“How often, brothers and sisters, do you hear your clergy teaching about Purity?” writes Father John Hunwicke, a Catholic priest and convert from Anglicanism. “How much time would you guess is being devoted, in the Synod of Bishops, to discussing Sexual Abstinence? How many of the clustered, hungry journalists in Rome are leaking the explosive words of Bishop X about Purity; the angry ‘intervention’ of Bishop Y on Virginity?”
Imagine that, Catholic bishops holding forth on chastity.
Every Catholic, married as well as single, is called to it. What “chastity” means varies according to one’s state in life. “Casti connubii,” or “of chaste marriage,” are the first words of Pius XI’s encyclical (1930) affirming, inter alia, the Church’s proscription of artificial contraception, on which the Anglican bishops, breaking with ancient Christian tradition, had conferred their blessing a few months earlier. In 1968, Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of human life) confirmed and elaborated Catholic teaching on the issue, contradicting the majority recommendation of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control.
Most baptized Catholics do not observe Humanae Vitae. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Mark Regnerus, for example, explains in powerfully understated terms how its articulation of a truth that he had already intuited led to his conversion.
Some synod fathers say that the Church must translate her teaching into language that the contemporary world understands. They mean aggiornamento, or bringing the Church up to date, a concept that was in vogue at the Second Vatican Council. Fifty years later, the concept itself is dated, as is the council, for that matter, insofar as it was essentially pastoral, intended to communicate the gospel to the spirit of the age, which was the 1960s.
It is by remaining constant that Catholic doctrine changes with the times. The unique light of each passing age brings out in the magisterium various nuances that the light of previous ages could not. In that sense, the past is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past: Would that someone had snuck copies of T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” into the synod hall.
Consider that pagans in the pre-Christian West thought that the Catholic exaltation of virginity undermined the patriotic imperative to reproduce and stave off at least for one more generation the extinction of their people. (The historian Peter Brown wrote the book on that.) Catholic sexual morality displeases the post-Christian West too, but for a different, nearly opposite set of reasons: Most Westerners now think that Catholicism over-values reproduction and elevates it unduly over the sexual fulfillment of those of us who have already been conceived and born and are walking around.
The standard of moderate asceticism to which Saint Paul held the early Church has up to now been upheld by Catholicism in principle, however far its pastors and people may stray in practice. That asceticism is always a sign of contradiction — which is to say that the world always contradicts it to some degree. It does so now more vehemently than perhaps at any time since antiquity.
Reeling under the pressure, the Church in the West collectively vacillates. It wrings its hands. It’s double-minded.
Some who are close to the synod, which wraps up this weekend, report that members are more united and orthodox than is being represented in the media, but the daily summaries provided by Father Thomas Rosica, an English-language Vatican spokesman, suggest otherwise. The orthodox are alarmed. Some are circulating a petition asking like-minded synod fathers to walk out, given the indications that an outcome intended to advance a kind of lifestyle libertarianism favored most notably by the German bishops has been predetermined by Team Bergoglio, the northern European and South American churchmen who spent a decade working to get the cardinal from Buenos Aires elected pope.
Pope Francis on Saturday redirected the rumors of schism by hinting at a certain vision of the Catholic Church: less centralized, its Roman identity toned down further than it already has been. Taking that plan to its logical conclusion, one would have to reconstitute the Catholic Church as a federation of national churches and move it into what Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called its “third age,” which he characterized as cosmopolitan. (The first and second ages were Jerusalem- and Rome-based, respectively.)
In other words, where the Catholic Church used to speak clearly with one voice, it no longer does, so let’s welcome the diversity. “Out of one, many,” as Al Gore so aptly put it.
Now the Church may go into schism over the question of whether it should go (gracefully, of course) into schism, with geographical divisions roughly corresponding to doctrinal differences. The deal that may be presented to the Polish, African, and other orthodox bishops is this: If you want traditional Catholic teaching on sexual morality to be “strong and clear,” as Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea has forcefully, eloquently argued that it should be, go ahead and preach it — in the name of your national church. But you must accept that the German bishops are free to disavow it. And that the bishop of Rome is free to waffle.