Friday, March 18, 2016

How to read the forthcoming Exhortation

I will wash my hands among the innocent, and compass thine altars O Lord.
Everyone is talking about the Post Synodal Exhortation, so why not jump on the bandwagon? Here is some advice which almost everyone will ignore.

For now: Don't read speculation about the contents. It is a waste of time, it raises the blood pressure, and it will fill your head with preconceived ideas.

When it published, not everyone will have the time to read long documents. It may be very long; one of the things unofficially abolished by Vatican II was the art of brevity. Most people will read short extracts and commentary. When looking at these, or indeed when ploughing through the whole thing, bear in mind a few principles of exegesis.

1. The Pope can't change the teaching of the Church. No, really, he can't, not even a little bit, not even for the needs of the time, not even with the help of the Holy Ghost. He cannot change one jot or tittle, and anyone who tells you to stop believing what the Church has (really) taught up to some moment in the past, is inviting you to depart from the Church by heresy. Your interlocutor may claim the Pope rejects the old teaching, but, on this point, IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE what the Pope says. Having the Pope with you in Hell will be no comfort at all - just ask Dante.

How can you know what the teaching of the Church is? On topics like the ones at issue today, it's really not so hard. The Church's teaching on sexuality and divorce is clearly set out in Scripture, in the Papal Magisterium, and in every half-decent catechism of any century you choose. And here is a key thing about the teaching of the Church: if you fear that it is being distorted in the way it is presented today, just look at how it was presented formerly. Look at Aquinas, look at the Catechism of the Council of Trent, look at St Paul. (You don't have be a scholar: just Google appropriate terms and the answer will pop up like magic.) The truth remains the same; the lies change with the wind.

2. The Pope has a special charism to reaffirm the teaching of the Church, should he wish to do so. He will do this in an ordinary way in his speeches and sermons, and he does so in a way actually guaranteed to contain no error when he sets out to speak in a more formal way. The exercise of the gift of infallibility is not primarily a matter of formal procedure, but it isn't something the Pope does without really thinking about it, either. He must be addressing the whole Church, he must be talking about Faith or Morals, he must be consciously using his authority. We are not going to see an authoritative exercise of this gift in the coming exhortation, because the Pope, Cardinal Kasper, and everyone else has told us repeatedly that 'the teaching on indissolubility remains, BUT ...' It obviously doesn't make sense to suggest that what comes after the 'but' is more an exercise of teaching authority than what comes before it. What comes after it is all about the next point.

3. The Pope can change the discipline of the Church, the rules governing organs of the Church such as Marriage Tribunals, and he can also change public perceptions of Church teaching. The fact that he can't change teaching doesn't mean what he says isn't important. One of the things it can do is to bring out, or obscure, the teaching of the Church. In making such changes the Pope has the graces of his office, should he be open to them, but nothing remotely akin to the gift of infallibility. Even good Popes, canonised Popes, have made disastrous decisions on prudential matters. But the long-standing practises of the Church, on the other hand, contain a kind of wisdom, and reflect the teachings of the Church in a special way. If they have stood the test of time, if they have been used and endorsed by countless saints and doctors, if they have nourished the spiritual lives of the Faithful over centuries, if they bring to us today the spirit of ages not infected with the specific errors of our own time, they are precious, they have authority, they should not lightly be tampered with. The consequences of demolishing long-standing disciplinary practises, rules governing the way the Church functions, and the presentation of teaching so as to change perceptions of the Church, are frequently very bad indeed.

4. What is significant about a document from Rome is what it changes, not what it says. This is an exegetical principle of the late Michael Davies: when reading a new document, ask What does it allow which was not previously allowed? What does it forbid which was not previously forbidden? The rest is padding. The truth of this principle becomes clear with the assistance of hindsight. What is significant about Paul VI's Memoriale Domini is that it allowed Communion in the Hand: it is irrelevant that nine tenths of the thing is hymn of praise for Communion on the Tongue, and that it actually says that the existing rules aren't being changed. That 90% of the document is inert, like the polystyrene padding in a parcel. In exactly the same way, what is significant about Summorum Pontificum is that the Traditional Mass is allowed without permission from bishops. The rhetorical concessions to liberals unhappy about this, slipped in here and there, are of no significance. Getting worked up about them is a complete waste of time.

This is the most important lesson of all. When the document comes out, there will be something for everyone. Neo-conservative bloggers will fill pages with quotations from it about the importance and indissolubility of marriage: guaranteed. Liberal journalists will fill pages of the dead-wood media with quotations from it about the importance of mercy: no question about it. Neither makes any difference. It will all be forgotten within the year. This kind of material can be read in line with any number of different views about what, in practise, should happen to the divorced and remarried. The only thing which is important in the document is what it changes, the bits where the Pope uses his legislative authority to make a concrete difference. There are currently clear rules in Canon Law about the rights and obligations of Catholics living in a public state of sin, and of priests ministering to them. These rules can be changed in a number of different ways. Again, rules and principles of confessional practise can be changed, and rules about who can be a godparent - what it means to be a public sinner - and so on.

