Whatever Pope Francis does in the wake of the Synod on the Family, we have a new Humanae Vitae moment on our hands. Decades of relentless infighting over what exactly the Church teaches is on the horizon and will negatively affect the priesthood, religious life, religious institutions, parishes, families and individuals. Just as those who dissented from Humanae Vitae were able to use a seeming openness to their point of view in the process that preceded the encyclical to legitimize their view, so too will dissenters find justification for their positions in the debates at the Synod.

After Vatican II and especially after Humanae Vitae, dissent became the norm in the institutions of the Church (a story wonderfully told in Ralph McInerny’s What Went Wrong with Vatican II?). Dissenting theologians rightly boasted that they had won: they had control of the episcopacy, the major Catholic universities and most of the colleges, professional organizations, and journals. Those who tried to argue, say, that the Church’s teaching on contraception was still in force and in fact immutable, were told that it was only a matter of time until the Church changed. Those preparing for marriage were told that they were free to use contraception; even those who confessed to using contraception were told there was no sin involved if they were following their consciences. Theologians discounted the witness of Scripture on a wide variety of issues by claiming the teachings found there were culturally conditioned. Many theologians lobbied for elections of bishops by laity and, of course, pushed for the ordination of women priests. It was next to impossible for a theologian who was faithful to Church teaching to get a job in most Catholic universities and colleges and even many dioceses no matter how distinguished their degrees, no matter how sophisticated their research and writing. There was even considerable talk of possible schism: dissenting theologians regularly referred to the “American Catholic Church.”

Light Amidst Darkness

A small cadre of faithful Catholic academics initiated an informal “counter-movement”: they established journals, professional societies and publishing houses. Determined laity founded organizations and publications, a few small colleges and universities, radio stations, TV networks, and blogs to promote Church teaching in positive, attractive, and intelligent ways. Very few initiatives came out of diocesan structures and often the struggling and faithful laity met with resistance from the hierarchy. (That has changed in recent years.)

Pope John Paul II was the great beacon of light in the darkness. He was positive, attractive, intelligent, erudite, holy, and he produced a large volume of material that stimulated Catholic scholars across disciplines and promises to keep graduate students well occupied for decades. Additionally, in one of his greatest gifts to the Church, he founded an eponymous pontifical institute (with several worldwide branches) devoted to the graduate study of marriage and the family.

The publication of the Catechism, Evangelium Vitae, Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio, among a host of other reliable and provocative documents, put Catholicism back on the path to a vibrant orthodoxy. The sexual abuse crisis threatened to undo decades of good work, but when the dust settled, it was clear that the crisis led to a cleansing of some elements of the Church. Among the most important results was a burgeoning of vocations to the priesthood among masculine, energetic, and intellectually alive young men.

Those of us involved in the effort of revivifying and restoring the great intellectual currents of the Church, doubted that we would live long enough to see the Church display the confidence and steadiness in its teaching that we knew was part of its essential nature. The opposition generally ignored us and if they noticed us, at best, claimed we misunderstood them but more often ridiculed and dismissed us. Over time, again, due to the witness and magnetism of Pope John Paul II and to the dogged and effective work of some academics and a small army of lay people, progress was made in showing the intellectual strength of orthodoxy in contrast to the intellectual impoverishment, the illogical and arrogant posturing of dissenters. Over time, academic and ecclesial institutions hired more of us. Faithful and creative publishing houses, journals, lay ecclesial movements, and a myriad of lay-run institutions made orthodoxy something Catholics could again encounter and take nourishment from. Rome started appointing faithful bishops and they began to accept and adopt the resources lay people had created often in the face of lamentable opposition by their predecessors.

Since the publication of the Catechism, the trajectory of the Church has been ineluctably in the direction of orthodoxy. Dissenters find the atmosphere of the Church to be “chilling” and while they still have control of the professional organizations and educational institutions, they have definitely lost momentum. Just as pro-abortion activists are stunned at the youthfulness of the prolife movement, dissenters are saddened by the greying of their ranks and stunned that younger scholars have such a passion for orthodoxy.

Ironically, the need for “diversity” in Catholic universities led to the hiring of faithful Catholics; several smaller colleges re-embraced faithful Catholicism and, very importantly, the seminaries were radically reformed. Scholars were now invited to teach in seminaries from which they would have been emphatically excluded some decades earlier. Some of us took the return of the tabernacle from remote corners of the Church to the center of the sanctuary as a physical sign that things in the Church had bonded to the right axis. We knew that our victories in the intellectual realm, while solid and extensive, were still not widespread enough. We also knew that, although the number of bishops and priests and laity who were willing to commit themselves to Christ and the doctrines of his Church had grown, most laity were still sadly ignorant about Church teaching and living lives very much in conflict with it. Certainly the Church had not been completely reformed, but it seemed our efforts were bearing fruit and that over time, orthodoxy would prevail.

