exercise of human sexuality that the Church considers legitimate. But with this comes a denial of the cornerstone of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. At this point one could ask oneself: so why not approve cohabitation at will? So why not relationships between homosexuals? This is not only a question of practice, it also touches upon doctrine. Unavoidably. One may say that it doesn’t, but it does. Not only that. It introduces a custom that in the long run determines this idea in the people, and not only among Christians: there is no such thing as an absolutely indissoluble marriage. And this is certainly against the Lord’s will.”

The whole process of the Synod has produced some very fine theology. Indeed, it has given a new impetus to theology, opening up so many areas, such as marriage, the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, canon law, the history of Church praxis, as well as more fundamental issues such as the relationship between doctrine and pastoral praxis and the whole question of authority in the Church, including the significance of Church tradition and the notion of the development of doctrine. The comment by Cardinal Marx that the German Church would, if necessary, go it alone with their proposed pastoral praxis touches on some of the most basic elements of ecclesiology. His views seem to echo the remark by Cardinal Kasper in a casual interview with Edward Pentin on October 14 last, when he said that the African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do,” a comment that, taken out of context, caused a huge outcry among the Africans.[2] Behind both comments is the ecclesiological question about the nature of collegiality and the relationship of the local Churches (dioceses) to the universal Church.[3] The latter was the object of one of the three public theological disputes that took place between Kasper and Ratzinger. In brief, Ratzinger claims that the universal dimension of the Church, intrinsic to which is union with the Successor of St. Peter, is ontologically and temporally prior to the local Churches (namely the dioceses), while Kasper claims that the local or particular Church is fully Church. It should be noted in passing, that in common parlance, even among theologians, the local or particular Church is now often understood as the Church of a particular nation or cultural entity, not simply a diocese (its theological meaning), thanks in part to the growth in importance of the episcopal conferences. This dangerous dynamic tends towards the notion of a “national Church,” which, to put it simply, is not Catholic. In forceful interventions in the media recently, three German-speaking cardinals, Paul Cordes (ex-president of Cor Unum), Gerhard Müller (prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith), and Kurt Koch (president of the Council for Christian Unity), unequivocally rejected the thesis of Cardinal Marx. It is interesting to note that, in the new questionnaire addressed to the bishops, Q.36 asks: “How can the identification of shared pastoral guidelines be fostered at the level of the particular Church? In this regard, how can a dialogue be developed among the various particular Churches cum Petro and sub Petro?” This will be hotly debated at the Ordinary Synod next October.

What will be the outcome of the Synod? Last November, the Pope appointed Wilfred Fox Cardinal Napier—one of the fiercest critics of the Interim Report—to the organizing committee for the forthcoming Ordinary Synod. That is a positive sign. However, the general thrust of the new questionnaire attached to the Final Report in the lineamenta causes this writer some disquiet. In the introduction to the questionnaire aimed at helping the bishops throughout the world to prepare for the Synod, the Bishops are given rather explicit instruction as to the desired methodology they should adopt in replying the questions:

The proposed questions which follow [the Final Report] and the reference numbers to the paragraphs in the [Final Report] are intended to assist the bishops’ conferences in their reflection and to avoid, in their responses, a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine, which would not respect the conclusions of the Extraordinary Synodal Assembly and would lead their reflection far from the path already indicated.

The crucial element here is the instruction “to avoid, in their responses, a formulation of pastoral care based simply on an application of doctrine,” which would mean that they had deviated from “the path already indicated” by the “Extraordinary Synod.” How this is to be interpreted is a matter for debate. Prima facie, it looks like an attempt to manipulate the debate in a direction that many fear, namely a denial of the primacy of logos over ethos, of truth over praxis, which was the cornerstone of Benedict XVI’s Magisterium.[4] Hopefully this is unfounded. Perhaps all that is meant by this instruction is what the lineamenta call very simply “the pastoral approach initiated at the Extraordinary Synod which is grounded in Vatican II and the Magisterium of Pope Francis.” This, it seems to me, amounts to an appeal to seek concrete pastoral ways to overcome various threats to marriage and the family, to reach out to the lost sheep, and to lead them to experience divine mercy and forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. One such pastoral approach would be the production of guidelines on preparation for the sacrament of marriage more in harmony with the Church’s teaching than seems to be the case today.

