After the strange 'Relatio' published in the middle of the two-week Synod, we've seen a remarkable turn-around of events. It would seem that participants successfully demanded that the reports responding to this Relatio of the 'circuli minores', the small discussion groups, be published. These revealed the truth of what a number of Synod Fathers had been saying: that the liberal tone of the Relatio completely failed to reflect the views of the participants. Once the reports of the circuli minores were published, it was impossible for the people drawing up the final report to ignore them: the dishonesty would have been too obvious. Furthermore, the very unrepresentative team producing the report was joined by Cardinal Napier in the interests of balance, and the Synod got the opportunity to vote on the final report. The result has been a final report, though not the detailed reaffirmation of the Church's teaching one might have wished, a million miles away from the mid-term Relatio, which offers no comfort to those who want to see the Church's teaching and discipline pulped. Pope Francis wrapped the proceedings up with an elaborately balanced speech.
What we have seen this fortnight is, nevertheless, quite scary. We have witnessed the operation, exposure, and defeat, of a ruthless attempt to manipulate the synod and, through the synod, the whole Church. There is no reason to imagine the threat this represented is going to go away. There is going to be a new, bigger synod on the same subjects this time next year, and there is every reason to suppose that the same people will be in charge. The people who produced a grossly one-sided pre-synod questionnaire, and published the responses from Germany (which had the right answers) and not elsewhere (which may not have); the people who published the ludicrously liberal talk from the lay couple to the synod, because they agreed with it, but refused to publish the cardinals' speeches, because they didn't always; the people who produced the mid-term Relatio pushing things in their favoured direction, in complete disregard for the views it was supposed to reflect. They've been given a bloody nose, but they aren't going to give up. Next time they may win: they may get a final report out along the lines of the mid-term Relatio, or even something worse. We must fact the fact that this is perfectly possible.
Right now we face a threat which Traditional Catholics can fairly claim to have seen coming. The structures of the Church could well be used, perhaps silently, to undermine the Church's teaching on marriage, with some degree of endorsement from the very top. (This is essentially what Cardinal Burke is saying.) The teaching on marriage has already been undermined by priests who give Communion to the divorced and remarried. It has been undermined by bishops who refuse to preach about it - or worse. It has been undermined by marriage tribunals in parts of the world where annulments appear to be handed out like sweets. There is nothing new about the structures of the Church being misused to undermine marriage, in itself. What we are faced with is the possibility that the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the official disciplinary policy of the Church, could fall silent on the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Holy Communion.
Let me underline that. No Pope is going to teach ex cathedra that marriage is not indissoluble. But it is possible that, with the approval of the Supreme Legislator, Canon Law could cease to say what it says today about the reception of Communion, which gives the teaching on indissolubility some practical implications. It could cease to implement Divine Law in this respect. If this happens, there will have to be a new edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with the corresponding section deleted - or perhaps no new edition at all. This silence, this letting the thing go, will, like the silence of Sir Thomas More about King Henry VIII's divorce, though with the opposite meaning, reverberate around the world. The consequences, for all the good intentions in the world, will be catastrophic.
My old adversary, the neo-con Fr Longenecker, says exactly what the problem is here.
Here is an example: twice in the last week I have had to deal with Catholics in irregular marriages. One woman married outside the church and told me that she thought it was now okay for her to come to communion because, “The pope has changed all those old rules.” Another man has divorced his wife and is living with another woman. He also assured me very confidently that it was now fine for him to come to communion because, “Pope Francis has changed the rules.” I know you mean well Holy Father, and I admire and like you, but this process on which you have led us is not helping.
This is happening before any official changes have taken place. Now imagine what it is going to be like if there is some official change. Hedged about, cautious, applicable only to a few cases with the approval of the bishop - whatever you like. Few people are going to bother going to the bishop for a dispensation (if that is what is needed), any more than they go to the bishop to be instituted as regular Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. (I bet you didn't realise that is supposed to happen: Redemptionis Sacramentum 155.)
Priests like Fr Longenecker are aware that the obligation on them not to distribute Holy Communion to public sinners does not derive solely from Canon Law; it derives from Divine Law, and is an act of mercy towards the would-be communicant. If public sinners start turning up for Communion, perhaps with a letter from the bishop, to priests like Fr Longenecker, we are going to have a very serious problem indeed.
I have been talking about the difference between neo-conservatives in the Church and traditional Catholics. The neo-cons often have a very exaggerated view of Papal authority, which goes far beyond the proper magisterial authority of the Pope's teaching office, to the ludicrous idea that we are obliged to adopt the reigning Pope's personal views. The absurdity of this, I hope, is becoming evident to even the most simple-minded of them. They have also, however, and very admirably, made it their special mission to promote and defend the teaching of the Church on life, marriage and sexuality. But let's not say, 'the teachings of the Church'; these are the teachings of Christ. Departure from these is departure from Christ. I hope, and expect, the neo-cons to stick to these teachings regardless of whence the challenge to them comes. The leadership of Cardinals Pell and Napier, who are by no means traditionalists, as well as Burke, shows the way here.
The important distinction over the next few years, among Catholics who oppose the Church's 'autodemolition',as Bl Paul VI called it, may turn out to be not between Trads and Neo-Cons, but between orthodox Catholics with a spine and those without. What kind are you going to be?
And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.
Ait autem Dominus 'Simon Simon, ecce Satanas expetivit vos ut cribraret sicut triticum. Ego autem rogavi pro te, ut non deficiat fides tua, et tu aliquando conversus confirma fratres tuos.'
Notice the plural in the first verse - 'vos', 'you' - and the singular in the second - 'te', 'thee', 'fides tua', 'thy faith'. Satan will sift us all like wheat. It is Simon who will, in the end, confirm his brothers.