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Is the pope Catholic?” used to be an answer, not a question. Alas, it has become a question; or rather it has become five questions, in the form of the dubia put to Pope Francis by four of his cardinals. In good Jesuit fashion, Francis seems to be making his reply by other means—since responding directly to dubia is apparently distasteful, as even the Prefect of the Holy Office Gerhard Cardinal Müller has now said. Thus far, the replies (comments about pharisaical doctors of the law, and that sort of thing) are not very reassuring. Actually, very little one hears from the Vatican these days reassures.

This leaves those of us who are struggling with “discernment of situations” (to use the phrase from Familiaris Consortio that was taken up by Amoris Laetitia) in some perplexity, not so much in the matter of marriage and family life as in the life of the Church herself. Reckoning with a pope whose own remarks seem somewhat erratic is one thing. But how are we to reckon with a situation in which the administration of the sacraments, and the theology behind their administration, is succumbing, with his blessing, to regionalism? In other words, how are we to reckon with a situation, nicely timed to the quincentenary of the Reformation, in which being Catholic begins to look quite a lot like being Protestant?

The trauma of the two synods on the family, which led to Amoris and to the dubia, is a trauma for which Francis himself is largely responsible. The ongoing rebellion against Humanae Vitae and Veritatis Splendor is something that he has permitted, if not encouraged. And the flaws in Amoris are of his making. His unwillingness to respond directly to the dubia is not, then, a matter of taste only. In any event, the very fact that the dubia have been put—and they have been well put, whether or not they should have been put publicly—has carried the whole difficulty beyond matters of taste. Cardinal Müller’s denial that there is a doctrinal problem here is unconvincing.

Before I go any further, it is necessary to say something about the assumptions underlying these remarks. When I first criticized the synod’s Instrumentum Laboris in my online article for First Things, “Twelve Fatal Flaws,” I did not know how far the pope himself was in sympathy with the working document. Within a few days that sympathy was evident, just as it was evident that the synod was divided on important issues of faith and practice, with some leading bishops clearly concerned about Francis’s own views, attitudes, and actions. This is hardly the first time in the history of the Church that such a situation has occurred. Indeed, we encounter it in Acts. Which is to say: Being Catholic does not mean refusing to be critical of the bishop of Rome. There are times when one must be critical, and this is such a time.

By divine providence, the papacy has evolved over the centuries into a more vital feature of the Church in its daily function than it was in earlier eras. Modern technology has had something to do with that. But by the same providence, the papacy has been allowed to fall, at various points, into the most frightful parody of itself. We may be very thankful that this is not the case today. It is not merely poor history, however, but a false and dangerous papolatry—Catholics, not Protestants, should be the first to say so—to fancy that the Vicar of Christ is somehow above criticism, as if he were Christ himself.

Certainly the doctrine of infallibility entails no such thing, whether about the person of the pope or about particular papal documents. Infallibility is a guarantee regarding the magisterium, of which the pope, in and between ecumenical councils, is the primary guardian. The pope is not, however, its master. The Church has but one master, our Lord Jesus Christ. When on any serious matter one papal statement is in conflict with another, it is the task of the whole apostolic college to sort things out. As the First Vatican Council makes clear, this must be done with the pope, not apart from him, but there is nothing in the deliverances of that council or any other to the effect that the pope may not need sorting out. St. Peter himself needed sorting out, from time to time.

Now, there is conflict between the tradition as it appears in Trent and later councils, in papal or magisterial documents right through to the previous pontificate, and what is said or implied in Amoris; or rather, there is a conflict within Amoris, which both holds and does not hold to the tradition. If there were no conflict, there would have been no dubia. Since the conflict touches on the sacraments themselves, and not merely on pastoral judgment with respect to the sacraments, it must be resolved, however painful the process. But, like Francis, a good many bishops lack the will to resolve it. In fact, some of them have gone altogether soft on the sacraments, or on anything resembling sacramental discipline, and, sadly, they are appealing to Francis for justification. If ever a discernment of situation were called for, it is called for now.

The first of the dubia asks whether “it has now become possible to grant absolution in the Sacrament of Penance and thus to admit to Holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxorio [in a marital way] without fulfilling the conditions” laid out in Familiaris Consortio. The burden of the others is to enquire whether we may now safely set aside the teaching of Veritatis Splendor that neither circumstances nor intentions can render a bad act good, and that no manipulation of conscience can do so either.

Some prelates have already answered the first question with a yes, and are acting upon that answer. Others are saying no, or (like Cardinal Müller) saying in effect: of course not—the question need not even be asked. But it does need to be asked, as developments from the Americas to Malta make clear, and not only in the present form. It needs to be asked with respect to contraception, for example. Indeed, the refusal to ask it in that connection has led to the present situation. It also needs to be asked with respect to suicide and euthanasia, as we are discovering here in Canada.

