The Last Word
William Oddie FAITH MAGAZINE January - February 2015
One of the most disturbing developments in the Church recently has been the growth of a tendency among Catholics who a year or two ago would have been considered papal loyalists to be so confused by the public statements of the present Holy Father that they have become either tacitly or even openly critical of the way he is conducting his teaching ministry.
I was myself recently upbraided by one of my readers for my “constant sniping” at Pope Francis. This I found disconcerting, since faithfulness to papal teaching has always been one of my guiding objectives when writing about the faith. In my defence, another reader rejoined that the real problem was “trying to explain to someone who has not yet got it how and why some of the things that Pope Francis has said, done or left unsaid and undone have disturbed and brought disquiet in the minds and hearts of loyal, practising Catholics.”
Some months ago, in his widely read blog, Father Ray Blake contrasted Pope Francis with his predecessor. “There was a solidity and certainty in Benedict’s teaching”, he wrote, “which made discussion possible and stimulated intellectual honesty; one knew where the Church and the Pope stood. Today we are in less certain times; the intellectual life of the Church is thwart with uncertainty. Most Catholics, but especially clergy, want to be loyal to the Pope in order to maintain the unity of the Church; today that loyalty is perhaps best expressed through silence.”
I have a feeling that what the Holy Father actually wants is what we now have: a period in which even the Pope himself can be questioned by loyal Catholics. Whether in the long run that will be good for the Church may certainly be questioned: but it’s what we now have. The problem is the uncertainty that has emerged (disquietingly reminiscent of pre-Ratzingerian times) about the objective content of the Catholic religion: that’s what some faithful Catholics would like to be, shall we say, “clarified”.
Consider the example of Cardinal Francis George (described by the commentator John L Allen Jr recently as “America’s Ratzinger”), who is the archetypal papal loyalist. Cardinal George told Allen that he’d like to ask Pope Francis a few questions: to begin with, whether he fully grasps “that in some quarters, he’s created the impression that Catholic doctrine is up for grabs”. Whether he realises, for example, “what has happened just [as a result of using] that phrase, ‘Who am I to judge?’”. Francis’s signature soundbite, the cardinal said, “has been very misused … because he was talking about someone who has already asked for mercy and been given absolution, whom he knows well”. (Pope Francis uttered the line in 2013, in response to a question about a Vatican cleric accused of gay relationships earlier in his career.) “That’s entirely different than talking to somebody who demands acceptance rather than asking for forgiveness,” Cardinal George said.
“The question is,” the cardinal went on, “why … doesn’t he clarify” these ambiguous statements. “Why is it necessary that apologists have to bear the burden of trying to put the best possible face on it?”
I have a feeling that a lot of the present confusion was stirred up by the synod on the family. But it also seems clear to me that the Pope said more than enough in the synod’s closing address at this year’s sessions to answer many of the uncertainties which many, most notably perhaps Cardinal Raymond Burke, had articulated as the first phase of the synod came to an end.
A little noticed, certainly little reported, section of the Pope’s address spoke of “the temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [Italian buonismo: ‘self-righteousness’, maybe?], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders’, of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals’. The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf Lk 4:1‑4). The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God. The temptation to neglect the ‘depositum fidei’ [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it].”
“The general belief after the 2014 synod was that the Church is gearing up, not for some change in pastoral strategy, but for fundamental changes in its teachings”
This Pope isn’t a “liberal”. But he has given the liberals their head; and it remains to be seen whether that particular genie can be got back into the bottle. The trouble is that not only within the Church, but also in the secular media, the assumption has been that doctrine is indeed “up for grabs” – an assumption that will certainly remain for the foreseeable future, despite anything the Pope now says.
The general belief after the 2014 synod, both inside and particularly outside the Church, was that the Catholic Church is now gearing up, not for some kind of change in pastoral strategy, but for fundamental changes in its teachings (hitherto immutable) on important questions to do with marriage and with sexual morality. These impressions were based on the first draft of the “mid-term report”, which was the only version to which the press paid any attention.