An Unexpected Development

Then along came the synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. While before I never thought things would become as good as they have, now I have trouble believing that dissenters were given such a prominent venue in which to market their discredited views. And where was Pope Francis in this? He gave very conflicting signals. Had the ordinary synod of 2015 decided to give to dioceses and regions the decision of admitting divorced and civilly “remarried” couples to the Eucharist, for instance, a very strong case could be made that anyone able to read pontifical tea leaves would have been able to predict that outcome. Had the synod given a robust defense of the scriptural and doctrinal grounds for not admitting the same group to the Eucharist, prognosticators skilled at connecting dots could have said they knew it was going to happen all along.

No one expected any doctrinal change: the fight was over what kind of pastoral accommodations would be made. Some were convinced that some proposals would seriously undermine doctrine and lead to a de facto change in doctrine. For instance, if priests were permitted to decide that some divorced and remarried Catholics could partake of the Eucharist, many knew well that this would lead Catholics to conclude that marriage is not a pledge to life-time fidelity, is not indissoluble. They also understood that it would give a primacy to conscience that robbed the claim that there are objective absolute moral norms of all force.

The final document certainly was not fully satisfactory to those looking for either outcome. Still, it seems that the forces pushing for significant pastoral change have more reason to celebrate. In the end, although no accommodations were made that explicitly affirm pastoral solutions incompatible with doctrine or current practice, several elements of the final report supply loopholes that serve the purposes of those who are determined to permit the divorced and civilly remarried to receive the Eucharist. One such element is reference to the “internal forum,” which means allowing a divorced and civilly “remarried” couple to explore with a priest what sort of participation in the Church in their case is compatible with the “demands of truth and charity of the Gospel.”

Although there is nothing in the final report that explicitly permits readmission to the Eucharist, it is also true that nothing explicitly rules out readmission. Thus, those who are pushing for readmission will claim that the document supports their position. Unfortunately, there is just enough ambiguity to allow for this interpretation. In addition to noting that the fact that the question was given such attention at the Synod and that those who were the strongest advocates were given special prominence by the Holy Father, they can reasonably claim that they have been given permission to proceed to use the “internal forum” for readmission. Furthermore, those who wish for “progressive” pastoral solutions will claim that the Holy Father’s closing address to the Synod gives further support to their efforts: they will say he harshly criticized “conservatives” and even better was his approval of honoring the “spirit” of the law, over the law itself. That dichotomy, of course, was precisely what dissenters used to bypass the letter of the documents of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, as they claimed the “spirit” of Vatican II in behalf of their positions.

The similarities of the circumstances surrounding the reception of Humanae Vitae and the circumstances surrounding the deliberations of the Synod are many. While the Special Commission convened by Pope Paul VI to look at the question of contraception in the modern world was not directed to consider whether the Church should or could change its teaching, the Commission decided on its own to take up that question and sent reports to the Holy Father that advocated that the Church permit married couples to use contraception. There was an explosion in the media. Dissenting theologians proclaimed victory, and the world and the Church waited for a year before Pope Paul VI promulgated a document that unambiguously reiterated the constant teaching of the Church that contraception was not compatible with God’s plan for sexuality. He enlisted bishops’ conferences around the world to issue statements of support. Unfortunately about a dozen or so issued weak statements that, in fact, served to establish a “conscience” loophole that allowed dissenters to claim that couples whose consciences did not consider contraception to be wrong in their case, could use contraception without sin.

The dissenters took control of the Catholic “world” and invocated the “spirit” of Vatican II and the primacy of conscience over objective norms. Dissent spread to virtually every teaching of the Church and for decades, faithful Catholics were faced with reestablishing the authoritativeness of Church teaching, and, in fact, generally did more than that; they also advanced understandings of the very teachings that were being challenged both in theory and fact.

Ambiguity and Confusion

Both those victories threaten to be short-lived. This synod most likely will result in much of the same confusion. George Weigel defends the paragraphs (84-86) of the Synod report against “German spin” doctors; unfortunately, it could be said that his defense shows the weakness of the paragraphs and the document. It is not possible to point to explicit statements in the Report that the divorced and civilly remarried are not eligible to receive the Eucharist. So Weigel has to interpret what X means and Y means, and what it means that something was discussed but not included, etc. One of the most seriously troubling portions of the Synod Report is the omission from section 86 of the part of the paragraph from Familiaris Consortio 84, which states that the divorced and civilly divorced may not receive the Eucharist and balances an earlier portion of the same paragraph that calls for “discernment” about how the divorced and civilly “remarried” can participate in the Church. Weigel argues that since the omitted portion was written as a clarification of the earlier statement on discernment, it must be seen to be of a piece with the earlier portion, and thus its absence cannot be used to argue for admitting the divorced and civilly “remarried” to the Eucharist. On the other hand, the omission of the qualifying portion can plausibly be said to indicate that the Synod was not endorsing all of FC 84 and was permitting “discernment” that could lead to reception of the Eucharist and arguably have the stronger position since attempts to get the clarifying portion included were defeated.

