Politics & Policy

Liberal Pharisees in the Catholic Church

Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, October 25, 2015. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty)

Conservative Catholicism — the Catholicism that developed as a protective bulwark against progressive distortions at the Second Vatican Council — has largely been a resounding success over the past 40 years. But last year it was delivered a sobering blow during “part one” of the drama that was the synod on the family. Many prelates were blindsided last year especially by the midterm report, which brought in troublesome counter-claims to Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage. Veteran Vatican journalist Edward Pentin broke the whole story of the debacle detailed it in his book The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?, in which it seems very clear that a progressive agenda had been quietly set by a German-speaking liberal elite who had been given administrative control of the synod process.

Alarms were immediately sounded last year, and the final report brought things back into line with the Church’s constant teaching. Some conservatives were relieved; others wondered whether we were in for more of the same this year. The prelates who were blindsided last year were, however, now on high alert.

This is the essential background for understanding what happened at the beginning of this year’s synod. It began with a strong homily from Pope Francis on the beauty of marriage between a man and a woman, and then an extensive introductory report by Cardinal Erdo, the general relator of the synod, reassuring the synod fathers that the Church’s teachings would not be thwarted this year by special-interest groups. Add to this the 13 cardinals who wrote a letter to the Holy Father expressing their grave concern over how to avoid last year’s synod manipulations and distortions — they were manifest in the deeply problematic Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for this year’s synod — and you have a clear picture of how hard many were working to ensure that the synod would not be “managed” for progressive purposes. 

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Three weeks later, the synod fathers were voting on a final document that was a vast improvement over the Instrumentum Laboris. The initial reports from conservative synod watchers were cautiously optimistic. It looked like the German elite had lost their attempt to use clever casuistry to weaken the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage or at least to wave away the sin of adultery.

Simple notices were sent around social media: No to Cardinal Walter Kasper, the architect of the proposal that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics be admitted to Communion even when the spouse from their first, sacramental marriage was still living; No to softening language on sexual sins such as adultery and sodomy; and No to the proposal to devolve Church teaching to regional or national bishops’ conferences (a.k.a. Land of Luther). Add to this that progressives seemed genuinely disappointed by the final report.

#share#But two things put the brakes on this optimism. One was a closing speech by Pope Francis, and the other was a closer look at the three most problematic paragraphs of the synod’s final report. These things allowed the progressives to change their tone and go into high-spin media mode.

In his closing speech, the Holy Father invoked some unsettling categories to describe the synod. He contrasted teachers of the law who would sit in the chair of Moses to those who opened up hearts to the gospel. He seemed to chastise synod fathers for standing too much with the Old Testament instead of siding with the New. He specifically contrasted those who followed the Letter of the Law with those who followed its Spirit. Never mind that the Catholic Church is not Marcionite (we do not separate the Old and the New Testaments) and never mind that our tradition holds together Letter and Spirit as close as Christ’s two natures — what did the Holy Father mean? It seemed that he was calling conservatives “teachers of the law,” and progressives that “vital source of newness” that the gospel represents. If he meant that, and it’s hard to argue he didn’t, then maybe conservatives have bigger worries than the synod final report.

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Then the news poured in about three paragraphs (84–86) that passed with extremely narrow majorities, achieved by the drafters constructing the most casuistical of ambiguities. The three paragraphs looked innocuous on first glance, but on closer inspection anyone can see that Kasper’s battalions can be driven right through them.

This became patently clear with Cardinal Kasper’s response to the final report: “I’m satisfied; the door has been opened to the possibility of the divorced and remarried being granted Communion. There has been somewhat of an opening, but the consequences were not discussed. All of this is now in the pope’s hands, who will decide what has to be done. The synod made suggestions. There has been an opening, but the question has still to be resolved in full and needs to be studied more.”

The history of modern moral theology has shifted from the patristic and medieval emphasis on virtues and vices to placing law at the center. The real “teachers of the law,” the clever casuists, are in fact the progressives.

As Cardinal Kasper ominously noted, “All of this is now in the pope’s hands.” Catholics must hope, and pray for this “pope of surprises,” that the surprise will be that he sees that the legalists here aren’t the conservatives. The legalists are really those casuistical ones who place the law at the center of moral theology. So often in the tradition they are driven to extremes of interpreting the law either strictly or loosely. It’s certainly possible that the Holy Father understands that the history of modern moral theology has — not least among Jesuit moral theologians — shifted from the patristic and medieval emphasis on virtues and vices to placing law at the center. And if he sees that much, then he will also see that the Kasperites are in fact the real “teachers of the law,” the clever casuists. They think in terms not of virtue and vice, truth or falsehood, but only of how to get around the law while purportedly leaving it in place, always under sophistic banners of “gradualism” in its application.

Jesuits, in fact, have a reputation for just this kind of casuistry that is so apparent in the ambiguous paragraphs. All signs point to Pope Francis’s interpreting them in the way progressives hope. But I’m on record as being a hopeful conservative with regard to this pope, often reading him against the liberal narrative rather than with it. I am obedient to the Office of Saint Peter, and I love this pope. I pray for him as I pray for my own father. And I trust that the Holy Spirit will guard and protect the pope insofar as God uses him as an instrument of the Church’s unity, as a guardian of the deposit of faith, and as our chief evangelist. But as Saint Paul reminds us, our obedience must be rational (Rom. 12.1–2). And thus far rational obedience impels me to ask the Holy Father questions.

#related#What sort of legalism does the pope have in mind? When the pope condemns the Pharisees, does he realize that they were the ones who were casuistical and loosely legalist in allowing for divorce? Does he know that Christ responded to the Pharisees’ legalism with a radical gospel challenge that renewed the creation of man in grace, and the indissolubility of marriage? Does he see that Kasper’s proposal is itself at one with the Pharisees? Does he really think conservatives are teachers of the law rather than of virtue and truth? Does he really think that progressives wanting to accommodate the Church to liberal values, or comply with secular mores, are the vital source of newness for the Church?

I don’t know how he would answer these questions. It’s not unreasonable for others to draw their conclusions, but I can only wait and pray for the pope.

It was Jesus himself, in the Revelation to Saint John, who spit out of his mouth those who were neither hot nor cold. Let us hope that the pope will spit out those tepid paragraphs, which only a casuist could love, and bring out the Church’s richest teaching on the family — much of it admirably reflected in the better portions of the final report.

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