Christians believe that God has revealed eternal truths, and thus we necessarily believe that this revelation does not change regardless of changes in the world. This is the irreducible confession of faithful Christians, and is necessarily “conservative.” Our faith may be about to be put to the test, regardless of which historic branch of the Christian faith we belong to, by possible change in the formally sanctioned Catholic practice regarding sexual morality, which may result from the upcoming Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, to be held in Rome in October.
To review where the Catholic Church is at this point, Pope Francis has dramatically altered the course of the Catholic Church, from the clear direction of doctrinal orthodoxy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, itself a reaction to the attempted accommodation of the world by the Second Vatican Council, which shook the Church to its foundations. The clear direction of these popes not only cheered and rallied the Catholic faithful, but also drew support (and with some, conversion) of non-Catholic Christians similarly threatened by the inroads of the modern world into Christian life and faith. Thus, any weakening of the Catholic Church’s strong defense of historic Christian faith and morals, of God as a supreme ruler, of Jesus as offering salvation from personal sin, and of Christian sexual morality condemning sexual activity outside of the divinely ordained marriage of man and woman affects not only Catholics, but all Christians in their struggle with the world, the flesh and the devil.
Reading Pope Francis’ commitments and intentions have become something of an esoteric science, like the old science of Kremlinology, which attempted to discern the intentions and future moves of the Soviet leaders. But it does seem clear from his commitment to truth as evolving, rather than absolute, is that whatever traditionalist structures he maintains at the present time in the Catholic Church, his orthodoxy is held inside large liberal brackets. Like the Jesuits of old, in their battle with the fierce Jansenists, who championed an Augustinian emphasis on sudden conversion, Pope Francis favors “gradualism,” drawing people toward the holiness that Christ and the apostles require of believers while accepting them in the life of the Church on easy terms. It is not easy to defend this strategy from the Bible (Matt. 5:18, Matt. 5:28, I Cor. 6:18, I Thess. 4:3, II Thess. 3:6, to give a few examples), but it is an approach likely stood more chance of success in drawing people to holiness in the pre-modern world. The modern assault on the truth of the Biblical revelation is so strong and pervasive that a policy of gradualism is likely to be subverted into accepting worldliness as holiness. Feminists, homosexual activists, and those who reject the Christian doctrine of sin and salvation as an imposition on human autonomy do not want forgiveness, but acceptance as being righteous by the Church and all its people. The Pope’s statement that “the Holy Spirit has surprises” seems to foreshadow this.
The strategy liberal bishops are following is that that which has been suggested in recent years, as liberals chafed under the traditionalist popes – to begin a revolution in Catholic faith and morals with the issue of divorce and remarriage. While much of the Christian world has abandoned Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, the Roman Catholic Church still formally adheres to it, although in practice this is heavily qualified by the annulment process. The change proposed by the liberal German cardinal Walter Kasper envisions no formal change in doctrine, but a change in practice, most particularly in the formally sanctioned practice of who can receive communion. It was proposed that those divorced and civilly remarried might receive communion after a period of penitence, and without amendment of life. This would in reality begin a process of rendering Church doctrine dead letter, perhaps fairly quickly.
In fact, however, considerably more is at stake than the issue of divorce and re-marriage, although that touches many people. The true objective is the dismantling of Christian sexual morality, and its replacement with whatever the contemporary culture finds acceptable, which is, in our day, a general acceptance of consensual adult sexual activity. The 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family began to take steps in this direction, as the explosive interim report of that meeting made evident. Precipitating a revolt among the bishops, the document finally adopted by the 2014 synod backed away from declaring that there is value in homosexuality, but still, at the Pope’s insistence (and without the requisite majority) included language entertaining accommodation to persons (both to the re-married and homosexual) who remain impenitent. But for Cardinal Kasper and liberal bishops and theologians, perhaps even for the Pope himself, the true issue is even broader than sexual issues, but concerns the nature of God and His gospel. The gospel is held to be not unchanging truth and salvation from an unchanging God, but a project to liberate a suffering world in which God himself changes with history.
The year following the 2014 synod has been a time of maneuvering for the 2015 synod, which will make the final episcopal recommendations on sanctioned church practice, although the ultimate decision about what it will be rests with the Pope. Francis’ earlier comment that addressing the pastoral challenges of family issues would take more than a year suggests that the 2014 Extraordinary Synod was called to make liberalizing proposals an acceptable part of the discussion on sexual issues within the church. Once part of an ongoing debate, they would then have a realistic chance of adoption at the 2015 synod, which they would not have had in the Church left by Benedict XVI.
