Should Catholics Be Concerned? Yep!


Here is Christopher Johnson’s take on the unusual, yeah that would be the kindest word, pontificate of Pope Francis.  Please recall that Christopher Johnson is a non-Catholic who has taken up the cudgels so frequently for the Church that I have named him Defender of the Faith:

Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family is about halfway over.  Although that “bombshell” document which thrilled liberals just a few weeks ago turned out to be a dud, at least for now, many on the left still think that Roman Catholicism is definitely trending their way as this Guardian leader indicates:

Three things in particular need to change. They are all connected by a particular interpretation of natural law, a phrase in Catholic moral theology that means “Nature doesn’t work like that”. The first is the theory that sexual intercourse is only really an expression of love when efficient contraception is not involved. This, codified in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, has been entirely rejected by the Catholic couples at whom it was aimed. Then there is the claim that homosexuality is an “objective moral disorder” – since gay desire does not aim at making babies, or rely on the rhythm method to avoid them. Finally, there is the belief that marriage can only be once and for life, so that all subsequent arrangements are more or less sinful.

Essentially, church doctrine should be whatever the majority of the laity decides it should be.  For some reason, that concept sounds vaguely familiar.

Over the past 50 years, the language in which these things are condemned has gradually softened, from one of disgust and condemnation of “perversion” and “living in sin”, to the ostensibly neutral and objective claims of “moral disorder”. Pope Francis has opened the door to a language that would be much more welcoming still – one that might suggest that there is nothing uniquely dreadful about sexual sins, nor uniquely morally significant about sexual acts. This is a long way from the claim that nothing consenting adults agree to can be morally wrong: no Christian church could agree with that. But it is perhaps still further from the position of Catholic traditionalists today.

In other words, I actually didn’t say what I clearly just got done saying because shut up.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who heads the church in England and Wales, has said that he did not vote for the tepid language on gay people because he felt it did not go far enough, and that even an earlier draft, referring to the special gifts they can bring to the church, did not, in his opinion, offer an appropriate welcome. He would never have said this even five years ago, under the previous pope.

Quick reminder: James Pike wasn’t convicted of heresy because he wasn’t a heretic.  James Pike wasn’t convicted of heresy because the bishops of the Episcopal Organization at the time thought that convicting anyone of….shudder…heresy in this day and age was a perfectly horrid idea.

But this does not mean the Vatican has been entirely captured by the Guardian’s view of the world. As Francis said, the first duty of the pope is to maintain unity. That sets clear boundaries to how far he can go and probably clear boundaries to how far he would want to go. Even if he dreamed of a move in a wholly liberal direction, he could not without risking a schism, and it would be impolitic even to shuffle in that direction without issuing fierce denunciations of liberal errors – as indeed he has done.

The problem is that these proposals suggest, to this outsider anyway, that if they are accepted as is, a de facto (but most definitely not de jure) schism may begin to happen whether Francis wants it to or not.  Why do I think that?  Three reasons.

The first is language.  Control the language and you’ve basically won the cultural war.  And the simple fact of the matter is that the left now controls the language.

Consider what words “welcome” and “love” now mean.  “Welcome” used to mean that, while you and I may disagree on things, that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.  And “love” used to mean that I want the best for you which may mean that from time to time, I’m going to tell you the truth, however personally unpleasant you may occasionally find what I have to tell you.

These days, “love” and “welcome” are now basically synonyms for, “I and I alone am the single determining factor in deciding whether or not you are loving and welcoming.  And in order to be loving and welcoming to me, you must immediately renounce any views you have on any issue which differ from my own.

“Failure to do so will personally offend me, which is not obviously not a loving or a welcoming act on your part.”  To a very great extent, too many people in the Church have absorbed these ideas.

The second reason I have for thinking a de facto Catholic split is not off the table is that I was an Episcopalian for 48 years and I know that the Christian left doesn’t think in months or in years but in decades.  They think long-term, they’re patient and they take their time.  Austen Ivereigh thinks Francis’ revolution is already over.

The remarkable gathering of global Catholic leaders in Rome that ended on Saturday has mostly been filtered through a political lens, as a debate between factions. Thus the hopes of gay people and the divorced were raised by a swing to the liberals but dashed by the conservatives reasserting themselves. But that doesn’t capture what happened. The actual dynamic was more complex, and very different.

No one was going after core doctrine.

For the bishops who attended, assent to doctrinal orthodoxy was the starting point. What Pope Francis called “the fundamental truths of the sacrament of marriage” were never in question: before, during and after the synod, sex was for marriage, marriage was for a man and a woman, open to life, for life, and sexually faithful. There was no debate on these points.

Except that there implicitly was but we’ll pass over that.  Here is the third reason why Catholics should be on their guards.  Because of what is, perhaps, the single most dangerous word for any Christian church or Christian minister.

