I have almost forgot the taste of fears; The time has been, my senses would have cool'd To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir As life were in't: I have supp'd full with horrors…
Macbeth, Act V, Scene V.
Could it possibly be that the Synod on the Family will ultimately be unveiled as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? The answer is: yes and no. The reason behind the “Yes” is that the Faithful themselves have not been slow or hushed in expressing their discontent over the last two years, and the bishops may have gotten and heeded the message, for one reason or another.
However, the reason for the “No” is that forces within the hierarchy may be at work in an effort to shape the Synod procedure and outcome so that it looks as if the majority of bishops support the changes ultimately desired by the Holy Father.
If the early statements coming out of Rome from leading cardinals seem to reveal anything, it is that, despite everything to the contrary heretofore, it is that the majority of bishops intend to protect the doctrine of the Church from any threat of proposed change.
Of course, especially during the Franciscan Pontificate, words and actions are not necessarily congruent, and all predictive statements must be qualified. That having been said, at least it looks as if doctrine will not change as a result of the will of the majority of the Synod Fathers themselves.
What Pope Francis chooses to do afterwards, and how he chooses to attempt to characterize what the Synod Fathers have said, is totally up for debate. But, without the backing of the Synod Fathers—or more accurately put, in face of the turning tide of Synodal opinion—it is unlikely that Francis will push for the degree of reform he undoubtedly had previously sought. The resistance to his plans has been so strong. However, Francis, the humble pope, appears to have a strong will of his own.
Although a Pope and the bishops with him may do more or less as they wish as a matter of canon law, they cannot change or challenge Divine Law or settled Tradition. By now, after almost two years of Synod over-load we all know the well-settled arguments justifying refusal of admission to the sacraments for those in grave sin, including all those engaged in ongoing and unrepentant sexual activity outside of the context of marriage, including adulterers, and heterosexuals and homosexuals alike.
Given the Magisterial Tradition of the Church on this issue, which is based on the explicit words of St. Paul and Christ, if any explicit changes were made to the perennial teaching or practice, then the Faithful would logically have to concede that Catholic doctrine can, and does, change.
Under these circumstances, a reasonable and rational Catholic would be faced with a very difficult choice resulting only in one of three possible outcomes: Follow the hierarchy into an explicit twofold rejection of the words of Christ and Saint Paul, and the well-settled doctrine of the Church; or, recognize that the hierarchy are in error and resist from inside of the Church; or, simply concede that the whole Catholic schema has proven itself to be internally inconsistent and not worthy of belief.
After all, if the hierarchy attempts to establish that its words are more important than the clear-cut words of Christ and St. Paul, then anyone who follows the hierarchy is following a religion of Man and not of God. Catholicism would appear then to be nothing more than a form of secular belief system in which priests make everything up on their own terms and according to their own needs. Mysticism, holiness and God’s law would have been ripped from the heart of the Body of Christ. If the hierarchy admit that they previously erred to the extent that they misinterpreted the words of Christ and St. Paul, then doctrine is subject to error, and what guarantees that new doctrine is more correct than old doctrine? What guarantees the truth of anything the hierarchy teaches, especially if the hierarchy can misinterpret and misapply Divine Law for millennia? Things fall apart and the center cannot hold, as W.B. Yeats would say.
Similarly, change in praxis as an act of “mercy” would be equally unavailing. The faithful are no longer so gullible as to actually believe that practice can be separated from doctrine without doing serious injury to doctrine and ultimately eroding it completely. In this context, to grant mercy and forgiveness without repentance would do a twofold injury to the truth: It would scandalize the Faithful by rewarding the unfaithful in their violation of doctrine. Any society with such topsy-turvy rules, even the Church, is not destined to stay integrated for long, especially when its rules contradict the will of God Himself, in practice.
Through publications such as The Remnant and Rorate Caeli the Faithful have communicated with each other, educated themselves and telegraphed their unhappiness to the hierarchy. Moreover, the bishops, who are closer to their people than the papacy—at least this papacy—have undoubtedly heard the strong protestations from the Faithful in their dioceses and any reasonable bishop would be concerned. At least, based on early statements from Rome, this is what seems to have happened.
Forgetting for a moment the terrible spiritual consequences attaching to a bishop who leads his flock astray, in simple positivist terms even a heretic bishop would undoubtedly be concerned about the Faithful dropping away, as the situation with the German bishop perversely demonstrates. In their situation, however, their heterodox views have caused them to confuse cause with effect: Failing to adhere to doctrine caused the Faithful to drop away, it was not adhering to doctrine that did it. Thus, changing doctrine will only reinforce the problem. The only solution is to reiterate and implement doctrine. But the fact of the matter is, they are losing money in the collection plate through a drop-off in taxes, and they would no-doubt wish to fix that situation, if only for materialistic reasons.