Consider the following from the Mail Online. The headline read as follows: “Massive Vatican shift on gay sex: Summit on ‘family life’ says unmarried couples living together can be ‘positive’, gays and divorcees must be welcomed and contraception ‘respected’.” Beneath that was a four-part standfirst:
n Catholic Church adopts rare progressive tone during talks of family issues.
n Two-week summit reached midway point today with the release of a document summarising the extent of the closed-door debate so far.
n Meeting is the first time Catholic Church has held a family “synod” since 1987.
n The summit has been described as a “step in the right direction” by activists.
That this “progressive tone” reflected the unanimous views of all the synod fathers was taken for granted by the Mail’s writer, John Hall, who went on to say that “Catholic bishops meeting to discuss ‘family issues’ at a two-week summit have said unmarried couples living together can be ‘positive’, and gay relationships and divorces must be welcomed. Displaying remarkably liberal attitudes for a Church famed for its conservatism, bishops meeting in the Vatican today also said that a couples’ decision on the use of contraception should be respected. The summit, which reached its midway point today, has been described as a ‘step in the right direction’ by activists and boasts all the hallmarks of the notably progressive attitudes the Catholic Church has adopted since the ascension of Pope Francis last year.”
“The clique that seized power over the way the synod was at first presented to the faithful have to be definitively repudiated”
The fact that there was considerable resistance to these views at the synod was in no way reflected in the first version of the “mid-term report” (entitled relatio post disceptationem), an effusion which bore all the hallmarks of an attempted PR coup (the word “coup” isn’t over the top here: spin, in our time, is one pathway to the seizure of effective power). Many Catholics might assume that of course the Mail must have been misreporting the document: but the Mail, as it often does, was reporting the “report” accurately and fairly.
What was inaccurate was the synod document itself. And that was precisely what the bishops who produced it intended. Consider the following: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation [my emphasis] without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony? [the answer is ‘no’, but we are supposed to say ‘yes’]. The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension….”
In other words, it’s time to junk everything the Church has ever said on the matter, clearly spelt out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (article 2357): “….Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered’. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” (Of course, the CCC goes on to make it clear that homosexuals themselves “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”.)
Cardinal Raymond Burke was outspoken on the way the synod was being reported in the relatio post disceptationem: its reporting was, he said, being “manipulated…. The interventions of the individual synod fathers are not made available to the public, as has been the case in the past. All of the information regarding the synod is controlled by the General Secretariat of the Synod, which clearly has favoured from the beginning the positions expressed in the relatio post disceptationem …. While the individual interventions of the synod fathers are not published, yesterday’s relatio, which is merely a discussion document, was published immediately and, I am told, even broadcast live. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see the approach at work, which is certainly not of the Church…”
The Catholic World Report asked Cardinal Burke how important he thought it was that Pope Francis should “make a statement soon in order to address the growing sense – among many in the media and in the pews – that the Church is on the cusp of changing her teaching on various essential points regarding marriage, ‘remarriage’, reception of Communion, and even the place of ‘unions’ among homosexuals”.
Cardinal Burke replied that, in his judgement, “such a statement is long overdue. The debate on these questions has been going forward now for almost nine months, especially in the secular media but also through the speeches and interviews of Cardinal Walter Kasper and others who support his position. The faithful and their good shepherds are looking to the Vicar of Christ for the confirmation of the Catholic faith and practice regarding marriage, which is the first cell of the life of the Church.”
Pope Francis’s defence of the depositum fidei may well have been a response to Cardinal Burke’s plea. But was it enough? The trouble was, nobody noticed it: certainly it wasn’t adequately (if at all) reported, even in the Catholic media. Should someone close to the Holy Father now respectfully suggest that he continue in the same vein? The clique that seized power over the way the synod was at first presented to the faithful have to be definitively repudiated: if they’re not (and they’re not going to withdraw quietly and voluntarily) we could be on our way back to the most destructive period of the post-conciliar years.