Pope Francis did not call this synod to change teaching, but to expand it to include the missing part: the “missionary” and “pastoral” dimension – the merciful, healing, loving, welcoming part of Catholicism, which those outside the faith don’t get to see. Understand why they don’t and you get the point of the synod.


Those of us who know the church know that in our parishes and schools and institutions, our pastors pastor. They tend to us, nurture us, help us and support us, whoever we are, and whatever our stage of moral development. Most of us live in the gap between who we are and who we are called to be; being a Catholic isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. The doorway is wide; and inside, on the whole, it’s warm and welcoming: a clinic for the feeble, not a club of the smug. It’s nuanced and compassionate, even if it keeps the goals clearly in the spotlight.

As opposed to the last few papacies, say.

So why do so many people see only judgmentalism and rejection, even pharisaism? Because since the 1980s, Rome has concentrated on asserting doctrinal clarity and uniformity, partly to restore direction following divisions opened up by the second Vatican council in the early 1960s. This meant keeping out the pastoral. Bishops attended synods but the Vatican controlled the agenda. Awkward pastoral questions were asked but not discussed, and existing teaching and practice were reaffirmed.

To former Episcopalians, this next paragraph will sound all too painfully familiar.

Francis has flipped that omelette. He has brought the periphery into the centre, breaking open the Vatican to a new pastoral language. He has invited tough questions to be asked with unprecedented frankness: how to bind the wounds of the divorced, while promoting indissolubility? How to embrace gay people while celebrating marriage as a conjugal institution? How can the church be, like a good parent, both clear teacher and merciful mother? The tensions are as old as Jesus, who called people to lifelong sexual fidelity yet saw the adultress as both sinner and victim. What’s new is bringing the tension into the governance of the universal church.

And if these numbers are right, a good deal of incipient episcopalianism seems to have crept into the Catholic hierarchy.

A few think this is deeply misguided. Tallies of the votes on the final document reveal a small group of 25-35 “rigorists” opposed to the Francis pontificate; they yearn for the old clarity. They made a lot of noise but compared with the 160-180 who consistently voted in favour of Francis’s pastoral and missionary reset, they are a tiny number. The synod was made up overwhelmingly of pastors like Francis, who have agreed to review a whole series of practices and changes.

On two issues the synod did not get a clear green light. One group couldn’t see how the divorced and remarried could ever return to the sacraments without compromising indissolubility. Another group of African and Latin-American bishops refused to agree to treat gay people with respect and tenderness because the wording implied the existence of a gay “identity” which they cannot for cultural reasons accept. These are still minorities – perhaps 30-40 – but, combined with the rigorists, their veto ensured there would not be a two-thirds majority for three of the 62 paragraphs of the report.

Ivereigh finishes with a flourish.

But that means only that a lot more discussion and reflection are needed before the synod of bishops comes up with concrete proposals next year. What matters is that the pastoral is being brought to bear on the doctrinal: the church has decided to

All together now.


It’s a lot less tidy, but a lot more holy.

See how much damage the word “pastoral” can do?  If you want another example, here’s a theoretical one.

Todd and Kyle are two gay Catholics who have lived together for several years.  One Sunday, both of them go up to Father after Mass with a question.

Their relationship, they tell Father, is the single most important and valuable aspect to both of their lives.  And both Todd and Kyle want more than anything to stand up before God in their own parish, with a few family and friends, and have Father bless their relationship in a short ceremony that they had written themselves.  Would he agree?

Father thinks it over.  He’s obviously not down with the gay thing but Todd and Kyle are really good guys and Father’s glad that both men found someone to love them unconditionally.  Since the ceremony has absolutely nothing in common with the Church’s rite of Holy Matrimony, Father thinks that the “pastoral” response would be to go ahead and participate.

So he does.  Then the Archbishop finds out about it.  The Archbishop “pastorally” decides that this really isn’t that big of a deal and does not sanction Father in any way.  Eventually, this makes its way to Francis who decides that the Archbishop made the right “pastoral” call.

At that point, “same-sex blessing” ceremonies start happening in Catholic parishes from one end of this country to the other.  The media calls it a “sea change” in Catholic thinking or something.

Fast-forward 35 to 40 years where we find that the Roman Catholic Church, while still officially one body, effectively resembles what the Anglican Communion is right now.

A “Western” church that believes and practices one thing and a non-Western church that believes and practices something quite another

Because if you ask any modern Episcopalian what “Holy Matrimony” means, he or she will tell you that “Holy Matrimony” can only exist between a man and a woman.  Never mind the fact that he or she performs “same-sex blessings” all the time.  So we haven’t proposed to change any fundamental Christian doctrines.

At the moment.

Because we’ve got all the time in the world.

Should Catholics start looking for Orthodox parishes and service times?  It’s nowhere near time for that.  Should Catholics start worrying?  Not just yet.  Should Catholics be concerned?  I would be.  Because I’ve been through all this before.

