Like antifreeze that drips from a car and poisons cats, the statements exuded by the Vatican Synod on the Family are sweet. It is tempting to lap them up, to welcome the Church’s new proposed stance of apologizing to sinners and obscuring the nature of sin.
There is no other way to describe the moral revolution proposed in the Synod’s preliminary report, which was produced by the bishops whom Pope Francis handpicked to manage the meeting. Rather than speaking prophetically in defense of the uniqueness and holiness of marriage, the task of Christians today includes “recognizing positive elements” in “imperfect” unions such as cohabitating couples, divorced couples living in what Jesus called “adultery,” and even homosexual relationships.
As for those, the Church must find a way of “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation,” a condition which the Catholic Catechism still (for the moment) calls “an objective disorder” for very important reasons: It “orders” people to activities which the Church has always reasoned are unnatural and sinful. By the laws of logic, the Church cannot welcome and value such an “orientation” without accepting what it orients people to crave: erotic relationships that are incompatible with marriage.
How we wish that the universe worked Synod-style, that its Creator answered our whims like an obsequious restaurant waiter angling for tips. Wouldn’t it be pleasant if God looked on our sins and saw only the gifts which He gave us, instead of the miserable ways that we use them? Like a child who stuffs his brand new Lego blocks down the throat of the family dog, we’re surprised by praise for our endeavor’s “positive elements.” Were God like the leading Synod fathers — that is, a senile grandfather in heaven — he would nod and tell us: “That’s quite an obedient dog. And those Lego blocks are shiny. Look how very many of them you have managed to fit inside of Fido. What an energetic boy!”
I am sick at heart, like millions of Catholics, to hear shepherds of our Church fall over themselves to sound like liberal Episcopalians. We know from recent history precisely where this leads: To gapingly empty churches, ecumenical services with Islamists — and gatherings like the Anglican synod some years ago, where an openly gay bishop squirmed in his shoes, as an old-fashioned Christian prelate from Africa accosted him and prayed over him to drive out the “demon of sodomy.” Well, the Synod has many sessions left to run. Plenty of time for the faithful remnant to dust off their exorcism kits. (To their credit, it appears that faithful bishops forced the pope’s appointed Synod managers to remove the most offensively relativistic statements in the next draft of the Synod’s report.)
There is so much wrong with the statements that came from the highly educated, privileged leaders of the universal Church that it would take a book to explain it — in fact, a series of books, which will surely appear in the next 12 months from outraged, desperate Catholics. They will rightly be trying to shoot down this reckless progressive trial balloon. But it’s too late. The damage is done.
The media are completely justified in posing the kind of question that would have made people burst out laughing 40 years ago: “What will the Catholic Church teach next year about extramarital sex?”
The institution of marriage is frail enough already, like an old woman getting shoved around in a crowded subway station. Marriage is being corroded by social forces that make its promises seem absurd, persecuted by laws that make divorce easier than refinancing a speedboat, and redefined by a secular state at the whim of radical elites.
You would think that the clerics might defend the old girl, and insist that marriage is the basic building block of society and the safest refuge of helpless children. Instead they are treating marriage as some utopian ideal, which it’s foolish to think that everyone can attain — so we must learn to love, value, and learn from the grotesque failures which we sinners, in our weakness, accept instead: shacking up, second unions unblessed by God, and even homosexual partnerships, whose central activity used to be called a “sin that cries out to heaven.”
Oh well, times change — why shouldn’t eternity? As progressive humankind charges forward like a pack of rogue elephants, we will leave it to God and His Church to follow with brooms and shovels.
The men who are leading the Synod do not need theology lessons from me. If only because enough good men remain among them and tell the truth, these saboteurs know exactly what they are doing.
