(This piece, written by Fr. Regis Scanlon, just appeared in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, a magazine that ought to be getting ever more attention. I thought it perfectly illustrates why I so admire Fr. Regis. He has a lively and original mind, constantly seeking to evangelize. While both his homilies and his writing are straightforward and direct, cutting right to the heart of the matter through all the clutter, he is always upbeat, charitable – and funny. He loves to laugh. I once joked with him that had he not been a Priest, he would have made a great stand-up comedian. In Denver, Fr. Regis works tirelessly to build the Julia Greeley Home for homeless women, which I will wrote more about in the next few weeks. Meantime, this piece is one of the two best and most insightful pieces I have read concerning the Synod on the Family. Please read it in its entirety. You will come away knowing more than you did before.-CJ)
How the Synod of 2015 Ignored the Real Problem, 50 Years in the Making
It’s hard to believe now, but at the beginning of the year, Synod 2015 was predicted to be a possible game changer for the Church. According to various media reports, the Synod promised to be: “stormy,” “intense,” a time of “great expectations,” and (the ultimate, irresistible comparison), “the equivalent of the Super Bowl.”1 Instead—to continue the game analogy—it may be more accurate to say the Synod ended in a draw.
Yes, it did result in some direct exchanges, even challenges, and produced an acceptable document. The bishops who were so eager to raise the “red flag” questions about the irregularly married being able to receive communion, have returned to their cathedrals and universities, apparently satisfied that they were able to make their case. While they did not convince the majority of the bishops, they continued to voice words of dissent about the decisions of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.2 In other words, it appears that we’re back to business as usual.
It’s probably too much to ask that sophisticated, self-confident bishops, who feel secure in their theological positions would change their minds about anything. No, the real danger to the Faith is the likelihood that “ordinary” Catholics around the world are still confused about the truth when it comes to divorce, remarriage, and communion. If you doubt that this is the case, here’s a test: round up a small group of Catholics and ask them: “What was the main message of the Synod? What did the Synod finally say about Church teachings about the Eucharist, and Catholics who had divorced and remarried outside the Church?”
I think you’ll find that everybody believes exactly what they believed before the Synod—and that the Synod’s final document didn’t do a thing to change their “opinion.” That’s because the Synod failed to inspire. The Synod should have been a rousing defense of the Catholic faith. It should have strengthened Catholics, and focused their minds on the truths of the faith, so they could stand up and defend the Church’s teachings on faith and morals in the midst of a degenerate society—in fact, in a degenerate world. But most of all, the Synod should have resulted in strong, unambiguous, concrete action by the Pope and the bishops, aimed at solving the faith and moral divisions occurring within the Church. Yes, that’s right—within the Church.
The bishops knew this—at least, we can assume most of them did—but for some reason they drew back from engaging in the fight for truth. They sorely needed the famous reminder from St. John Paul II: “Be not afraid.”
Perhaps, fear is the real problem in the Catholic Church today. It certainly looks like that. There is a fear that the world will hate us. There is a fear of ridicule. There is a fear that to stand up against modern ideas will produce a backlash that cannot be contained. Fear is a powerful force, and when it’s combined with a pride that is rooted in the desire to be loved and accepted by the world, the result is that the Church appears to be powerless. (We know the Church isn’t truly powerless—“The gates of hell will not prevail” (Matt. 16:18)—but at this point in history, she is appearing that way to the world, and sadly, to many Catholics.)
This problem—fear, combined with a pride that seeks the love of the world—is as old as the human race. But when it invades the heart of the Church, it becomes like a cancer. It goes to the core of our Catholic faith. In other words, it’s unhealthy that so many bishops and pastors are worrying about winning approval from the world, and from each other, as if they were members of a stuffy country club. Whether it’s caused by fear, ambition, or “political correctness” doesn’t matter. It would be healthier if they would have a roll-up-the-sleeves, knock-down, drag-out fight about what they really believe.