Considering the widespread practice of abortive IVF and related so-called “assisted reproductive techniques,” it is astonishing that there is only one, rather oblique reference to this subject in the latest Questionnaire. And even that is but a sequel to a rather vague reference promoting “the beauty of becoming a mother or father” (single or married is not mentioned) which contains an even vaguer reference to Humanae Vitae.[5] Hopefully, this particular question will prompt one or other member of the coming Synod to explore the pastoral implications of this important subject, which are vast.[6]

My fear is that the exclusion of any explicit reference to “assisted reproduction techniques” (IVF, etc.) in the questionnaire is a symptom of a much more radical and widespread trahison des clercs, namely popular dissent from Church teaching on sexual morality and bioethics, as well as the consequent widespread breakdown of marriage, the family, and sexual morality. Quite simply, the logic of separating the procreative significance of the conjugal act from its unitive significance leads inexorably to a trivialization of the act of intercourse, cohabitation, the approval of same-sex relations, and, finally, it justifies attempts to make children in the laboratory—the most radical separation of procreation from the conjugal act.

Considering all this, it is rather disturbing that the real elephant in the room has been ignored, despite the rather formal acknowledgement of Humanae Vitae in the lineamenta. I refer to the widespread dissent from the teaching of Blessed Paul VI, the philosophical and theological implications of which St John Paul II in particular developed with great insight and profundity. That teaching has not only been ignored by bishops, priests, and theologians but an alternative moral theology—proportionalism—has been embraced by them. That alternative moral theology is based on the denial that any act could be intrinsically immoral (objectively sinful); it is still dominant in seminaries and theology faculties. It is a form of moral relativism, which in turn has, inter alia, helped to undermine the traditional understanding of marriage, the family, and sexual behavior in society.[7]

That alternative moral theology is also, I suggest, at the root of the support of those European and American bishops who support Cardinal Kaspar’s proposal. It may also have influenced some bishops at the “Extraordinary Synod” to view same-sex relations in a relatively positive light. In other words, the widespread rejection of the papal teaching of Blessed Pope Paul VI and St. John Paul II has in fact produced not a formal but a quasi-material schism in the Church, usually expressed in the non-theological terms of “conservative v. liberal/progressive” or simply “right v. left,” terms that are political, not ecclesiastical, in nature. The reason why the proposal to admit remarried divorcees to the sacraments could find such a positive echo in society at large—and within certain influential currents of thought within the Church—is, it seems to me, because the conjugal act today is regarded as of little moral significance.

The heated exchange of views at the “Extraordinary Synod” were, it seem to this observer, due to the rare frankness that erupted when the Pope in his opening address encouraged the Synod to debate the issues openly, with frankness, and without fear. The debate allowed the deep fissures in the Church to surface. At the time, I saw this as a kind of lancing of the boil on the body-politic of the Church. It was a huge risk taken by Pope Francis, who wisely remained silent throughout the open discussion in the first week. His final address to the Synod was all the more powerful, though ignored by the makers of public opinion. His ultimate aim, it would seem, is to bring healing and unity to the Church. That, after all, is the main purpose of his office as Successor to St Peter: ut unum sint. It took enormous courage to take such a risk.

In the meantime, those who have remained true to the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexual ethics are being tested. The warnings of Pope Francis about the temptation to rigorism and self-righteousness among those who accept that teaching are apt. The Church’s teaching is an expression of the truth, which is personal by nature. Her moral teaching is summed up in the dual commandant of love. The truth can easily be reduced to an ideology, which narrows both mind and heart. Truth makes us free and frank and ready to suffer on its account, even when misunderstood by those whose office is to defend that truth. That is part of what it means to be tested by fire. To remain calm and steadfast, without a trace of self-righteousness, ever ready to search for the truth, is itself a work of grace. The Papal Magisterium, as distinct from a Pope’s private opinion, is the guarantee we need so as not to delude ourselves, when we seem to be a dwindling minority in a world where the contrary is unthinkingly assumed to be true.

