After the initial shock, many leading Catholic voices are regrouping to refocus their public response to the synod report, which is after all not a teaching of the bishops (as the New York Times misreported), but a mid-session committee report.
As Robert George wrote on Public Discourse: “[The synod] has no teaching authority whatsoever. What’s more, it proposed no changes – none — in the doctrine or moral teaching of the Church.”
But something has changed. Pope Francis, by hand-selecting these six men to issue an unprecedented public report on a discussion in mid-process, is sending a strong if indirect signal about how Catholics and our institutions should respond, practically, to the triumph of the sexual revolution, including its latest phase, gay marriage. The synod report, if adopted by the bishops, will change Catholic witness and teaching either on marriage, or on the Eucharist, or both.
I apologize in advance to my many valued non-Catholic readers. Becoming a Catholic writer, as opposed to a person who writes about marriage for the public square, is a fairly new development to me. I apologize to my Catholic readers as well, because if one is Catholic, one ought not to worry about what the Church is going to do; the comfort of a secure moral authority is part of Catholicism’s historic attractions, and not only for Catholics. (“He’s throwing us all under the bus,” grumbled a non-Catholic member of my own family on reading the headlines on the synod report.)
When Cardinal Burke is publicly calling on Pope Francis to say that he believes the Church’s teaching, and with Cardinal Kasper now claiming that both the pope and a “growing majority” of bishops favor licensing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, it is pretty clear what we have here is a crisis of faith and of the faithful.
The “growing majority are in favor of an opening,” said Cardinal Kasper, meaning an opening to the possibility that divorced, civilly remarried Catholics will receivie Communion without first having had an annulment. He added that the Holy Father has been “silent” about his opinion and “has listened very carefully” during the synod. “But it’s clearly what he wants, and that’s evident,” Cardinal Kasper said. “He wants a major part of the episcopacy with him and he needs it. He cannot do it against the majority of the episcopacy.” He added that the pope had told him problems exist “in his family” and that he has “looked at the laity and seen the great majority are for a reasonable, responsible opening.”
This is high drama with the highest of stakes, calling into question whether or not the pope himself believes what the Catholic Church has taught for 2,000 years, based on the words of Jesus Christ: a sacramental marriage between baptized Christians cannot be dissolved by any power on earth. And through this public debate, the most anti-clerical of all recent popes is permitting others to call into question (using his own name) the settled Church teaching not only on two sacraments, the Eucharist and Marriage, but ultimately on papal authority. The pope cannot teach that divorce is impossible and possible at the same time. If divorced and remarried Catholics (who are committing either adultery or polygamy depending on your point of view in the Catholic tradition) can in good conscience take the Eucharist, then either Pope Francis is wrong, or the popes before him were all wrong. Either way the idea that we can look with confidence to the Holy Father to guide our lives is exploded.
It’s likely that the pope will not pronounce any change in practice “ex cathedra,” so the doctrine of papal infallibility that attaches to those rare statements will not be formally in question. But the ordinary faith that Catholics are supposed to have and that they once had in the words of the pope will have become impossible. I cannot stake my life on the words of Cardinal Kasper and John Paul II at the same time. If Pope Francis makes Cardinal Kasper’s views his own, I will have to disbelieve one or the other of our Holy Fathers. A schism will have been introduced into the fabric of the Catholic faith at the very heart of what is distinctively Catholic.
My first reaction to the synod report was very painful (and arguably embarrassing), and I knew that many who read it would see me as unwelcoming toward gay people. For the record, I am not one of those who believe Catholicism means you can’t invite your gay son’s partner to Thanksgiving dinner. I do not believe we can practice Catholicism or raise our children as if gay people did not exist. I understand the longing for that world, but it is not the world we live in.
As I wrote last spring:
Whatever we do, and whatever we say, we have to be willing to say it, as if to a beloved child of our own family, coming to us with a loving gay marriage. There is no line we can draw that pushes gay people “outside” and leaves us free “inside” to be angry, foot-stomping, and morally “pure.” We are all tangled up in Love with sin, our own and that of those we love.
No, for me the reason this synod report creates such a deep, personal distress is that the indissolubility of marriage was the very idea that drew me back to the Church that my mother left when I was eight years old. It is possible to make a vow of love that can transform eros from a fickle god to a living reality, I believed — that becoming a wife can transform my identity as completely as becoming a mother can. This means that at the heart of our identity is not the solitary individual or fragmenting relations but Love itself.
It seemed to me literally a miracle that these ideas had survived in the culture in which I grew up, so I decided to stake my life that the Church that had sustained this profoundly countercultural truth was indeed founded by God. If you are free to take Communion while sleeping with someone who is not your wife, then we are not serious about Communion and sin. If we accept that the second wife you are sleeping with is really your wife, then we don’t believe in indissolubility.
Look, I am a nobody in the broader scheme of things, and I do not relate my personal troubles as if they should be of interest to anyone else, except insofar as they may inform the fathers of my Church what, pastorally, they are doing now in Rome.
The priests who martyred themselves rather than permit powerful men to remake marriage need a public apology and possibly restitution. “We should replace the feast day of St. Thomas More with the feast of St. Henry the VIII,” one wag told me privately. After all, a desire for a child is one of the very good authentic “family values” he displayed.
The faith of millions will be put at risk, and among those millions are the ones who are sustaining the Church, as even Crux noticed. (Crux urges Pope Francis to make some kind of generous gesture to the orthodox Catholic community, as if we are children seeking a pat on the head instead of those whose steadfast faith rests in the belief the Church stands for the unbroken teachings of Christ.)
I hope Cardinal Kasper is wrong. I hope he is delusional, so that I need not fear for my church or his faith, or mine.
But the combined public comments of Cardinals Burke and Kasper make the “nothing has changed, no worries” position of Catholic commenters untenable and disconnected from the truth very publicly now on display.
There is a crisis of faith taking place in public, in real time, in Rome.
When the final synod report comes out over the weekend, we will have a first glimpse of how serious and sustained that crisis is.
— Maggie Gallagher is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at MaggieGallagher.com.