I want to dwell for a moment on the Canadian situation. In Canada, regionalism is, so to speak, in our DNA. I will not go back as far as the notorious Winnipeg Statement, by means of which our bishops, in response to Humanae Vitae, took the doors to the internal forum right off their hinges, permitting the faithful to decide freely for themselves, without any fear of sacramental discipline, whether contraception is or isn’t a grave sin. I want instead to make clear the current situation, in which bishops in the eastern provinces have (with a few exceptions) taken much the same posture toward assisted suicide and euthanasia. The choice of these newly legal practices is discouraged but not forbidden. To choose them over natural death is not (or not necessarily) a barrier to participation in the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist, or healing. Much less is it an impediment to a church funeral.

The contrary stance, which some of us urged upon the bishops from the outset for the sake of both the Church and the country, has been rejected by Cardinal Lacroix in Quebec City and by the Atlantic Episcopal Assembly. The former’s rejection appeared on Facebook during the media firestorm generated by a document from the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories—a model guide for clergy that stresses both pastoral readiness to accompany anyone who desires accompaniment and sacramental discipline for those who purposefully persist on the path to the mortal sin of suicide. Those western bishops, to their credit, have taken a similarly clear stance with respect to divorce and remarriage, while the primate and most of their colleagues east of Montreal appear to want no part in such countercultural shenanigans.

For the latter, not much has changed since 1968, apart from the near-complete collapse of their churches’ political and cultural relevance—that, and the fact that they can now appeal to the pope, rather than fight against him. Witness the Atlantic bishops’ “Pastoral Reflection on Medical Assistance in Dying” (yes, they actually use the preferred political euphemism), which, while making several sound points about the sacraments and rejecting suicide in principle, works its way toward this sorry conclusion: “As people of faith, and ministers of God’s grace, we are called to entrust everyone, whatever their decisions may be, to the mercy of God. To one and all we wish to say that the pastoral care of souls cannot be reduced to norms for the reception of the sacraments or the celebration of funeral rites.”

In other words, the most important thing in discerning situations is not this principle or that, but, well, discerning situations. Which is not really very difficult, because in the final analysis there is only one situation: Whatever your decision, we will commend you to God.

This unprincipled accompaniment forgets divine justice in its rush to divine mercy. It forgets that God himself, “when giving counsel, is present with those who attend to moral discipline” rather than with those who ignore it, as Irenaeus reminds us. It is Winnipeg all over again. There, the bishops made themselves chaplains to the contraceptive culture; here, to the culture of death. But here they justify themselves, as they could not there, by what is perhaps the single most problematic remark by a pontiff given to problematic remarks: “Pope Francis also calls us to practice this ‘art of accompaniment,’” they write, “removing our ‘sandals’ before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).”

This Levinas-like expression is lifted from Evangelii Gaudium, §169, as quoted by the Synod on the Family’s final report. Let us stop to think about it.

At the burning bush, Moses fails to discern his situation. He is told to take off his sandals because, standing in the presence of YHWH himself, he is standing on holy ground. Now, by way of the doctrine of the imago dei and the link between love of God and love of neighbor, we can and do arrive at a concept of the sanctity of the human person, a sanctity derived from the holiness of God himself. This derivative character, however, is the very thing at stake at present.

When Moses returns to the holy mountain with his people, they are warned first and foremost to acknowledge no other gods and to make no idolatrous image. That commandment, together with the commandment against killing, is broken when we embrace suicide or euthanasia. Why? Because we claim that our lives are ours independently of God, that we possess them in such a way as to have the right to their disposal. We do likewise at the other end of life when we embrace contraception and abortion. We do it in the middle, as it were, when we claim the right to determine our own “gender identity” or to “marry” a same-sex partner. Throughout the West, all these actions have now been approved in law—steered through Parliament, in Canada, under Catholic prime ministers absorbed in the idolatry of our age.

What irony there is, then, in this appeal to Exodus to justify the kind of “pastoral accompaniment” that refuses to discipline sacramentally those who have chosen the path of self-assertion and self-destruction! It is scandalous (I do not use the word lightly) that an assembly of bishops should take up this analogy, which transfers the concept of “sacred ground” from God to man, and use it to deny the clear moral judgment of the Church against suicide and euthanasia.

The Atlantic Episcopal Assembly’s pastoral statement, it grieves me to say, reads like a document either entirely ignorant of Veritatis Splendor or deliberately opposed to it. Here, indeed, “freedom is exalted almost to the point of idolatry” (Veritatis Splendor). Here the focus is on situations “which are very complex and obscure from a psychological viewpoint,” but “in such a way that it objectively changes or casts doubt upon the traditional concept of mortal sin.” Here is an “attempt to adapt the moral norm to one’s own capacities and personal interests,” even to “the rejection of the very idea of a norm.” Here it is forgotten that “Christian moral teaching must be one of the chief areas in which we [bishops] exercise our pastoral vigilance, in carrying out our munus regale.” Here “the seriousness of what is involved, not only for individuals but also for the whole of society,” is not recognized. Here is not that “evangelical simplicity,” that following of Christ, which leads to “a more genuine understanding of reality” and draws out “the distinctive character of authentic Christian morality, while providing the vital energy needed to carry it out.” Here is only scandal, the scandal of bishop against bishop, and of bishops permitting their priests to offer the sacraments where mortal sin is being committed.