Scripture warns us, however, not judge the guilt of others (Matt 7:1; Lk 6:37; Jn 7:24; James 4:12b). The Pope’s comment “Who am I to judge?” could be seen to express traditional Catholic moral theology about subjective guilt (as distinct from objective wrong-doing). And it is the basic attitude required of all pastors who nonetheless recognize the harm done to oneself and others by sin (objective wrong-doing), and, who, like the Good Shepherd, try to reach out to rescue the lost sheep rather than let them wander in the moral wilderness of contemporary society. That is the great pastoral and evangelical challenge facing the Synod and the Church at large.

Finally, it has to be said that, reading the comments of those who support Kasper’s proposal and the other hoped-for (but unrealistic) changes in the Church’s moral teaching and discipline, one has a strange sense of déjÀ vu. His supporters seem to be blissfully unaware either of the authoritative teaching of the recent popes (including that of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith[8]) or the rich theology inspired by it. One can only hope that the bishops from the young Churches in Africa and Asia (whose faithful are in more in touch with man’s natural instinct for goodness than we are in Europe) will finally put an end to the theological confusion in the Churches in Europe and the Americas caused by a rationalistic moral theology. In the meantime, we could do well to heed John Henry Newman’s counsel of patience (in the context of exaggerations in his day concerning the reception of Vatican I). “The important thing, Newman urged in his private correspondence, was patience: ‘Remedies spring up naturally in the Church, as in nature, if we wait for them.’”[9]

The Synod of Bishops is but a consultative body. The Pope may articulate his own judgment in an apostolic exhortation based on the resolutions or the final report of the next Synod, should he decide to do so. [10] Should he do so, like Evangelii Gaudium, it can be expected to reaffirm Church doctrine and offer practical guidelines as to how to approach the many complex pastoral situations today affecting the family. Otherwise, in all probability, it will be characterized by a strong exhortatory tone, in the best tradition of the Jesuit discernment of spirits. The task of the whole Church after the Synod of Bishops in October will be to discover anew the Church’s rich teaching on marriage, the family, sexual ethics, and bioethics. It is a treasure awaiting to be discovered. It is profoundly counter-cultural. But is it also the only realistic and pastoral alternative to the moral relativism that is the greatest threat today to humanity, an alternative that alone leads to happiness here and in the hereafter: holiness, union with God.

The second of the two cases discussed by Cardinal Kasper in his address to the February consistory differs significantly from the first, which was main subject of debate. It arises from the situation where, due to lack of faith on the part of one or other spouse or lack of consent to a proper understanding of marriage as indissoluble, such marriages might possibly be invalid. Judgment of this, Kasper rightly insists, cannot be left to the parties involved. Instead he asks if perhaps the usual “juridical path,” as he puts it, might be supplemented by “other, more pastoral and spiritual procedures,” details of which he does not provide. “Alternatively,” he adds, “one might imagine that the bishop might entrust this task to a priest with spiritual and pastoral experience as a penitentiary or episcopal vicar.”[11] It is of note that recourse to the “internal forum” was not entirely ruled out by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1998, since the canonical procedures are not of divine law but Church law (and so subject to change if necessary). Here Kasper and Ratzinger would seem to be in agreement. However Ratzinger also stressed at the time that “the conditions for asserting such an exception must be precisely clarified in order to exclude arbitrariness and to defend the public character of marriage which is withdrawn from subjective judgement.” Kasper is silent on this.

Kasper devotes a helpful Excursus to the question of “implicit faith,” the minimum, as he sees it, needed to receive a sacrament. But he fails to explore the possible implications of the teaching of the Church to the effect that the sacrament of matrimony is due to the baptized character of the spouses, not their subjective faith. (This failure, it seems to me, is the result of his own inadequate sacramental theology.) Again it is worth noting that in 1998 Cardinal Ratzinger did not rule out the possibility of a marriage being invalid due to lack of faith: “It is a matter to be clarified,” he wrote, “whether every marriage between two baptized are truly ipso facto a sacramental marriage.”[12] However he pointed out that one legal question needs to be addressed beforehand: what degree of clarity about the lack of faith is needed so that a sacrament does not come into being?  And therein lies the rub.


Note: This text is an expanded version of the talk given at Thornycroft Hall, Macclesfield, Cheshire, England.

[1] See the important article by Tracey Rowland and Conor Sweeney, “The Elephants at the Synod: Logos, Ethos and Sacramentality,” in the forthcoming issue of Anthropotes, where they argue persuasively that that praxis not only reflects but also can transform doctrine.

