Sunday, October 29, 2023


Well, it appears the Synod on Synodality is over. And while the final session was a monthlong meeting (this month), the whole process took three years and caused a serious ruckus in the Catholic Church (the Church) from all sides. 

However, in the end, at least as the New York Times reports, Francis has "kicked the can down the road."

...progressives who had high hopes that the meeting would create real momentum for change said the final document had failed to move the institution at all. Before the meeting, a variety of sensitive topics were on the table, including the blessing of same-sex unions, reaching out to L.G.B.T.Q.+ Catholics and the possibility of allowing married men to become priests. Those basically vanished.

The only major issue which seemed to remain alive in the final document was the increased role of women in the workings of the Church, but even this is far short of what progressives were shouting for: a female diaconate. 

Instead, the document said that it was urgent for women to have more responsibilities and more say in the workings of the church. When it came to female deacons, though, it said more “theological and pastoral” study was necessary. It suggested that the work of two commissions created by Francis to study the female diaconate be re-examined and the results be presented when the assembly reconvenes next year — “if possible.”

After all the huffing and puffing over the last three years wherein it very much appeared that Pope Francis intended to radically change the very structure of the Church from a monarchal hierarchy (the Kingdom of God) to a "can't we all get along" democracy, Francis pulled the ultimate head-fake.

Fr. James Martin, S.J., the hero of the LGBTQ's who played a major role at the Synod, said it best in saying (in the NY Times article): “I am disappointed, but I’m not surprised.”

Martin is a very smart man. And I suspect he is not surprised for the same reason I am not surprised: Pope Francis, in fact no pope, has the authority to change even the dot on an "i" on matters of defined faith and morals. 

The Synod and the 1960's Birth Control Commission

The whole thing reminds me of a similar scenario played out by Popes John 23 and Paul 6 in the 1960's with their Birth Control Commission. (See here for a more thorough account.)

On Birth Control, the Church's teaching is ancient and clear: NO! 

However, in the 1960's John 23 instituted a commission to look into the matter to see whether or not Catholics might be permitted to contracept with this new thing called "The Pill." John died about a year later and then Paul really did the damage. 

Here's what I mean.

John's original commission consisted of seven clerics - who could pretty much be counted on to say "yah, we looked at it, but no."

When Paul inherited the commission upon John's death, Paul expanded the commission to 72 members and included many lay persons. 

The expansion of the commission, both in numbers and the inclusion of lay persons, was enough to incite all who heard of this to believe that Paul was gearing up to permit chemical contraception (The Pill). 

However, what really got the clergy going in that direction was what Paul said upon his expansion of the commission:

"We say frankly that so far we do not have sufficient reason to consider the norms given by Pope Pius XII on this matter [of contraception] as out of date and therefore as not binding. They must be considered as valid, at least until We feel obliged in conscience to change them."Paul VI Acta apostolicae sedis (AAS) 56 (1964) 588-59, 1964 address to the special papal commission on the use of contraceptives.

As the foregoing is pope-speak, I highlighted the key words. 

First whenever a pope uses "We," he is speaking magisterially for the whole Church. Had he said "I..," things might have been quite different. But he didn't. He said "We." He then uses "We" again when his says "until We feel change them." 

In short, Paul 6 was stating very clearly that he had the authority to change the Church's ancient teaching on contraception, and that he only needed to "feel obliged" to change it. 

An electrifying thrill

As every other major Christian denomination had already permitted contraception (beginning with the Anglican Church in 1930), Paul's announcement sent an electrifying thrill through the Catholic population already caught in the throws of the sexual revolution of the 1960's; and Catholic prelates and clerics everywhere - but especially in the U.S and Europe - began (quietly) counseling Catholic couples that it was okay to contracept because the Church was going to change its teaching soon. 

If anything could cause Paul to "feel obliged" to change Church teaching on contraception, it would be the final vote of the Birth Control Commission he expanded and shepherded; and in 1966, two years after Paul took the reins, his commission voted 65-7...IN FAVOR of lifting the Church's ban on contraception. 

Back to Francis and his Synod

And this brings us back to Francis and what will become his infamous "Synod." 

Paul knew he had no authority to change the Church's teaching on birth control the same as Francis knew he had no authority to bless same-sex unions, ordain women, or many of the other things his Synod proposed to do. 

In the end, Paul took the only way out when he penned Humanae Vitae - which upheld constant Church teaching against contraception. 

HOWEVER, and this is a big HOWEVER, Paul manufactured a reason for doing so that was never part of the equation. 

Instead of simply reaffirming perennial Church teaching on the matter, Paul claimed that he could not change the teaching because the vote of the commission wasn't unanimous:

However, the conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain, dispensing Us from the duty of examining personally this serious question. This was all the more necessary because, within the commission itself, there was not complete agreement... (Humanae Vitae, Par. 6)

Thus Paul left the door open to change Church teaching on contraception to a vote - a unanimous vote - when in fact no vote, and no pope, can ever change it.

One might say that the whole idea of a vote on something as deeply doctrinal as the Church's perennial teaching on contraception was the first precursor to the whole idea of "synodality" wherein everything, from the definition of the Trinity to the Real Presence, would come down to a vote. 

Many Catholics lionize Paul 6 for his stance against contraception in Humane Vitae - and indeed Francis canonized him - but the fact is that it was Paul's own words - demonstrated above - which lie at the root of why most Catholic couples still contracept today. 

So if Paul knew that he could NEVER change Church teaching on contraception and Francis knew that he could never ordain women and bless same-sex unions (etc.), why did these guys go through these years-long exercises only to - as the New York Times says - "kick the can down the road" - which is what they both did?

Well, because. 

Because, both men are "children" of their age. And that age began in the 1960's when "caring," or appearing to care, became more important than truth. 

Paul 6 probably was really not expecting his commission to vote as it did, so he probably felt safe in saying what he said. But when the commission did not vote per his expectation, Paul probably had one helluva night with the Holy Spirit beating him about his room. 

In other words, Paul, the very Vicar of Christ on Earth, KNEW he was in serious trouble - so he dashed off Humane Vitae, never wrote another Encyclical, and essentially went into hiding until he died about a decade later, lamenting to the end "the smoke of Satan" that he had let into the Church - though he never blamed himself.

Francis, probably the last pope who is a child of the 60's, seems to have wanted to do the same - in the sense of showing that he "cared" aka "I feel your pain." 

But Francis isn't stupid. He knows he is not far from death's door and that eternity is a very long time. And, like Paul, he also knows that not only does he not have any authority to change Church moral teaching, he also knows that "the floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops." (Attributed to both St. Athanasius and St. John Crysostom)

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