Could it be that the desire to get the fight started, and to bring it out in the open, was what Pope Francis had in mind when he chose Cardinal Walter Kasper (a key radical) to give one of the initial talks at Synod 2015? It certainly seems to fit with Pope Francis’ advice to the young on July 25, 2013, at World Youth Day. He told them to go back to their dioceses, and make a “mess.” He said: “I want trouble in the dioceses.”3 Even though the official Vatican translation of the Pope’s words toned down his speech, everyone knows this Pope has come to stir things up.4
It’s my belief that, yes, the Holy Father is trying to breathe some fight into the Church by showcasing what we’re up against, as for example, by clearly showing the desire by some powerful bishops (like Cardinal Kasper) to transform the Church into the world’s “buddy.” The Holy Father’s tactics have caused many Catholics (I hear from them all the time) to think that this Pope is weak. I do not agree. I am persuaded that, in his own clever way, Pope Francis is drawing out all the opponents into the open, onto the battlefield. It’s as if he’s silently encouraging the Church: “It’s time to fight back!”
But fighting back takes strength, and right now the Church appears to be weak because fear, worldly ambition, and pride have resulted in a sickness of leadership called “dissent.” I believe the sickness of dissent can be traced to three very specific moments in history: when numbers of bishops, theologians and teachers decided to reject three Church documents. This rejection, on a worldwide scale since the mid-20th century, has resulted in a growing sickness in the Church, whose main symptom is a lack of will. This sickness has led to a widespread, institutionalized dissent which now has come out into the open, most recently in the events surrounding Synod 2015.
I would like to explore, in detail, the effects of dissent from these three core documents. They are: (1): The Second Vatican Council’s 1964 “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium), which clearly established the authority of the Pope; (2): the 1965 encyclical, Mysterium Fidei, re-proclaiming the truth that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ; and (3) the great, pro-life prophecy of Pope Paul VI, promulgated in his final encyclical, Humanae Vitae (1968). Each of these documents represented historic teaching moments in the Church, and each of them was rejected, almost immediately, by great numbers of Church leaders. Over time, the result has been a great diminishing of the Church’s teaching strength. While we must continue to hope for the best, it’s clear that the ability of the Church to teach the Catholic Faith has become largely paralyzed by an eagerness to be accepted by the world, and a fear of “pushing back.”
As we know, dissent within the Church is found throughout the world. However, for simplicity’s sake, let’s use the Church in the United States as our main model of how the dissent, that rose from the rejection of three, key Church documents, became institutionalized in documents, parishes, universities, and in seminaries.
Lumen Gentium (1964): Institutionalized “dissent” begins in the Church
For the past 50 years, Catholics, especially bishops and theologians, have been dissenting from no. 25 of the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which taught that everyone must “adhere to” the decisions of the Pope in matters of faith and morals ”with a loyal submission of will and intellect … even when he does not speak ex cathedra.” And this means that “the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”
Even prior to the Second Vatican Council, however, a theological opinion had been gaining traction, namely that a person could dissent from a pope’s non ex cathedra “faith and moral” teachings as long as he had good reasons. Gradually, this opinion worked its way into the theological training of seminarians.5
So, many Church leaders, who were under the impression that they were just following the advice of good theologians, perhaps inadvertently, rejected an essential teaching in no. 25 of Lumen Gentium. And now the Church is in the position of a man who leaves a small wound untended: by ignoring an apparently insignificant lesion, he must now contend with a cancer that has grown and multiplied throughout his entire body. This lesion—which began when dissent over Lumen Gentium went largely unchallenged in 1964—festered and grew, leading to the next stages of rebellion and, ultimately, to the widespread divisiveness we see in the Church today.
After 1964, the ugly cancer of dissent metastasized when great numbers of prominent Catholic leaders (beginning with theologians, professors and intellectuals) publicly rejected the two other crucial documents: Mysterium Fidei (Divine Life), and Humanae Vitae (Human Life).
