It comes as no surprise that the buzzwords – pastoral, mercy, listening, discernment, accompaniment and integration which swirled around the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in 2014, the Ordinary Synod on the Family in 2015 and the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (2015-2016) – are enchanting certain Synod Fathers and participants of the 2018 Ordinary Synod on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment. These are what Italian scholar Guido Vignelli, author of the recently translated work A Pastoral Revolution: Six Talismanic Words in the Ecclesial Debate on the Family calls “talismanic words”. Vignelli, a scholar of ethics, political philosophy and communication science who has written a major study of Saint Francis of Assisi, does an excellent job in unpacking their semantic and theological significance, so that we can comprehend better the modernist tendencies of some members of the Church leaning toward moral deformation in our contemporary era.
In this article, I would like to present not so much a review of Vignelli’s opusculum but a simple and straightforward summary of its principal chapters.
Chapter One: “Pastoral: The New Ecclesial Strategy”
According to Vignelli, “instead of adapting life to truth, truth is adapted to life, and therefore pastoral policy is no longer a way but a goal, not a means but an end,” which leads the faithful away from a God-centered Christianity toward secular humanism. The primacy of pastoral policy over doctrine subordinates orthodoxy to orthopraxis with the intent of replacing doctrine with a theology based on an existential ecclesiology, meaning that the Church’s traditional teachings (especially on sexuality, marriage and the family) are considered secondary to the concrete reality that the majority of Catholics are leading lives not in harmony with those teachings. What is the end result? “Dogma, morals, and apostolate are gradually being replaced by good sentiments, pastoral projects, and ecclesial animations [….] Accordingly, the Magisterium of the Church risks ending up relativized through subjection to the requirements of pastoral practice.”
Vignelli makes two significant points about the relationship between doctrine and practice. The first: Doctrinal truth should be to pastoral practice what the soul is to the body, that is, the soul is the proper form of the body and animates it. The second: “There is no such thing as doctrinally neutral practice: all praxis presupposes a theological or philosophical theory, a vision of man, society, and history.” There is a serious danger in the “new pastoral policy” of giving primacy to the conscience over Divine Law, whether or not a person’s conscience is “rightly formed and just.” Vignelli precises: “It suffices that it [i.e., an individual’s conscience] be authentic, in other words, sincere and spontaneous and not influenced by anything outside itself, not even the demands of truth, goodness, and justice.” In this way, an authentic Christian concept of conscience is corrupted by an appeal to situation ethics and false forms of casuistry, so that for every rule or law, an exception is found either to mitigate, or worse, eviscerate that rule or law’s moral and ethical import.
Citing Sacred Scripture, Pius XII’s “Speech to the Cardinals and Bishops in Rome for the Proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” John Paul II’s Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, and his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Vignelli makes the case for why there can be no inherent contradiction between the moral law and conscience, just as there can be no contradiction between personal freedom and truth.
Vignelli reiterates the condemnation of “latitudinarianism” in the writings of Blessed Pius IX (“Syllabus of Errors”), Venerable Pius XII’s “Speech to the Pontifical Mission Societies” and St. Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi” as an errant form of inculturation. Our author concludes this section on “Pastoral Inculturation” by citing St. Paul VI’s “Closing Allocution for the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 26, 1974):
It is neither safe nor free from danger to speak of theologies that should be as numerous and different as are continents and human cultures. In fact, the content of the faith is either Catholic, or it is nothing.
The final section of Chapter One is dedicated to the theme of “Pastoral Conversion of the Church,” which evolves according to three principal stages. The first stage relates to how the Church ought to “stop pursuing her own good and interests (even spiritual), to fulfill the needs of the modern world.” The second stage entails “demanding that the Church give up being a citadel or fortress closed to the world and earnestly undertake to level the ramparts and leave the ghetto to become a nomad’s tent wandering in the desert of history.” The third stage is the most radical because it “demands that the Church also waive values hitherto considered non-negotiable, including truths and laws revealed by God in Holy Scripture. In short, the idea is to ensure that dogma, morals, law, and liturgy are adapted to the needs of modern man.”
Chapter Two: “Mercy: The Soul of the New Pastoral Policy”
Vignelli poses the following questions as a quasi-examination of conscience concerning the biblical concept of mercy that is intrinsically tied to fidelity to God’s commandments and covenant. Vignelli writes:
Therefore, how could mercy be shown for those who not only do not condemn fornication as a fault but justify it as a need? And how can one not realize that a mercy that justifies adultery or divorced-remarried cohabitation entails denying the true mercy due to the innocent victims of these irregular family situations? One is merciful when he undertakes to strengthen and defend family ties and duties by making Christian countries understand their importance, rather than by loosing or dispensing them from their duties.
