There’s an unfortunate tendency among Catholics and Protestants alike to relish the misfortunes of the other. When some evangelical megachurch pastor ham-fistedly embraces the LGBT agenda, Catholics will quip that it was inevitable thanks to the Reformation. When Pope Francis appears to undermine orthodox Christian teaching in a garbled answer to some interviewer’s question, Protestants will snark about the “commie pope.”
Just last week, for example, a short (and admittedly disturbing) video clip of Pope Francis surrounded by scantily-clad circus performers made the rounds on social media, triggering predictable Protestant jeers like, “Never too late to join the Reformation!”
But something is afoot in Rome right now that should worry Protestants as much as Catholics. The Vatican’s “Synod on Synodality,” which begins today, at first glance appears to be an exercise in self-referential academese, like having a conference about conferences.
But the synod isn’t just a bunch of bishops deliberating over ecclesial governance. The real purpose and ambition of the synod is to change the Catholic Church — something that should concern Christians everywhere, Catholics and Protestants alike (more on that in a minute). As Michael Brendan Dougherty notes, the entire point of the synod is “for a large group of bishops to debate each other about survey material they guided some small number of lay Catholics through in their home diocese, and whether this pile of papers gives sufficient cover for the pope to begin chucking certain moral and dogmatic teachings of the church overboard in favor of newer understandings.”
At this point, it’s clear that this is exactly what Pope Francis is trying to do. How will he do it? By hiding behind the fig leaf of “development of doctrine” and “pastoral charity.” Take, for example, his startling remarks about marriage and the possibility of priests blessing homosexual unions, issued privately in July but made public just last week. The comments confirm what observers of Pope Francis have long known: He is intentionally vague about matters that should be clear-cut, and this vagueness sows confusion. Why would he want to sow confusion? To open up room for change. Indeed, one way to interpret the pope’s muddled remarks about blessing homosexual unions is that he’s opening the door to radical change in Catholic practice without technically changing Catholic doctrine (something the pope, in any case, cannot do).
Responding to a question from a group of cardinals about whether the Catholic Church can bless same-sex unions “without betraying revealed doctrine,” Pope Francis said, “pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing … that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage,” and that, “when a blessing is requested, one is expressing a request for help from God, a plea for a better life, a trust in a Father who can help us to live better.”
The pope seems to be suggesting something radical here: that it’s possible to bless a homosexual relationship. The Catholic Church teaches that sexual relations outside of lifelong marriage between one man and one woman is a sin. Every properly catechized Catholic child knows it’s not possible to bless sin. Every such child also knows that when most people request a blessing they aren’t making a “plea for a better life” but seeking approval, endorsement, and affirmation. That’s the common understanding of the thing, which Pope Francis bends over backward to avoid here.
Pope Francis, it seems, wants to open the way for priests to bless homosexual unions, as some priests in Germany and elsewhere in western Europe are already doing. He knows he can’t just come out and say this because it clearly contradicts Catholic doctrine, so instead he gives a rambling answer that technically affirms the Catholic Church’s de jure position on marriage (lifelong, between one man and one woman) while opening the way for a de facto practice of blessing homosexual unions. No one can accuse the pope of changing Catholic doctrine, but in reality, much will have been changed.
This is precisely the template the Vatican is planning to follow in this synod. Keep in mind, this synod is not an ecumenical council, like Vatican II or the Council of Trent. It cannot make decisions on matters of doctrine, and nothing it produces will be binding on Catholics. Indeed, the term “synodality” itself is undefined, and this is vital to the pope’s real goal. It’s a neologism, an abstract term — and therefore malleable — that has no history in Catholic doctrine. As Cardinal Raymond Burke wrote last week, “There is confusion around the term synodality, which people artificially try to link to an Eastern practice, but which in reality has all the characteristics of a recent invention, especially with regard to the laity.”
The real purpose of employing the term, Burke says, is “to profoundly change the hierarchical constitution of the Church.” This will be accomplished in part by invoking the Holy Spirit as the authority under which the synod makes its proclamations. Faithful Catholics will immediately see the red flag here. The Catholic Church, following the exhortation in the First Book of John to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world,” never relies solely on the Holy Spirit to guide the church but also relies on apostolic tradition and the teachings of the Magisterium.
Much has been said by the Vatican about the Holy Spirit being the “protagonist” of this synod, but not much has been said about apostolic tradition or doctrine. Cardinal Burke put it this way: “The whole synod process is presented as a work of the Holy Spirit who will guide all the members of the synod, but there is not a single word about the obedience due to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit that are always consistent with the truth of the perennial doctrine and the goodness of the perennial discipline that He has inspired throughout the centuries.”
Late last week, Diane Montagna, a reporter covering the synod, asked a Vatican official about this, noting that the Catholic Church has always discerned the presence of the Holy Spirit by determining whether it was in accord with divine revelation and apostolic tradition. “How is this assembly discerning whether something comes from the Holy Spirit or another spirit?” she asked.
It should be a simple question, but Montagna received a non-response from the official, who unhelpfully cited a line from the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” and followed it with a vague word-salad about the “people of God on a journey.” When she pressed for a substantive answer, the Vatican press office shut down the entire briefing. (Read the whole exchange here.)
While it might seem a trifling thing, the lack of a definition of “synodality” and a lack of clarity about how the Holy Spirit is “guiding” the proceedings is central to the entire scheme. Like Pope Francis’ comments on blessing homosexual unions, “synodality” is a smokescreen for smuggling in changes to Catholicism without formally changing doctrine, which this synod, like the pope, cannot do.
No one will assert this synod’s authority over the pope or the individual bishops, but whatever de facto changes Pope Francis and his allies want to bring about will be justified with an appeal to the urging of the Holy Spirit at the synod. They will make their changes a reality in practice while claiming they have not technically changed doctrine — a well-known tactic, by the way, of revolutionaries.
Now to the question of why Protestants should care about any of this. The reason is simple: Western civilization depends on a Catholic Church that upholds and defends the unchanging and unchangeable tenets of the faith and the moral order that proceeds from them. Protestants might bristle at that, but most of them, if they are being honest with themselves, know it’s true.
The Catholic Church is foundational and vital to the survival of Western civilization. The West can weather the disappearance of the Unitarians and the Quakers and the Episcopalians. It can even survive the paganization of mainline Protestantism. But it will not survive without the Catholic Church holding the line in society at large. No other Christian sect will step up to replace a fractured Catholic Church. Without it, the West will lose its coherence entirely and its decline, already well underway, will accelerate.
Despite all this, there’s reason for hope. The Catholic Church has in ages past gone through periods where Catholic practice dramatically departed from Catholic doctrine in disturbing but ultimately temporary ways. In the ninth and 10th centuries, it was common for priests to marry and have families. Simony (the selling of church offices or spiritual things, like absolution) was also common during this time. But the law of clerical celibacy and laws against simony were still on the books, so when Pope Gregory VII came along in the late 11th century, these laws were once again enforced, and Catholic practice was brought back in line with Catholic doctrine.
We might be entering another such period of disjunction between Catholic practice and doctrine, which will weaken the Catholic Church and hasten the decline of the West. The Synod on Synodality is part of this disjunction; it is the entire purpose of the thing. You might not care about Catholic doctrine, but if you care about Western civilization, you’ll want to pay attention to this synod. It concerns us all.