A recent story in the L.A. Times about the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops devoted to the pastoral care of families, offered this provocative view: “Vatican to Debate Teachings on Divorce, Birth Control, Gay Unions.”

Purportedly Francis is laying the groundwork for a subtle work-around of established Church teachings:

Although Francis almost certainly will not call for ditching the Church’s policy of denying communion to Catholics who have divorced and remarried, his emphasis on pastoral care and compassion could offer local priests a work-around, with greater flexibility to address individual circumstances.

That “work-around,” the article suggests, could then extend to contraception and same-sex unions, among other issues, and escalate into departure from Catholic tradition. As evidence of Francis’s presumed inclinations, the Times noted:

Within a few months of his election last year, Francis directed every diocese in the world to survey local attitudes on family relationships and report back to the Vatican….Nobody at the Vatican will be surprised to learn that vast members of Catholics disobey its ban on pre-marital sex and birth control, or that some are in gay partnerships. Setting down those realities irrefutably on paper, however, could strengthen a bid by Francis to soften the church’s official line. . . .

Nowhere did the LA Times point out that perennial Church teachings are not mere “policies” and “lines” up for grabs, but immutable Catholic doctrines based on the revelation of God. Nor did it explain—as has the Vatican and numerous Catholic leaders—that the preparatory questionnaire for the Synod was not an opinion poll meant to challenge Church teachings, but a collection of diocesan data to show exactly where they need strengthening. “It is not, therefore a matter of debating doctrinal questions,” said Archbishop Bruno Forte, who will be the special secretary for the synod, “which have in any case been clarified by the magisterium.”

Stories about coming revolutions in the Catholic Church are not unusual among secular commentators. What is significant is the amount of faithful Catholics who’ve expressed similar views about Francis and the Synod—notwithstanding the Holy See’s reassurances.

Writing in the Week, Michael Brendan Doherty forecasts that the synod will become an exercise in hypocrisy: “My prediction is that the synod will issue a document strenuously claiming to affirm the indissolubility of marriage, while instituting a practice that contradicts it.”

Similarly, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has argued against any alteration in Catholic teaching, but believes it could happen, and might result in a schism. And in an open letter to Mark Shea at the National Catholic Register, one sincere but “jittery” Catholic expressed fear that Francis is “preparing us for doctrinal change.”

Two points of concern frequently cited are the Pope’s praise of Walter Cardinal Kasper, who has proposed that divorced and remarried Catholics be allowed to receive Communion, after a period of penance and conscientious reflection, and the Pope’s criticism of legalism when dealing with Catholics in troubled situations.

But the idea that Francis is looking for ways to rationalize and effectively permit sin, either by deferring his authority to controversial prelates or under the guise of avoiding rigorism in favor of mercy, runs counter to his larger witness.

Francis is certainly a pope of mercy, but he is also a pope who has called for a theology of sin. He wants Catholics to face their sins squarely, not avoid them or pretend they aren’t obstacles to a faithful Christian life. And while rebuking the harsh legalism of certain clergy, he has also warned against “loose ministers” of the Gospel who tell penitents “this is not a sin” when it is.

As for Cardinal Kasper, Francis did praise his address, not to endorse all its views, but to appreciate its truths and encourage theological discussion, which has resulted in many thoughtful responses. Among the best is that by Professor Robert Fastiggi who wrote, “I agree with Pope Francis that there are many beautiful insights about marriage” in Cardinal Kasper’s presentation, but on the issue of communion for the divorced and remarried, Kasper is decidedly wrong, for reasons laid out by Fastiggi and by Francis’s own doctrinal chief, Gerhard Cardinal Muller.

Most important are the notable series of statements Francis has been making on topics which bear directly on the family—the proper formation of conscience, the prophetic nature of Humanae Vitae, the true meaning of the sensus fidelium, and the need for bishops to preach the truth about the indissolubility of marriage, in season and out.

While one can debate Francis’s prudential judgments all day long, it is much more productive to focus on these affirmations of orthodoxy, and the pope’s consistent message of hope in Christ and the saints.

Shortly after the canonization of John Paul II, Francis met with a group of Polish pilgrims, and spoke to them about faith, hope, charity, and mercy, linking them all to the exemplary witness of Catherine of Siena. He encouraged the pilgrims to “learn from her how to live with the clear conscience of those who do not bend to human compromises,” to be inspired by “her example of strength in the moments of greatest pain,” and to “imitate the solidity of faith of those who trust in God.”

These are the themes we should look for at the upcoming Synod; and as we wait, we can pray for Pope Francis and have faith he will be able to strengthen the family, in harmony with Catholic teaching and total fidelity to God.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Articles by William Doino Jr.

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