The pope, for his part, seems untroubled by this scandal. Perhaps he is unaware of it, or of his own role in it. Or perhaps, since the bishops are not only using his words but following his example, he thinks it no scandal. Perhaps he, too, mistaking real compassion for false, thinks Canada’s western bishops hard-hearted Pharisees. I don’t know. I do know that the Church has been under extraordinary pressure to compromise the sacraments and, just so, to change the Gospel that is embodied in them. And that from Rome, as from our own primatial see in Quebec City, we hear at best an uncertain sound on the trumpet.

Some are saying that the Church is entering a time of crisis, the likes of which we have not seen since the fourth century. If they are right, this removal of apostolic sandals before the autonomous man is just one indicator of that crisis. Another is the disunity among the bishops over these matters. That, as Cyril of Jerusalem observes in his fifteenth catechetical lecture, is a sign of Antichrist and of the second advent. It is “a sign proper to the Church,” because it goes to the core of the Church.

My own effort to read the signs of the times (along the lines laid out in my book Ascension Theology) is not entirely conclusive about the scope of the present crisis or the point we occupy in the history of salvation. Things have happened in recent days—both a sudden acceleration of the mystery of lawlessness and a marked increase in fractiousness within the Church—that impart a new sense of urgency. What is certain is that we are living in a long period of apostasy and of purification. In St. Peter’s words, “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.”

It can be no surprise, then, that the sacraments are under renewed attack. For the sacraments are the means by which the Church is ordered and by which she distinguishes, on a practical level, between good and evil. (What is the point of forbidding the evil of divorce, if not to uphold the good of marriage and its witness to the covenant of our salvation? What is the point of forbidding suicide and euthanasia, if not to uphold the sanctity of life and the good of honoring the Lord and Giver of Life?) The sacraments, of course, are much more than that. They are instruments of grace by which God communicates to us his own life through participation in our Lord Jesus Christ. They are not rewards for goodness, but the means of sharing in the God who is good. That is why they are holy sacraments, and it is their very holiness that makes them the object of attack.

If the sacraments were merely means of moral and ecclesial order, or rewards for goodness, it might very well be “pharisaical” to deny them to those deemed somehow disordered, given that we are all disordered, each in our own way. We might then appeal for greater flexibility in sacramental discipline, tempering our concern for justice by our concern for mercy. But the sacraments are not ours; they are Christ’s—just as our bodies are not strictly ours, but have been reclaimed by God in Christ. We do no justice to the mercy of Christ, we show no mercy to those who would enter the justice of Christ, if we change the conditions for reception of the sacraments to conform to private decisions about good and evil.

The regionalism that we are currently witnessing in the West, under the rubric of “discernment of situations,” is the result of a failure to discern both the nature of the sacraments and the situation of the Church. The old gods, sex, mammon, and death, are reviving and reasserting themselves as the gods of autonomy. They are beginning to press their hands on the faithless and the faithful alike. They are groping even for the holy sacraments, that they might defile them. In this situation, do we really need more talk about the internal forum and “the sacred ground of the other”?

Surely what we need to hear is that God himself, and God alone, is the source of our sanctity. We need to hear that God is equally and indissolubly, without shadow of turning or contradiction, the God of mercy and of justice, of goodness and of judgment, of love and of holiness. If we do not know and recognize him thus in the sacraments, we become like those of whom Irenaeus wrote—those who, by trying to divide God, deprive themselves of the benefits both of his justice and of his goodness. We fail to discern our situation.

I, for one, do not hear this from the priest in my own parish. I do not hear it from the wise men to the East, on either side of the Atlantic, who seem to imagine that good and evil are one thing here and another thing there. I do not hear it, at least not clearly, from the Holy Father in Rome. He seems to be disciplining us, “for a short time, at his pleasure,” and we must respect him as best we can. But how much more must we respect the Father of spirits, who “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness”?

The Book of Hebrews, which the Church has recently been reading in its daily lections, is all about discernment of situations. At its climax, in chapter 12, it not only places our Eucharistic feasts in their proper context, but reminds us of the right response to discipline and warns us against the error of Esau, that paradigm of failure to discern:

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled; that no one be immoral or irreligious like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.

No doubt there is something different, in every sentence of this paragraph, for each of us to attend to, but its final line stands out as a query to us all. The sacraments are the birth rites of the Church and the birthright of Christians. Are they somehow being sold or sold out? And if so, for what?

It is only just, I think, to invite the Atlantic bishops, among whom I number at least one friend and father in God, to be the first to answer.

Douglas B. Farrow is professor of Christian thought at McGill University.