To be fair, many other good and holy bishops have also done their best to focus on the need to develop a new understanding of the importance of doctrine. Of course the Africans, Cardinals Pell and Burke, and Archbishop Schneider come to mind.
Additionally, many recent scandals have made the shepherds themselves somewhat sheepish. The recent and highly publicized changes to the synodal procedure as well as reports that a shadow Synod of Jesuits have already begun work on writing a post-Synod document have both got to have vexed more than a few of the bishops in Rome currently. This alleged unheard of preemptive neutering of the collegiality due the Princes of the Church would undoubtedly be viewed as being a great insult. Is the Synod nothing more than a bizarre sort of Kabuki Theatre, highly stylized but devoid of meaning and worth?
Indeed, we have been advised that thirteen cardinals have written to Pope Francis to complain of their fear that the Synod procedure is being rigged so as to shape the perception of its outcome. These cardinals, it would seem, are concerned that the Synod is being emptied of its consultative role and used instead, through manipulation, as a mere, and inaccurate rubber stamp. In response to the cardinals’ letter Pope Francis took the extraordinary step of taking to the Synod floor on Tuesday and denounced what he called the “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” as being unfounded and unhelpful. Whether his position or that of the thirteen cardinals is correct only time will tell.
Further, the “coming-out” of Krzystof Charamasa, a Theology professor and member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may well have backfired. Despite his vow of chastity, Charamasa has said that he is a proud practicing homosexual in a committed relationship and, it seems, he feels that he is nonetheless entitled to be a priest. His claims have shaken the Faithful once more. Is it possible that the wish to be rid of the priestly vow of celibacy, the morality of chastity and the grave sin of priestly homosexual encounters is what is really behind this Synod? Now, the sought-after doctrinal innovations on sexuality—at the expense of the family—could easily be seen by the Faithful as being for the benefit of the satisfaction of the baser instincts of many within the hierarchy itself. Under all of the circumstances, if those who seek mercy do so in order to bestow it on themselves, how much unbiased credibility does their quest for a new doctrinal understanding have?
Thus, although Mitis Iudex and his recent speeches in the U.S. have made it relatively clear that Pope Francis had radical reforms in mind, it is looking possible that he will not get what he wishes through the bishops. And, as Cardinal Kasper said last year, he needs the bishops. If the Holy Father were to act so as to change doctrine without the explicit and active consent of the majority of the bishops, dire consequences may result for the Church.
The foregoing notwithstanding, Francis has a well-known penchant for insulting Faithful Catholics with what some have characterized as being innocent hyperbole, while others have viewed Francis’s statements as revealing a deeper and more active dislike of the Faithful and tradition itself.
Moreover, in Mitis Iudex he demonstrated a willingness to act unilaterally, without the bishops but while claiming their imprimatur. In this way he managed to evade the limitations on his will that would likely have been imposed by others in the Church, such as bishops and canon lawyers. Indeed, in a simple brush-aside of complaints about the lack of public consultation behind, and the dubious doctrinal merit of, Mitis Iudex, Francis simply pooh-poohed the complaints on his flight back from the U.S. to Rome. In doing so, Pope Francis denied that the changes he had made were doctrinal and he stated that the changes had actually been called for by the bishops at the last Synod. However, it is unlikely that the bishops called for such changes to be made without consultation.
So, is the Synod a mere non-event? Yes, and No. It seems that it is, or will be, a non-event doctrinally if the bishops, and through them the laity, are listened to. It may not be a non-event if the Synod is used and manipulated so as to give the appearance that the bishops have called for changes to doctrine when, in fact, they have not.
Thus, the question becomes: How far is Francis willing to go in order to achieve the changes to doctrine he apparently desires, and how much can the bishops anticipate and counter such moves? Further, how much will the bishops resist and tolerate any perceived cajoling, corralling and deliberate misinterpretation and misrepresentation of their will and any changes to doctrine?
In essence, how far will the brinkmanship of the reformers take the Church: to the edge, or over it?
Meanwhile, as the Pontiff and bishops are convened to discuss these pressing matters, Christians have become the most persecuted faith in the world according to Aid to The Church in Need. Western Civilization is crumbling and there has been no significant and genuine expression of desire, or any thought of engaging in concerted action, to solve these problems. Pope Francis’ much-touted philosophy of See, Judge, Act is apparently only operative when it comes to “the family” and the environment.