Go here to Midwest Conservative Journal to read the comments.  What is happening now within the Church is quite similar to what happened in most mainline Protestant Churches in this country which has led to their meltdown:  leadership comes to the fore embracing trendy Leftism which they substitute for traditional Christianity.  This leads to a mass exodus of membership, the orthodox fleeing, and the heterodox eventually deciding they have better uses for their Sunday mornings than attending yet another political rally.  I am confident that this fight, and please be quite clear that all Catholics are now in an internecine fight that will get progressively more bitter, will have a different outcome.  Why am I confident?  Because the Church is, in human terms, quite a different entity from the mainline Protestant churches, that Catholicism is fundamentally different from Protestantism and because the part of the Church that is a divine institution will save the hapless human portion, as I think has happened repeatedly over the last 2000 years.  However, that is no excuse for orthodox Catholics to think they can simply put their heads down, pray their rosaries and all will be well.  We are God’s instruments on earth.  It is time for us to stand and be heard.  Whenever the clergy are veering from the Faith, the laity have a duty, not a right but a duty, to demand that the Faith handed down from the Apostles be preserved in all its purity.

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  1. Here is an example, though provincial, of why there should be concern. Considering the immediate suppression of things Latin and ‘traditional’ on the one hand and the indulgence of pastoral activities on the other, the example rises in Boston, where the precursor to Catholic college began at Boston Latin High School from which great minds went on to waste their heritage because ‘it’s all good!”.

  2. The pastoral is the doctrinal, for the Church Triumphant will not change for these happy souls behold the Face of God. Why should the Church Triumphant change? Not on your soul. The Church Militant here, shooting itself in the foot, cannot change lest the Church Militant lose its brotherhood with the Church Triumphant and lose its doctrine. And the individuals members souls. The pastor is to preach salvation to the members of his Church. The Church Suffering in Purgatory are remembering the doctrines of the Church which they have discarded and of which they now must reeducate themselves before entering into the Beatific Vision, the Face of God.
    The Real Presence of Jesus Christ on the altar lays waste any idea that the physical nature of the human being takes precedence over the spiritual being of the human away from the wholeness of man, created body and soul. That man’s body requires “special” consideration that is detriment to his spiritual soul.
    The principle of separation of church and state requires that the doctrinal is forever doctrinal; that the pastoral, or priesthood of the laity, is forever bound to the doctrinal through the call from God, the vocation.
    Without a call from God, a vocation, our good deeds are useless. Without the ordained priest in Jesus Christ, there is no Catholic Church, no priesthood of the laity, no Real Presence. I guess it all comes down to wanting to save one’s own soul.
    I was once told in the confessional that whatever I did with my husband was OK. It is not OK. I am a human being with dignity deserving of respect and not being respected as a human being leaves one destitute.
    This army of people enslaved by sex (and blaming God) will find that their enslavement to sex is all they will have in eternal life. Enslavement to anything is boring, really dumb, did I say stupid? Stupid.
    If Pope Francis tries to incorporate STUPID into Church doctrine, he very well may lose his soul.

  3. “I was once told in the confessional that whatever I did with my husband was OK. It is not OK. I am a human being with dignity deserving of respect and not being respected as a human being leaves one destitute.”
    I agree with Mary De Voe. Any act in marriage or outside of marriage which debases the dignity of oneself or that of another human being is intrinsically wrong. The act need not be sexual in nature to be debasing. The act always leads to destitution of the human himself or herself.

  4. Yes Mary. The pastoral and the doctrinal are inextricable. They cannot really be separated. They each would lose their meaning. The Church has been very careful with her doctrinal expression, so careful that pastoral expression has not become a matter of dogma. Pastoral expression has to fit within the “strike zone” of doctrine. (thinking of Chief Justice Roberts umpire analogy of his court)

  5. I recently re-read parts of our Pastoral Constitution. Such a kind and hopeful document. There was a lot of talk about the dignity of man, the dignity of marriage, community etc. In the years and events that have passed, man seems to have lost his dignity.
    In 2014 we are not dealing on the same presuppositions even about human nature we held as we held in 1965 — “Male and female he created them” ? How in the world are we supposed to be wise and pastoral when we can even agree anymore on the most basic human identity.
    The new morality of this years synod is sometimes called “situational ethics” -at the same time very protestant and also jesuitical. “Pastoral” care is not to be situational ethics. Real love is honest- tough, and honest.

  6. “However, that is no excuse for orthodox Catholics to think they can simply put their heads down, pray their rosaries and all will be well. Amen to that.”
    Praying the Rosary is not an escape, but the engagement of Divine Providence and the Communion of Saints to “deliver us from evil, now, and at the hour of our death.” Amen. Remember Lepanto.

  7. I hope that we are all writing to our bishops to express our concerns. I have written to my bishop already, and I am in the process of writing to the local archbishop as well. Next on my list is the U.S. papal nuncio, and then perhaps Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Wuerl, Cardinal Burke, and Cardinal Pell.

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