Mysterium Fidei (1965): Dissent over the truth of the Eucharist
Mysterium Fidei supported and bolstered the core teaching of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which taught as a dogma of divine faith that, at the words of consecration of the Mass, there is a “conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and the entire substance of wine into the blood” of Jesus Christ, a change the Church calls “transubstantiation.”6
However, when this teaching from the Council of Trent was defended by Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei, bishops and theologians boldly dissented. They rejected Pope Paul VI’s statements in numbers 44 and 46, that the Eucharist is not merely a “symbol” but rather the “physical ‘reality’” of Christ which is “bodily” and “substantially” present.”
In fact, the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, one of the most prestigious theologians of the 20th century, with influence around the world (and with a powerful following in the United States), offered this statement in his Theological Dictionary about the meaning of “transubstantiation”: “Hence transubstantiation means a change of finality and being in the bread and wine, because they are raised to being symbols of Christ who is present there, and invites men to spiritual union.” 7
Rahner’s view, which reduced transubstantiation to a mere change in the bread and wine as a “symbol” or sign of Christ, spread throughout the Church like a wildfire. The Catholic Bishops in the United States even permitted a bestselling book , Christ Among Us, to be used as a catechism for children and adults for well over a decade, starting in 1969—until the Vatican made the bishops remove the imprimatur.
This book sold between 1.6 million to 2 million copies, and continued to sell even after the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith ordered Archbishop Peter L. Gerety of Newark to remove the imprimatur.8 In this book, the author, Anthony Wilhelm, explained transubstantiation in the following, very un-Catholic, manner: “When we say that the bread and wine ‘become Christ’ we are not saying that bread and wine are Christ, … (but) … that the bread and wine are a sign of Christ present, here and now, in a special way—not in a mere physical way, … “.9 So, beginning about fifty years ago, throughout the United States, in countless classrooms, religious education courses, and even in seminaries, the Church’s teaching on transubstantiation was gradually diminished or cheapened. It was replaced by the heresy that, after the consecration, Christ is not “bodily” and “substantially” present, but is in the Eucharist merely as a “sign” or “symbol” (Code of Canon Law, no. 751)
Humanae Vitae (1968): Dissent intensifies and hardens within the Church
However, the biggest firestorm of dissent was still ahead. It came in 1968, with the release of the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, the magnificent defense of life, and the rejection of the idea that human beings are morally free to interfere in God’s creation of life.
Let’s remember that Paul VI had kept an open mind about artificial birth control. He commissioned a major study to determine if, in addition to abstinence, there was a non-contraceptive method which the Church could approve, as a possible manifestation of God’s will. While the commission could not find another non-contraceptive method, they decided on their own: that in some cases contraception, itself, could be used because it was not intrinsically evil. Paul VI, exercising his papal authority, came to the conclusion that the commission had no authority to change a 2,000- year-old Church doctrine, and that no, God’s will did not permit the use of artificial birth control in any manifestation.10 Could there be a clearer sign that the Holy Spirit was truly guiding this fearless Pope? Of course, the world was outraged. The uproar of dissent that came from the United States, and around the world, was deafening. 11
Since then, that dissent has affected (and infected) everything in our world. As Paul VI predicted, when sexual activity is absolutely separated from the God-given gift of procreation, social chaos follows. We can see the effects for ourselves. Men and women are now free to “use” each other sexually, and the result has been the devaluation of marriage, and a culture of broken families. Abortion is legal, widely accepted, and has led to the “Culture of Death,” which has successfully persuaded people, and governments, to embrace euthanasia, and “mercy” killings. This evil culture has brought misery into every aspect of our lives, from widespread pornography and sex trafficking, to violence directed against women and children, to mayhem and killings on colleges campuses and public places, to the collapse of the very concept of wholesome family life. No one in 2015 can deny that our society today is drenched in violence, and every kind of perversion.
Paul VI warned of this national and global collapse of Christian values in no. 17 of Humanae Vitae. However, most influential Catholics ignored his warning that to open the floodgates on contraception was to open a “Pandora’s Box” of evils. As soon as the encyclical was published in 1968, dissenting bishops and theologians pounced. They first targeted no.14 from the document, by rejecting the teaching that contraception is “intrinsically wrong” or evil, and that no one could morally practice it in any circumstance without committing grave sin.