In a somewhat different way, a sound-bite summary of Catholic teaching can be set out which will become effectively definitive for Catholics in the pew and media pundits alike, and become a master-principle through which theologians (at least those friendly to it) will interpret everything else. It can become impossible for a dissenting (conservative or liberal) speaker to talk for 30 seconds in the media without having this statement shoved down his throat. It can be used by bishops to silence dissent among the clergy; agreement with it can become a test of orthodoxy more authoritative than the Athanasian Creed. This happened after Vatican II with the notion of 'accordance with the orientation of the Council': an incredibly vague, even meaningless phrase, which was all the better suited to tyrannical use as a sledgehammer against anything liberals didn't like. If there are any legislative changes, I expect some such sound-bite will accompany them to make anyone disagreeing with the changes to look stupid, Pharisaical, and disobedient.

No doubt the real meat of the document in terms of legislative change and key sound-bite will be presented to the public pretty quickly after the media embargo is lifted. It can be fun quoting the other bits of a document, but don't expect it to get you anywhere. What is of supreme importance for every Catholic in the Church is that we do not allow anything, whether it comes from the media, from Cardinals, or from the Pope, whether it be our misreading of these sources or the solemn truth about who has said or thought what, take from us our adherence to the teaching of the Church. The teaching of the Church is the teaching of Christ. It is Christ who saves us, through the Church. Let us cling to them, and let the chips fall where they may.

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  1. Dear Mr. Shaw,

    Thank you for this calm and common sense piece of advice.

    In Christ
    Alan and Angeline Houghton.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. If we take note of recent actions of the Holy See in the light of your rules of interpretation, I think we can easily predict the content of the apostolic exhortation. I have in mind the recent change in protocol, governing the reception of Catholic heads of state, in which, for the first time, those of them that are divorced and remarried are allowed to present their irregular spouses in audience (and - surprise, surprise - the new president of Argentina was the first benificiary of this change).

  4. Well yes we know this. The question is not whether or not to follow the Pope when he undermines the faith, but what to do about his undermining it; how to resist him in short.

  5. You don't have to spend long looking at Catholic websites and newspapers to realise that not everyone knows this.

    How to resist, if that is necessary, will depend on what exactly we are resisting. My own view is that it will be priests, not the laity, in the front line.

    1. No offense, Dr. Shaw, but don't put all your eggs in that basket. The more scandalous the statements, the more deafening the silence. That's what I have witnessed in the past three years and I guess I'm not alone.

    2. Well, we shall see.

    3. My experience and expectation is that most priests will look for something they agree with and quote that. ("Pope Francis Speaks" is the title of the weekly section in my Parish newsletter.)
      Thereby giving the impression that they agree with it all even if they certainly do not.
      Otherwise they will ignore it altogether.
      And the few that really do object, certainly in E&W, will be silenced as has already happened in other situations.

  6. Surely the first problem in reading the Apostolic Exhortation is going to be how one summons up the courage and the patience to read through the forecast 200 pages of what on previous form is likely to be a great deal of waffle.

  7. Mr Shaw, You could always issue an apoplexy alert for LMS members....

  8. Yes,one can look up St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas or the Catechism of the Council of Trent to see the teaching of the Church. It seems a little odd that you didn't refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated just two decades ago.

    1. Not odd at all, since I am talking about taking the longer historical view.

      If you read my blog regularly, you'd know that I quote the 1992 Catechism a good deal.

  9. Anonymous4:58 pm

    Excellent piece.

    I'd put it thusly: The Pope cannot change the teaching of the Church, but he can change the culture of Catholicism, and THAT has already been done by the Popes since Vatican 2. In effect, as a Lutheran convert to the Catholic faith, having gravitated to the FSSP simply because it is Catholic, I find the culture of greater Catholicism to be moderately liberal Lutheranism. Period. I see almost no difference in what is taught by the moderate/liberal Lutherans to what is taught by this Pope and his allies.

    Martin Luther would be proud.

    So watch closely and pray it does not happen; the celebration of the divorce of the Church in Lund this fall with the lesbian-ordaining schismatic Swedish Lutheran Church. The Pope no longer surprises me as to why he chose them with whom to desecrate the Church.

  10. Unfortunately, Mr Shaw,considering the stupefying ignorance of your average Catholics (and the media liars) people WILL think he can change the Church, and that is the problem.

    But whether we are ignorant Catholics or generally well-informed Catholics, the damage done by this man and his sycophants will be severe.

  11. Our Pope and our Cross was intended for this time by the will of God and how we react to him is how we prove we love God or not.

    Accepting novelty is to fail the testing of God.

    Accepting Tradition and rejecting novelty is what must be done and it can be done in good humor and in the peace of Christ.

  12. where is Hell in all this, and do we just don't go to church, what is the advice

    1. Keep going to church, little Al! We're all going to need the Sacraments.

  13. "The Pope can't change the teaching of the Church." --- I doubted this statement. Now, it is changed.