When such interpretations need to be made, what the document is saying is not clear. Moreover, confusion will extend not only to the issues discussed. If a significant number of theologians, bishops, and priests operate with a concept of conscience (and perhaps seemingly with the Pope’s blessing) that reduces objective absolute moral norms to optional guidelines, that concept will free Catholics individually to determine what is right and wrong not just about divorce and remarriage, but about many other issues.

The central doctrinal issue that unites the dissenting response to Humanae Vitae and the elements of the report of the Synod that would allow for admitting the divorced and civilly “remarried” to the Eucharist is a view of conscience that does not correspond to that taught by the Church, a view of conscience that has been refuted numerous times (splendidly in Veritatis Splendor). The project of faithful Catholics after Humanae Vitae was to provide solid defenses for Church teaching using a variety of arguments. Again, I believe that has been done for the Church’s teaching on conscience and a multitude of other teachings. The current challenges do not call primarily for scholarly debate or studies (though they are always helpful and should be undertaken). Yet, in my view, showing the weaknesses of the arguments of the opposition is not our foremost task. Again, that has been done by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1998 who explained why the divorced and civilly remarried cannot receive the Eucharist and why the “internal forum” is not a sufficient recourse in this situation. There is also the recent volume Remaining in the Truth of Christ. After Humanae Vitae, we won few if any converts among dissenters, but we did make enormous progress among those who were willing to give our work a fair hearing.

The Way Forward

How disappointed am I by these setbacks? Very. Am I despondent or despairing? No, not at all. We are much better situated to fight and win this battle than we were to fight the troubles that came after Humanae Vitae. We now have very good materials and resources, brave and good bishops, highly trained and well-placed academics and a considerable army of lay people who are seasoned soldiers ready to man their posts. We do have a different task than we did nearly fifty years ago. That was largely an intellectual battle; faithful Catholics had to painstakingly expose the errors of dissenters and establish a defense of Church teaching in ways that are intelligible and attractive to people of our times. Check. A very great deal of that has been done, though, of course, there is always more to do.

This battle, however, is one that necessitates that we quite radically reform parish life. We need to revivify the parish and that will not be easy. At one time US parishes were buzzing hubs of all kinds of activity. There was no need to work to unite a parish because many were united by very strong bonds, largely that of ethnicity. The neighborhoods around a parish were occupied by parishioners; the schools (even the public ones), and the shops were often in the hands of parishioners. You couldn’t go far in a community without running into fellow parishioners. Even the larger community basically shared the same values the Church was promoting.

Our incredibly mobile society presents what can seem like an insuperable obstacle to getting people to think of the parish as an institution vital to their lives, a place where they are known and loved. Most people feel more known and even cared for by co-workers than by fellow parishioners. Parishes should be welcoming communities that have ways to integrate newcomers into the parish, hopefully a parish that already has cultivated a strong sense of community. Making those things happen is a huge project in itself.

There should never be any lonely Christians. Coffee and donuts after mass help, greeters at the door help, but as we all well know, Catholics can attend the same parish for years on end and not know any other person there. I am told The Amazing Parish project can help make a parish a vibrant center not only for receiving the sacraments and learning about the faith but also for experiencing true community. Whether it is that project or others that bring about the transformation, parishes must become homes for parishioners. The reform of parishes is long over due and if the Synod serves to galvanize bishops, priests and lay people to turn their attention to parish life, it will be a felix culpa rather than a disaster.

Many resources already exist that can be used to help create, sustain community, and build communities. Most all of this is properly the work of the New Evangelization. Here are just a few specifics of what might be done:

  1. We need hunker down and utilize the resources already at our disposal: e.g., various Bible reading courses, marriage preparation programs based on the Theology of the body, Alpha and Courage.

  2. We need to develop new programs (e.g., programs for those who struggle with infertility or with pornography addiction).

  3. We need to work to reach every Catholic with the truths of the faith, through such means as publications, radio stations, TV stations, conferences, movements, and the Internet which undoubtedly have enormous contributions to make.

  4. Priests need to learn how to preach joyfully and authoritatively on the basic teachings of Christianity and of the Church, especially on controverted and complex moral issues. While the pulpit is rarely the place to do full blown explanation of moral issues, enough should be said to help parishioners know what the Church teaches and to give them direction on where to learn why the Church teaches what it teaches.

  5. Adult education programs need to become more appealing and Catholics need to be ignited with a burning desire to know and love their Lord and teachings of the Church he established and to learn how to use the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

  6. Eucharistic adoration and regular reception of the sacrament of confession and opportunities for spiritual direction must be the sustaining fuel of all efforts.

Great progress had been made since Humanae Vitae in providing a powerful defense of Church teaching on all contested matters and in developing effective programs for bringing people to understand and live those teachings. The implementation of those programs is still very much a work in progress. We should not become obsessed in exposing the distortions arising from the Synod or the machinations behind the Synod, nor become unduly distressed by the likely consequences. I have great confidence that we can emerge a stronger Church out of these current difficulties. And I believe we will if we become more familiar with the excellent programs available and transform our parishes in dynamic communities where the parishioners know and serve each other, and come to love sharing their faith and lives with each other and the wider community.

Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.

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