On the other hand, the thirty years since John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio (1981), which addressed the sexual revolution a generation ago, have seen yet further deterioration in the institution of marriage in the West, and also the appearance of homosexual marriage. While it might have been more prudent to continue to use that document as the basic response of the church to contemporary challenges regarding the family, reasonably the synods called by Pope Francis could be used to reinforce the message laid out by John Paul II with a sensitivity to what has happened over the past generation. George Weigel has offered both criticism of events at the 2014 synod and a cautiously optimistic assessment of the prospects for the 2015 synod. Among his concerns were the accuracy of the radical interim report on the 2014 proceedings in reporting what was said at the synod and the fact that no representatives of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute on the Family were invited to attend. That institute has offered strong resources in support of revealed doctrine for the 2015 synod to use in addressing its mission of proposing how the Church can successfully engage the sexual revolution. So the 2015 synod could constructively confront the crisis of marriage and the family using the rich resources of church doctrine and contemporary traditionalist research and scholarship. However, similar recommendations were made by advocates of traditional morality before the 2014 synod, and it is not such proposals for which that synod is remembered.
It can be expected that those high in the church who wish to see a liberalization of practice will make every effort to subvert the outcome of the 2015 synod. The Voice of the Family initiative sponsored by numerous pro-life and traditionalist organizations maintains a website with current articles on some of the threats, with its discussion of Cardinal Kasper’s German idealist assumptions (in which history develops without an eternal moral order) being particularly noteworthy. At a “shadow council” of liberal bishops and Catholic thinkers at Rome on May 25 of this year, formulae to advance the liberalization of divorce and re-marriage were discussed. Generally it was held that traditional Christian teaching on divorce and re-marriage, based on the words of Jesus, could be held to be historically relative. While Cardinal George Pell of Australia, a strong protagonist of traditional faith and morals, stated earlier in the year that traditional morality would be strongly endorsed by the upcoming synod, we should never underestimate the ability of opponents to subvert it, particular if there is support to do this from authorities guiding the synod.
The 2015 synod could effectively authorize an end to church discipline with respect to sexual morality by using vague language. Liberal prelates would use it to change church practice in their areas under their jurisdiction, while conservative prelates would be on the defensive in enforcing orthodox practice in their dioceses. Over time, the dynamics of the new situation would result in more liberal practice predominating in the church, as happened after the Second Vatican Council.
A church which is liberalized in its response to the world will not advance or defend the Christian virtue of holiness, a key point of conflict between traditional Christianity and liberalism; really the key doctrine of God which is in dispute. It is also the key doctrine involved in the conflict in the western world over religious liberty. The legal right to obey God, and thus dissociate oneself from worldliness and sin or to dissociate a Christian church or Christian organization from worldliness and sin is at the heart of the struggle over religious liberty. Notably, whereas Chicago’s late Francis Cardinal George proposed closing Catholic institutions if they are required to compromise with sinful requirements, his “moderate” successor, Blasé Cupich considered such a course of action too harsh. The possible loss the Catholic voice in the contemporary moral conflict is an especially severe one, because the adversary morality (really anti-morality) of the sexual revolution, rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s, and endorsed with ever greater force by the U.S. Supreme Court from the 1970s on, holds that the Christian condemnation of sexual immorality is “oppressive” and “demeaning.” Indeed, truth and reality are to be refused if the ideology of hedonism finds it humiliating. Unless this is resisted as the arrogant act of will that it is, more and more of the public will accept that Biblical Christianity should be consigned to ignominy and illegality. There will always be faithful Christians, but we should do all in our power to advance a world based on truth and freedom.
If liberalized standards for communion are agreed to at the upcoming 2015 synod, it is overwhelming likely that the present pope will implement them. This will begin a more overt liberalization of a church in which the laity is already significantly more liberal than the leadership. Faithful Christians, whether Catholic or not, will be in a much more difficult position than even the very recent past, when pressures both from the world and within their churches threatened Biblical doctrine and practice. But our faith in God’s revealed written Word is the sufficient answer if a substantial ecclesiastical collapse of Christian orthodoxy does occur. While we may differ on the all details of the meaning of Scripture, its central message of God’s holiness, and human sin and redemption through Jesus Christ cannot change. Christians will have to continue to live their lives according to God’s Word, and declare both in the church and to the world that God’s revealed will never changes, and that despite assurances that rationalizing sin will be acceptable to God, in fact only repentance and amended life gives evidence that one has received saving grace. Our faith, and the determination to live our lives according to it, do not finally depend of ecclesiastical strength, but on God, who has revealed his Word finally in Scripture, and testifies to believers of its truth by his Holy Spirit.