From there, dissent from within the Church grew and hardened. No doubt acting from what they thought was an accepted theological opinion with regard to non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium, the then National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in 1968 responded to Paul VI’s teaching on Humanae Vitae by publishing their “Pastoral Letter on Human Life in Our Day.” In this document, the bishops hold to the opinion (and continue to hold to this day), that: “The expression of theological dissent from the Magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded; if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and if such (dissent) does not to give scandal.” 12
In many respects, “Human Life in Our Day” was a good document, and supported the teachings of the Church. But, this statement, quoted above, was used to support all kinds of dissent, because it implied that it was permissible to reject a teaching of Vatican II essential to “The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church”—namely, the requirement to “submit in will and intellect” to the teachings of the Pope, in all matters of faith and morals, even “when he does not speak ex-cathedra.” But in actuality, this teaching in no. 25 of Lumen Gentium put to rest (as incorrect) the opinion that one could dissent from a papal teaching of faith and morals when a pope does not speak ex cathedra. Bishops and theologians, therefore, could no longer appeal to this theological opinion.
In 1968, at the time of the publication of “Human Life in Our Day,” Cardinal Joseph Bernardin became the first secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Undoubtedly, he had a great influence on the writing of this document. Later, when Cardinal Bernardin was Archbishop of Chicago, he left no uncertainty about the exact meaning of the U.S. bishops’ 1968 statement when, as part of his own legacy, he stated that “limited and occasional dissent” from the magisterium of the Church is “legitimate.”13
After the highly influential and media-savvy Cardinal Bernardin aligned himself with the concept of legitimate dissent, the die was cast. Along with the official publication of “Human Life in Our Day,” the idea spread everywhere that dissent was permissible in every way, including dissent from the Pope. For all intents and purposes, dissent was seen as a legitimate choice for Catholics, among both religious and laity. Tragically, among many bishops and theologians in universities and seminaries, and in religious books, dissent was now “institutionalized” in the Church in the United States, and throughout the world.
While the bishops surely did not intend it, one of the most shocking things about this dissent from Humanae Vitae was the moral confusion it created in the minds of lay Catholics. Practically every bishop in the United States in 1968 knew that Catholic couples sincerely wanted to know what the Church position was on contraception. (That was the whole reason Paul VI had called a commission together—to explore the issue!) Catholics everywhere had very serious questions to ask: “Is contraception a serious sin?” “Can a Catholic use the ‘pill’ and still receive communion?”
The moral confusion created by the dissent from Humanae Vitae raised new questions when Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1987. He was asked directly by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB): “How should the Church in the United States respond when “good Catholics” say they cannot accept the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, contraception, divorce, and remarriage, abortion, etc.?” Implicit in the question was the question which arose at Synod 2015: “Can these ‘good Catholics’ still come to communion?”
Clearly, St. John Paul II understood the implied question, because he replied that: “It is sometimes reported that a large number of Catholics today do not adhere to the teachings of the Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce, and remarriage … (and) on abortion.” Then the Pope immediately made this point: “It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error (italics added) that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States, and elsewhere.”14 John Paul II’s answer could not have been more simple, or more clear: If you dissent from the Pope’s teaching on matters like contraception and divorce and remarriage, it is “gravely” wrong to receive communion.
In addition, seldom noticed in John Paul II’s answer, but nevertheless clearly there, is this truth: It is not just using contraceptives that bars a person from receiving communion, but the mere dissent, or not adhering in “will and intellect” to the Pope’s decision, that contraception is evil, that bars a Catholic from communion. The logical conclusion is that even cardinals, archbishops, and theologians who dissent are barred from receiving communion.