And like the Pharisees, they already have their reward — their attaboys from the New York Times and their Methodist and Unitarian golfing pals. The Synod leaders have neutralized the nastiest attacks from homosexual activists, and bought peace with the secular state for the next ten years or so. Like Henry VIII’s compliant bishops, they will be “safe.” For a decade at least, they will keep the hundreds of millions of dollars gathered in Germany from the “church tax,” and in the U.S. from federal contracts to agencies that are Catholic in name only, such as Catholic Charities and diocesan immigrant offices. Bishops will get to pretend that they preside over powerful, consequential institutions, and the world will pretend to believe them. For now. Until the hatred of Christianity ratchets up another notch, and demands an even more craven surrender.
Bishops who are so inclined — including the Bishop of Rome — can continue to garner headlines for their attacks on a mythical “unregulated capitalism,” their demands for radical redistribution of the wealth and the dismantling of borders. They can praise the mass influx of Muslims into Europe, and cash a check every time an illegal immigrant arrives in America. As men without children, they don’t need to worry about their descendants. They are confident of eternity, since they don’t believe in hell.
Let me give these men something to worry about. These men who are fracking the Church to produce the current “earthquake of mercy” are hungry for recognition and legitimacy. They want to be seen as leaders — which is why they dash out in front of every crowd, wherever it’s headed. But legitimacy is precisely what the bishops and even the pope will sacrifice if the Synod ends up approving the radical proposals that are before it.
If the pope permits divorced couples who now live in extramarital relationships to receive Holy Communion without repenting and promising celibacy, he will be sanctioning one of two things: adultery or polygamy. Marriage is, by Christ’s command, indissoluble. That was taught infallibly by the Council of Trent. If the pope denies that doctrine, if he re-shapes one of the seven sacraments so radically, he will be proving something that the Orthodox have been saying since 1870: That he is not infallible on matters of faith and morals.
That might not sound like such an enormous sacrifice; the Church got along quite well without that doctrine right up until Vatican I. But by flouting the Council of Trent, and proving that Vatican I was in fact mistaken, the pope would be doing much more. He would be demonstrating that such Councils themselves lacked divine authority — that they were not like Nicaea or Chalcedon, the early Councils that built up Christian doctrine. Instead Councils such as the Lateran, Trent, and Vaticans I and II, would be merely local Western synods, exactly as the Orthodox have been insisting since 1054. In other words, the pope would be proving that Roman Catholic assertions of papal authority are grossly exaggerated, and that the Eastern Orthodox have the better claim as the heirs of the twelve apostles.
There’s an irony here, since the Orthodox have permitted the quasi-polygamous “Kasper option” for more than 1,000 years. But the Orthodox make no pretense of wielding infallible authority. They accept the early Councils of the Church (which took place well before 1054) and argue among themselves over how to apply them. They could be wrong.
And on marriage, the Orthodox are wrong. But Rome has no such wiggle room. The claims of the papacy are brave, expansive — and empirically falsifiable. If Rome adopts the Orthodox practice of marriage, that will falsify them. The mouse will have died in the maze.
If this happens, it would not prove that Luther or Calvin were right. Instead it would show that papal claims are false, that God has not left the Church with a central authority for the interpretation of doctrine, and that the Orthodox model is the only viable choice for sacramental Christians.
Of course, if the pope accepts polygamy, many Catholics will play along. Liberals will smell this “reform” as blood in the water and hunger for more: homosexual marriage, women bishops, and the rest of the progressive death-wish-list. Some conservatives who value authority over truth will dutifully defend this papal decision, and pretend that they never argued against it in the first place. Some traditionalists will split off altogether, and claim that Pope Francis became a heretic and lost his office as pope. They may even gather and elect an anti-pope.
But the game will be over. Vatican I rules out any attempts, even by a council, to depose or overrule a pope. Anyway, Christ’s promise to Peter cannot amount to a crass tautology such as “The pope is infallible … until he makes a mistake. Then he isn’t pope anymore.” We may be saved through the eye of a needle, but not through the chink of a loophole. If Pope Francis demolishes marriage, he destroys the throne that he sits on. Future popes might claim to be the “Vicar of Christ.” But then, Queen Elizabeth claims to be the “Defender of the Faith.” We all know how much that means.
I await with considerable interest the outcome of the Synod.
John Zmirak is co-author, most recently, of The Race to Save Our Century.