Does Pope Francis fear God? On the Synod of the Family and the fracturing of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis is convening a meeting to decide the fate of the family. There is danger ahead.
"And therefore, if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be held to account for the Lord's body and blood. A man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily, not recognizing the Lord's body for what it is." — St. Paul 1 Corinthians 11:27-29
"The bond of Christian marriage is so strong that if it has attainted its full permanence with the use of conjugal rights, no power on Earth, not even Ours, the power of the Vicar of Christ, can rescind it." — Pope Pius XII, 1946
In the next three weeks, I fully expect the leadership of my own One Holy and Apostolic Catholic Church to fall into apostasy, at the conclusion of the Synod on the Family that begins today in Rome. This is the outcome Pope Francis has shaped over the entirety of his pontificate, and particularly with his recent appointments. An event like this —heresy promulgated by the Pope and his bishops — is believed by most Catholics to be impossible. But they should be prepared for it anyway. This is not an ordinary religious conference, but one to be dreaded.
My prediction is that, after much fixing and machinations by its leaders, the Synod on the Family will declare that the Holy Spirit led them to a new understanding of the truth. The Synod's leaders will adopt the position that those living in second marriages, irrespective of the status of their first marriage, should be admitted to Holy Communion. This is commonly called the "Kasper proposal" after its author, the German Cardinal Walter Kasper. The Synod will likely leave the details of a "penitential period of reflection" for these souls up to local bishops and parish priests The leading bishops will assure critics that in fact no doctrine has been changed, only a discipline — even if these will make no sense when considered together.
But make no mistake, the Synod will make the sacrilege of the Eucharist St. Paul warns against an official policy of the Roman Catholic Church. And in the process the Synod will encourage the breakup of more marriages.
Certain theologians will cheer this as a radical break. They will declare this change of discipline to be what the critics alleged all along: a rupture within the tradition of the church, a change in doctrine. They will say that this glorious event proves the church is capable not only of developing its doctrines, but also of evolving them into something new, even something that contradicts the old. Those who had made themselves enemies of papal authority for decades will become a new kind of ultramontanist. The papacy that had been the final guardian of the faith will now become an ongoing oracle, dispensing new gospel teachings that our Lord and the Apostles missed.
The church's teachings on contraception, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex must all be subjected to this evolution, in light of what we know about how people actually live. How they ought to live is a moot question.
If we believe the best reporting about the election of Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy, he owes it to Cardinal Kasper and the progressive "St. Gallen" group of cardinals to try to win "acceptance" for the Kasper proposal. If the proposal seems unclear, let me try to simplify it. Traditionally if someone comes to Mass having committed the mortal sin, perhaps deliberately missing Sunday Mass the week previously, he must abstain from communion until he makes a sacramental confession of his sin to a priest. Under the Kasper proposal, a man who dumped his wife of 20 years for a trophy bride can have a putatively "penitential" talk with his priest or bishop about it, then approach the altar even as he lives in a state the church used to recognize as "public adultery."
Pope Francis has given Cardinal Kasper many opportunities to preach his solution to fellow cardinals, and praised Kasper's work as "theology done on one's knees." (A line sure to get a laugh at many seminaries.) Pope Francis' own personnel decisions and the revision to rules of the Synod that came on Friday also suggest he is on board with the proposal. Though the traditional-leaning Cardinal Burke had for years been dealing with these precise issues at the church's top court, he is not invited to the pope's Synod. Instead, by special appointment and against the conventions of age limits, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a Dutch prelate who supports same-sex marriage and has a reckless record on sexual abuse in his diocese, is invited to speak.
This is only one of scores of examples. Cardinal Baldisseri, who was accused by high-ranking prelates opposed to the Kasper proposal of manipulating last year's Synod, is not only running it, but has also been assigned to the drafting committee for the final document. New Zealand's Cardinal John Dew, who favors the proposal, was not elected by his fellow bishops to attend the Synod — but Pope Francis intervened to put him on the final drafting committee. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a man known for his political acuity more than his doctrinal mind, is also on the final drafting committee. So, too, is Archbishop Bruno Forte, whose authorship of a passage on same-sex marriage at last year's Synod became a controversy.
Apparently I am not alone in my fears. Take Cardinal Müller, who heads the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith; he's the man charged with being the pope's guardian of orthodoxy. (You may know it as the Office of the Holy Inquisition.) Müller has operated under persistent rumors that his office is to be dissolved entirely and its functions devolved to national groupings of bishops. Recently his office was completely bypassed when the pope issued a unilateral reform of annulments. Müller is also a persistent and outspoken opponent of the Kasper proposal. In a recent speech, he addressed the controversy in the starkest terms possible:
The valid and sacramental marriage is either indissoluble or dissoluble. There is not [a] third option. In view of so much talk about dialogue and its long processes, one cannot overlook in reality an ideological constrictedness or crampness. The goal of such an ideology is to enforce at least a change of practice, even if it damages truth and the unity of the church. [Rorate Caeli]
Damaging the unity of the church is a codeword for "schism." There have been glancing hints of even worse fears. Last year, after reports that the conservative Australian Cardinal George Pell had dramatically intervened against the "manipulation" of the Synod, he began unburdening himself about the strangeness of Pope Francis, and referring to the history of anti-popes. Shortly thereafter he was hit by another wave of false accusations about his handling of child abusers.