What’s more, St. John Paul II’s answer was absolutely in line with the teachings of Vatican II. The requirement to assent to all papal magisterial teachings in matters of faith and morals, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in order to receive the sacraments, was no doubt part of the “step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine (of the Church)” which was the hoped for goal of the Second Vatican Council.15
The Effects of Dissent: Silence in the pulpits and throughout the media
Given that the pope’s answer in 1987 was completely ignored, it is important to repeat that John Paul II could not have been clearer: It is “a grave error” to dissent from the Magisterium on contraception, divorce, and remarriage, and still to receive holy communion. But this moral teaching, contained in the words of John Paul II, never reached the Catholic people in the United States—at least not from the pulpits, or from religious teaching documents.
But why? Why didn’t the bishops make this decision and instruction known to Catholics in the United States? Were they afraid to be “politically incorrect?” The New York Times reported what John Paul II said to the U.S. bishops, but few, if any, Catholic news sources reported his reply, despite the fact that this question was pressing on the minds of so many American Catholics.16 It is as if, when it came to this critical issue, the American Catholic hierarchy, theologians, and Catholic news sources were afraid to connect the mind of the Vicar of Christ to the minds of American Catholics.
For example, America magazine ran an editorial on Oct. 3, 1987, about the exchange between the Pope, and the U.S. Bishops titled: “The Pope and Bishops: ‘Telling It Like It Is.’” Curiously, the editors of America themselves failed to “tell it like it is” when they failed to report the other side of the story, that the Pope had clearly stated that dissent bars one from the sacraments! In fact, I doubt that most Americans today even know that this question was settled by Pope John Paul II in 1987—that no Catholics may receive communion if (1) they deliberately and intentionally dissent from the Pope’s teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil, or (2) use contraception themselves.
Unchecked, the cancerous sickness of dissent has continued to spread. Yes, the Pope had clarified this issue on contraception and communion, but the American hierarchy appeared to not disclose this matter to the Catholic media and people. On the other hand, Catholic resistance (the politically popular view) grew and hardened over the nature and role of the Church (Lumen Gentium); the Eucharist (Mysterium Fidei), and human life and love in the family (Humanae Vitae).
The result has been a spreading of the sickness of dissent throughout our whole culture, and into the very heart of family life. After all, it is only a matter of logic. If a Catholic can simply decide that it’s OK to “disagree” with the Magisterium of the Pope in a matter of faith and morals (which is the lesson taught by 50 years of unchecked dissent) then it’s OK to rebel against other Church authorities closer to home, such as the local bishop, pastor, teacher, mom, dad, and the rest of the family. The result is what we see today in homes throughout society: Families are wounded by disrespect, lying, fighting, and seduction, and the end result is often family breakups, divorce and remarriage, which in turn has led to the instability and violence we see on our streets and in public places.
The Church must face this cultural tragedy with courage and honesty! What can we learn from this state of sickness in the Church? Our first task is to make the correct diagnosis: While the Synod of 2015 identified “the family” as the main problem on the agenda, in actuality, the first problem the Church needs to tackle is the cancer of dissent which continues to spread throughout the Church body itself. Next, let’s not waste time lamenting this loss of “health;” what can be done now to correct this “legacy of dissent”?
First, the Church in the United States (represented by the USCCB) must correct the harm done by the grave error in “Human Life in Our Day.” While the error may have been inadvertent, and the language poorly understood, and while the document offered general support for the pope’s encyclical on life, its approval of dissent as a valid option for Catholics has, in the long run, proved to be devastating to the Church. Should this error be corrected through future teaching documents, or in a letter specifically addressing the issue of dissent? That’s for the bishops to decide, but it must be done.
The bottom line is: Catholics in the United States have a right to ask: “Does the present USCCB agree with all the pronouncements made by the USCCB in 1968, namely, that ‘licit dissent’ from papal teaching is compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’”? Unless the USCCB is willing to correct the concept of “licit dissent,” it will continue to encourage—even if inadvertently—a concept of dissent which is not permitted by core Church teachings.