He then asks the question: “What is meant by mercy today?” His reply reveals a two-fold snare of the “new pastoral policy.” First, there is no more rebuking of a sinner for his sins. Rather, he is always preemptively pardoned “without the necessary conditions for absolution: confession of sins, sincere repentance, resolve to sin no more, and atoning penance.” Second, “the new pastoral policy goes further and ends up becoming merciful not only with the sinner but also with sin, which is more excused than forgiving.” Making the latter point, Vignelli cites St. Augustine of Hippo as condemning those Christians who “hold out false hopes of impunity to their own depraved lines by means of this quasi-compassion of God to the whole race.”
In repudiating certain “maxims of false mercy” that reduce mercy to a merely sentimental compassion, our author cites St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (I, q.21, a. 3-4 passim), in which the “Angelic Doctor” writes: “It belongs to mercy to expel defects,” and then Pope Francis’ “Homily During Mass with the New Cardinals” (February 15, 2015), in which he exhorted the new purporati thus: “The Church’s way […] 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.” In this same section, Vignelli notes St. Augustine’s teaching on “the severe mercy with which, God, rather than abandoning the sinner to his slumber, shakes him and makes him feel the harsh consequences of his fault, to push him to repentance and conversion.” Finally, he quotes from St. John Paul II’s Encyclical Dives in Misericordia (nn. 6 & 13): “[…] Authentic knowledge of the God of mercy, the God of tender love, is a constant and inexhaustible source of conversion, not only as a momentary interior act but also as a permanent attitude, as a state of mind.”
What are some of these “maxims of false mercy”? That “mercy is due to man by nature” and is to be dispensed to forgive and save “everyone, always, and in every case”; that mercy is conceived as “an expression of charity placed in competition to or, alternately, alongside truth,” rather than as “a balance between rigor and indulgence”; that mercy means changing the intrinsic value of moral acts which would mean going against the plain teaching of the prophet Isaiah (5:20): “Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”; that mercy excludes not only judgment but condemnation which is clearly contradicted by the teachings of Sts. Augustine and Thomas as well as in magisterial documents like John Paul’s Dives in Misericordia and Veritatis Splendor.
To drive home this latter point, Vignelli cites Joseph Ratzinger’s To Look to Christ, in which he emphatically states:
A Jesus who agrees with everything and everyone, a Jesus without his holy wrath, without the harshness of truth and true love is not the real Jesus as the Scripture shows but a miserable caricature. A conception of ‘gospel’ in which the seriousness of God’s wrath is absent has nothing to do with the biblical Gospel.
Here are some final considerations of Chapter Two. A false mercy lowers the standards of justice or does away with them entirely because it adheres to a minimalistic and defeatist mentality that views people as too debilitated to rise above their human weaknesses with the help of God’s grace. This view sins on the side of presumption because it assumes that God will be merciful according to our standards, rather than His, which always accord with His divine justice. Mercy reduced to mere spiritual accompaniment misses the mark because it fails to warn sinners about the severity of their sinful condition and the ways they can effectively avoid temptation and the near occasions of sin.
Chapter Three: “Listening: A Premise of the New Pastoral Policy”
Traditionally understood, “listening” corresponds to obeying God’s Word and Will, not merely being in a non-threatening or non-conflictual relationship with someone, so that you go out of your way not to offend with “preconceived” notions, ideas and convictions. However, the “new pastoral policy” in vogue under Pope Francis identifies listening as having the pastors of the Church (bishops and priests) endlessly bend over backwards and stoop down to have “the smell of the sheep,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Vignelli comments: “From the religious standpoint, listening to the faithful only makes sense when it allows us to understand what aspects can lead them to conversion or hinder it, thus facilitating conversion through the removal of obstacles.” The shepherd is supposed to safeguard his flock, watching over it with attentive care, not “hang out” with the flock because he likes how they look and smell. The Lord Jesus, before He ascended into Heaven, commissioned the disciples to teach and baptize all nations, not to engage in open-ended dialogue with them about how they feel about this or that reality. This form of listening is foreign to the Gospels. When Our Lord listened, He did so for a reason: He always had in mind the edification and salvation of souls. By today’s standards,Jesus would be found guilty of proselytism, instead of being admired and emulated for His evangelistic skills.