[2] The full text of the interview is given in Dr Robert Moynihan, Inside the Vatican Letter # 33, November 14, 2014. This is the relevant text: Question [from French journalist]: What has changed for you, regarding the methodology of this synod? Reply +Kasper: I think in the end there must be a general line in the Church, general criteria, but then the questions of Africa we cannot solve. There must be space also for the local bishops’ conferences to solve their problems but I’d say with Africa it’s impossible [for us to solve]. But they should not tell us too much what we have to do.

[3] According to Ian Ker, “He [Newman] would certainly have been dismayed by the way in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II certain episcopal conferences seemed to be moving in the direction of creating quasi-national churches in communion with but impaired union with the papacy.”

[4] For a critique of this, see Tracey and Sweeney, op. cit, above.

[5] Q 41: What are the most significant steps that have been taken to announce and effectively promote the beauty and dignity of becoming a mother or father, in light, for example, of Humanae Vitae of Blessed Pope Paul VI? How can dialogue be promoted with the sciences and biomedical technologies in a way that respects the human ecology [sic] of reproduction?

[6] Hopefully they will also expressly recognize and promote the alternative to IVF based on the teaching of Humanae Vitae: NaProTechology or the Creighton Model. Apart from perfecting NFP methods to achieve responsible parenthood for the fertile with a success rate equal to the pill, this technique assists infertile or sub-fertile couples to achieve pregnancy, with success rates that exceed those claimed for IVF.

[7] For a discussion of all these issues, see D. Vincent Twomey, SVD, Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae: Fundamental Issues in Moral Theory and Sexual Ethics (Dublin 2010).

[8] Of particular interest is Documenti e Studi, vol. 17 issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998. A German translation was published by Rudolf Voderholzer (ed.) Zur Seelsorge wiederverheirateter Geschiedener, Dokumente, Kommenare und Studien der Glaubenskongregation, Mit einer Einleitung von Joseph Ratzinger/Benedikt XVI. (Würzburg, 2014). Cardinal Ratzinger’s introduction to this volume is of particular interest, since it demonstrates, among other things, how studies commissioned by the CDF on the praxis of the early Church convinced Ratzinger to correct his own earlier position as a young theologian, expressed in an article he wrote in 1969. Cardinal Kasper, in his address to the Consistory (February 2014), quoted from a version of the same article published in 1972  to support of Kasper’s own proposition, even though Kasper must have known of the change in Ratzinger’s position (which was public since 1998 at the latest). It is no wonder that Pope Francis praised Kasper’s address, when its central proposal seemed to be supported by his esteemed predecessor! When Ratzinger’s article to which Kasper refers was published  in Volume  4 of Ratzinger’s Collected Works (Gesammelte Schriften, Regensburg, 2014, 249-97), it caused a storm in the media, since the Pope Emeritus had removed the text to which Kasper appealed and replaced it with a neutral text. Pope Emeritus Benedict was accordingly accused of breaking his vow of silence on his abdication and interfering directly in the public debate on the Synod. In fact, the editorial change was made the previous year, when the volume was being prepared for publication.

[9] Ian Ker, Newman on Vatican II, 74.

[10] “Through the Holy Father’s acceptance of the advice or the decisions of a given Assembly, the episcopate exercises a collegial activity which approaches but does not equal that manifested at an Ecumenical Council. This is a direct result of various factors: the ensured representation of the whole episcopate, the convocation by the Holy Father and ‘the unity of the episcopate, which, in order to be one, requires that there be a Head of the College’ (John Paul II, Pastores Gregis, 56), who is first in the episcopal order.” General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops.

[11] Kasper, The Gospel of the Family

[12] Vorderholzer (ed.), op.cit., p.30.

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About Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD 13 Articles
Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. holds a Ph.D. in Theology and is Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland. A former doctoral student under Joseph Ratzinger, Twomey is the author of several books, including The End of Irish Catholicism?, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait), and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae. His most recent book is The Dynamics of Liturgy—Joseph Ratzinger's Theology of Liturgy: An Interpretation (Ignatius Press, 2022). In 2011, Benedict XVI awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal to Fr. Twomey for outstanding services rendered to the Church and to the Holy Father.