Ignatius Press, a publisher that tried to get a book collecting objections to the Kasper proposal into the hands of every cardinal last year, has now issued several books anticipating the Synod. One, The Rigging of the Synod by reporter Edward Pentin, recounts the machinations at play last year. Another, Christ's New Homeland — Africa, contains essays by prominent cardinals championing orthodoxy and applying its logic to their own situations, where they face more mixed marriages between Muslims and Christians and even polygamy. And then there is Cardinal Sarah's book, titled, appropriately for a churchman, God or Nothing.
These books are all good. And Cardinal Sarah's book, which is really a long-form interview, looks almost like the kind of manifesto that precedes an election to the papacy itself. God hasten that day. But I fear these prelates are treating the symptom and not the disease.
The conservative opponents of the Kasper proposal now talk of the recent history of the church as a "crisis." This is remarkable language for a church that has canonized or beatified almost every pontiff in living memory. Previously, it was thought bold to talk about "confusion" in the church in the years after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The language of crisis is a word that conservatives borrow from the traditionalist critics of that council and its aftermath. I am one of them.
The truth, if the prelates can shoulder it, is that the loss of Catholic faith we are witnessing in the Synod process should have been expected. At the Second Vatican Council and afterward, the church itself contributed to the worst spasm of iconoclasm in the history of Christendom. The past had to be destroyed. The council called for the revision of all the laws that governed the material objects of Catholic worship, from altars to images to tabernacles to baptistries. Shortly afterward the entire Mass — the central act of Catholic worship — was re-written according to shoddy, ideologically motivated scholarship.
Theologians like Karl Rahner substituted new theologies for the Mass that specifically suppressed any understanding of it as a propitiatory sacrifice. Across the world, altars and altar rails were smashed, statues and confessionals thrown in the dump. Thomas Cranmer, a leader of the English Reformation, must have laughed from his grave.
A novice student of religious studies can recognize what happened. If all the physical and verbal aspects of worship are changed, and the very rationale of the act is changed, then you are not reforming a people's religion, you are substituting a new one in the old one's place.
This act of substitution is in the language of Rahner's writing on the Mass, where the priest becomes a mere "presider" — or worse, a "president" — and the church becomes an "assembly." And so, quite naturally, most Masses in most modern churches have exactly the wan atmosphere of a high school assembly. The church now puts sanctimony in the place of sanctity, therapeutic self-acceptance in the place of holiness, "participation" in the place of devotion, and love of man where once was the love of God. Ultimately, man is substituted for God himself.
The "New Mass" of the Second Vatican Council, in a halting and incomplete way, expresses a completely new theology, one that is nearly the opposite of Catholicism. Instead of Christ dying on the cross to redeem sinners, he dies on the cross because man's dignity demands that he does so. The recognition of this supreme dignity of man at the Mass is not a sacrifice, but a memorial gathering. And this gathering foreshadows the as-yet-unrealized unity of all men, not the heavenly feast. Thus after the moment of consecration, instead of allowing Catholics a moment to contemplate the mystery of the incarnation and the sacrifice of Calvary, they stand up and nervously shake hands. Because it is not just a new religion, but a banal one.
Kasper's own writing evinces an entirely untraditional concept of God himself. God does not make the world in which we inhabit. Instead, reality is historically constructed by man and for man. Man discovers the "truth" by opening himself up to an experience of transcendence, and does so progressively throughout history, drawing ever forward to his ultimate historical realization. For all of his fondness for Hegel, Kasper's theology amounts to a spiritualized Whig view of history. Naturally he concludes that the dogmas of the church must change, since "dogma never settles a theological issue once and for all."
Some opponents of the Kasper proposal think they are facing a merely incoherent plan to change the discipline of the church. They think that it is a category error, that Kasper and his allies have confused things that are judged in prudence (like whether lay Catholics ought to abstain from meat on Friday) with those that are a logical consequence of unchangeable doctrine and the words of scripture (like the rule that those in mortal sin must abstain from Holy Communion). But it is not a question of discipline. For Kasper and for his confreres, the proposal is an attempt to realize the new religion more fully, the religion that is haltingly expressed not just in the imposition of a "New Mass" after the Second Vatican Council, but also in rite of the New Mass itself — the religion that ceaselessly evolves to accommodate (Western) man's desires.
You cannot find the future moral teachings of this religion in scripture, only in the surveys and opinion polls of the future. It collapses into a shallow phenomenalism. Whatever Christians are getting up to these days, that is the revealed moral teaching of the church.
Of all Kasper's critics, only Cardinal Müller seems to understand the stakes. "Within the frame of Modernist schemes of development," he said during a recent lecture, "Revelation and the Dogmas of the Church are merely historically conditioned transitional stages at the end of which stands the self-divinization of man. The Revelation in Christ and its heretofore history would only be a preparatory stage for an understanding of God, world, and church in which man himself is subject and object of the Revelation at the same time."
The Catholic understanding of marriage as an indissoluble, creative union is not mere policy. It reflects the whole history of salvation, in which God reveals himself as the faithful bridegroom, chasing after his sometimes unfaithful bride: Israel and the church itself. When Israel turns to strange gods and idols, God's prophets call her a harlot. And God calls her to come back home to live with him. A sacramental wedding in this world evokes and foreshadows the union of God and his bride — the church at the end of the time.
That is why even the church cannot dissolve it. If the church is God's bride, it cannot countenance a form of "legitimated adultery" anymore than it can impose legitimated idolatry. To attempt one is to attempt the other.
These hierarchs are gathering together, as the chief authorities in the Bride of Christ, and they talk flippantly about legitimizing unfaithfulness. I have one question for them.
Do they not fear God?