We notice a trend in recent Synods, but especially I would say in the Synod on Young People, in which pastors are restricted to asking questions, rather than answering them. “Mater, yes, magistra, no!” was the response of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., when commenting on Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical, Mater et Magistra. It seems as though this form of dissent is being institutionalized as pastors are encouraged to establish the “Primacy of Listening Over Teaching.” Since when are pastors supposed to be guided by the sheep, rather than the other way around? Indeed, is not Francis’ image of an “inverted pyramid” one that creates the “Alice in Wonderland” feel of the contemporary Church and Magisterium, whereby the “Ecclesia Discens (“Listening or Learning Church”) is placed over and above the “Ecclesia Docens” (“Teaching Church”)? How does one reconcile this image with the hierarchical structure of the Church established by Christ Himself and validated by the Apostolic Church already in the Acts of the Apostles?
In the lead-up to the Synod on Young People, as was the case with the previous two Synods on the Family, the Church gathered sociological data which formed the nucleus of the first part of the “Instrumentum Laboris.” This has never been the traditional approach of the Church. Rather, the Church begins with the firm anchor of God’s Word in the light of which all contemporary situations are then properly situated and evaluated. Moreover, it has become clear that the sociological data at times is distorted because questions are posed so as to elicit biased answers. Vignelli observes:
However, as is well known, sociological surveys can raise serious reservations as to their methods. For example, questions can be formulated in a tendentious way so as to suggest a particular answer. Consequently, responses may distort reality by favoring some issues over others, for example, the marginal over the central, the emotional over the doctrinal, and the pathological over the normal.
Our Lord once took two opinion polls, both recounted by St. Matthew. First, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” All the replies they gave were fascinating but wrong – so much for people’s opinions. Then the Lord turned the question around and asked them: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus was not so much interested in their opinion as in Peter’s divinely inspired and not mere human response confirming that He was indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Consequently, the Lord Jesus saw fit to establish His indefectible and infallible Church on the Rock of Peter – and not on the hearsay of the people engaged in errant speculation. The Church was not established to take opinion polls or to engage in sociological studies but to teach the fullness of the truth in Christ’s Name and by His own divine authority. No other type of Church has any credibility, let alone the fascination to draw people into the Spirit’s tether, which is other-worldly and not earth-bound. The primary purpose of the Church is to be the universal sacrament of salvation, not a listening post or polling station. Granted, it is important to know “where people are,” but in order to lead them to where they should be.
Chapter Four: “Method to Diagnose Pastoral Situation”
An aspect of Pope Francis’ pontificate, which many faithful Catholics find disconcerting, is the “Alice in Wonderland” feel he has created, according to which long-held beliefs and venerable practices suddenly are discarded as out of step with the times, while “new theology postulates the primacy of pastoral policy over doctrine, of conscience over the Law, of listening over teaching.”
By any classical definition, “discernment” automatically involves judgment, such as when St. Paul exhorts us to test spirits. While we are not called to “scrutinize a person’s inner conscience,” for this right belongs to God alone, the Church and her leaders are equipped to judge (albeit, not in any harsh or rash way) the ideas and actions of men to determine whether or not they conform to those of Christ. The “new pastoral policy” suspends judgment, preferring instead to accept people just the way they are. This lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ famous expression, “Who am I to judge?” And yet, Our Lord promised the Apostles that they would one day judge the twelve tribes of Israel.
Vignelli notes several characteristics of the new definition of “discernment” in the contemporary Church. For the neo-liberals and neo-modernists, “discernment” means salvaging
what remains valid and sincere in peoples and situations. Accordingly they should not be judged by their actions but by their intent. They should not be judged for the evil done or unrepaired but for the residual or potential good still within them. However, by evaluating according to subjective and situational criteria, this pastoral discernment risks confusing the fake with the sincere, the emotional with the rational, the exception with the rule, and, in practice, allowing all behavior, however unjustified in theory.
The “primacy of discernment over judgment” is very tricky and dicey. It is based on the assumption that the sinner is not primarily responsible for his actions but is a victim of his societal circumstances, so that “what matters is not to judge a person’s guilt or innocence, but only to assess his situation and encourage rehabilitation.”
A rather pretentious goal of the new paradigm of discernment is to try to evaluate a person from within his own mystery, “taking into account his pastoral situations, intentions, and possibilities,” rather than encouraging persons to conform their lives to objective moral norms and standards. Herein lies a trap door, leading to an existential basement through which one can easily fall (even unaware) because he has been so coddled by his pastors as to think himself blameless, an automatic candidate for sainthood. Hence, why the need for sermons about Hell and Purgatory since most everyone has discerned that he or she – not being an axe-murderer or an evil man like Hitler – has little to no chance of going to either place after death but only directly to the pearly gates to be welcomed into Heaven by St. Peter, the keeper of the keys?