Equally important, the USCCB should identify and support the pronouncement of John Paul II in 1987 that dissent from Humanae Vitae bars a person from receiving communion. I believe that unless this correction is made by the teaching authorities of the Church (namely, the bishops) the Church will continue to descend into more confusion and infighting. If, however, Church leaders together, or individually, acknowledge and rectify these mistakes of the past, then the Church can move forward to resolve the doctrinal confusion.
What is this doctrinal confusion? The Church must define the nature of the Church, the Eucharist, and human sexuality in a final, authoritative form. But how would the Church teach such a huge, historic lesson? I think the answer is that we need another Synod. Better yet, given the grave perils we face in the Church, and in the world, perhaps the real answer is that we need a third Vatican Council. If such a historic milestone is ever reached, there is one more major action the Church should take: She should canonize Paul VI, and declare him a Doctor of the Church for his magnificent defense of the Constitution of the Church, the Mystery of Faith, and of Human Life.
After all, from the vantage point of our sad 21st century, we are experiencing the chaos and violence which Paul VI saw so clearly, almost 50 years ago, as the consequence of turning away from God’s law, which the Church has properly defined as the “Culture of Life.” It is time to definitively and categorically proclaim, ex cathedra, certain truths of his teachings found in these documents. Then, we can honestly move forward, and begin the necessary work to change our modern “Sodom and Gomorrah” to a modern day “Nineveh.” But we need to do it soon, before it is too late (Gen. 19; Jonah 3).
- John Allen Jr., “Forecast: 2015 Synod of Bishops will be just as stormy as the last time,” Crux, Feb. 3. 2015. ↩
- Edward Pentin, “German Bishops: ‘WE Are Not Just a Subsidiary of Rome’,” National Catholic Register, Feb. 27, 2015. ↩
- Raymond Arroyo, “The ‘Messy’ , Alluring Grace of Pope Francis,” National Catholic Register, August, 1, 2013. ↩
- Apostolic Journey to Rio De Janeiro on the Occasion of the XXVIII World Youth Day Meeting with Young People from Argentina, Address of Holy Father Francis, Thursday, July 25, 2013. ↩
- Dr. Ludwig Ott, p. 10; J. M. Herve, Manuale Theologiae Domaticae, 19th edition, Vol. 1 (Westminister, Md: The Newman Bookshop, 1943), 523. ↩
- Henry Denzinger’s Enchiridion Symbolorum, Thirtieth Edition, no.884. ↩
- Engelbert Gutwenger, Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, “Transubstantiation” ed., by Karl Rahner (New York: Crossroads, 1984), pp. 1754-1755. ↩
- April L. Goldman, “Book’s Popularity Tests the Vatican,” New York Times, November 29, 1984. ↩
- Anthony Wilhelm, Christ Among Us, 5th revised edition (San Francisco: Harper Collins Pub., 1990), the cover and p. 216. My emphasis. ↩
- Benjamin Mann, “New documents reveal inner workings of papal birth control commission,” Catholic News Agency, Mar. 16, 2011. ↩
- Richard A. McCormick, “‘Humanae Vitae,’ 25 Years Later,” America, July 17, 1993. ↩
- National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Pastoral Letter on Human Life in Our Day,” Nov. 15, 1968, no. 51. ↩
- Joseph Bernardin, “Address on the Common Ground Project,” Oct. 24, 1996, Origins: CNS documentary service (Nov. 14, 1996), 353-356. ↩
- Apostolic Journey to the United States of America and Canada, Meeting with the Bishops of the United States of America, Address of His Holiness John Paul II, Minor Seminary of Our Lady of the Angels (Los Angeles) Wednesday, September 16, 1987, Part II, no. 5. ↩
- Pope John XXIII, “Pope John’s Opening Speech at the Council,” found in The Documents of Vatican II, edited by Walter M. Abbott, S; J. (New York: Corpus Books, 1966), p. 715. ↩
- New York Times, “Papal Visit; Pope Counsels Bishops to Hold to Christ’s Teaching in the Face of Dissent.” Sept. 17, 1987. ↩