A third and crucial (indeed critical!) stage of the “new discernment” occurs when “discernment switches from absolving the transgressor of the law to condemning courts that apply the law, institutions that enshrine it, and even the law itself, as being too demanding for our age. The result is the end of legal certainty, impunity, and general anarchy.” In such a dystopia, the criminal is given more quarter than either the victim of the crime or law enforcement. A police officer is called not to discern the law but to implement it, regardless of his personal point of view on any given case. So, too, judges are to follow Lady Justice, who is blindfolded, since the law is to be applied equally to everyone, irrespective of color, race, creed.
Language games are all the rage in the “new pastoral policy” introduced at the Synods of 2014, 2015 and 2018. Modernists are always clever to change pastoral language and praxis as the “camel’s nose in the tent” to revolutionize Church doctrine, which they regardless as thoroughly fluid, in need of constant “aggiornamento” (‘updating”) and adaptation to the changing, “concrete” circumstances of the times. Modernists regard contemporary problems as too “complex” for the solutions proposed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And so, now that divorce and remarriage, insidious LGBT language and “gender ideology” have been accepted as normal options, many of those involved with the running of the Synods, or who work behind the scenes on their behalf as theological consultants, are desperately seeking to normalize those “abnormal” realities in the internal life of the Church. They want us to reason along these mollified lines: After all, what is wrong with “welcoming” persons who fall into the category of being “other” or “different” than ourselves, or who are “hurting” as a result of their “complex situations,” or who form “imperfect couples and families”?
Guido Vignelli explains that the primary victims of the “hurt” caused by divorce and remarriage, namely innocent children and young people, are often overlooked to focus on the “hurt” of the parents who caused the divorce in the first place, while the word “complex” is a dangerous euphemism employed so as not to hurt feelings by labeling them or their situation as objectively “sinful” or “immoral.” Furthermore, as Vignelli explicates, the use of the word “imperfect” is another euphemism meant to disguise what were traditionally termed “immoral” or “irregular” situations, so as to exculpate those whose sinful choices created the immorality and irregularity. Here our author lands hard (and rightly so!) on this game-playing that twists the demands of God’s Word and subverts the traditional moral teaching of the Church:
At the end of the process, irregular couples or families will not only be excused, but also accepted as they are, in other words, justified in their immorality, with severe damage to the moral sense, and to the common good of society and the Church. Thus, one will come to tolerate evil and accept it as normal.
Vignelli concludes his chapter thus: “The gap between the new and the classical pastoral policy can be measured by this warning from a Pope [cf. Pius VII’s Brief Etsi fraternitatis, August 10, 1803]: ‘Rather than employ sweet and temporizing words, a parish priest should sternly exhort cohabiters not to commit such a grave crime and not to sin against the Divine Law.”
What remains for faithful Catholics to do? And what should the Synod Fathers being doing in this last full week of deliberations?
We can begin by asking a few logical questions in order to put the Synods of 2014, 2015 and 2018 into a proper and realistic perspective:
– Did the Lord Jesus and St. Paul truly welcome with open arms the “otherness” or “difference” of those who, being closed to the grace of conversion, clung to ideologies and mentalities diametrically opposed to their preaching and teaching?
– Or, did they not sternly warn us to beware of such hypocrites; to flee false shepherds and denounce false prophets; to shun even an Angel from Heaven who would preach a “different Gospel” than they themselves had preached?
– Finally, we recall St. Paul’s exhortation to the “foolish” Galatians (whose Epistle we have been reading at Mass these days) to reject those who subvert the authentic Gospel message on account of their “itching ears,” ever willing to listen to the newest theological trend and “cleverly designed myths.”
Many today want the institutional Church to toss out the window like used furniture all those traditional and orthodox Catholic teachings we have received from our grandparents (ironically, frequently lauded by Pope Francis), parents, teachers and parish priests in order “to go with the flow,” even if such secular currents should lead us straight to Hell.
Archbishop Charles Chaput (one of the bright lights among the Synod Fathers) warned us some months ago: “. . . ‘accompanying’ people also means that we need to guide them in the right direction – gently but also honestly, speaking the truth with love. It does no one any good if we ‘accompany’ someone over a cliff, or even worse, to a fatal separation from God.”
A Pastoral Revolution: Six Talismanic Words in the Ecclesial Debate on the Family
by Guido Vignelli
Translated by José A. Schelini
Paperback, 106 pages