Barack Obama announced in 2012 that religious liberty was “an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right.” Yet as president he encouraged his colleagues to pursue the Little Sisters of the Poor through the courts, trying to force them to betray their consciences. Words, in short, are cheap. The decisive question is not what a leader says, but who and what he empowers.
Pope Francis has affirmed Church teaching on an all-male priesthood, and said he is reluctant to reform the discipline of priestly celibacy. Yet the men he has empowered at the Amazon Synod are dissenters from Catholic doctrine who intend to utterly transform the priesthood and the Church. That last sentence may sound like hyperbole. But every part of it can be demonstrated beyond question.
Over the last five years, Pope Francis has empowered Bishop Erwin Kräutler and his allies, who urge the Church to abandon its general insistence on priestly celibacy. In 2014, Kräutler discussed his ideas with the pope. In 2015, the pope asked him to make “bold, daring proposals” for the Amazon region, and two years later Francis appointed Kräutler to the committee organizing the Amazon synod. Kräutler has related how, last year, he and his allies campaigned successfully for their married-priests idea to be on the synod agenda; now it is thought to be part of the synod’s draft final document, which will be voted on tomorrow.
Kräutler also happens to dissent from Church teaching. Pope St. John Paul II repeatedly taught that the male-only priesthood is an unalterable doctrine which “requires definitive assent.” We are not dealing here with hints or ambiguities, but with the full force of magisterial authority reaffirming the perennial doctrine of the Church. Yet Kräutler, with an honesty not always found among progressive bishops, regularly confesses that he doesn’t believe it. The synod, he publicly hopes, will be a “step” toward women priests.
At the synod, meanwhile, Cardinal Michael Czerny—whom Pope Francis has made both a cardinal and a member of the committee drafting the final synod document—told a journalist that women’s ordination shouldn’t be “off the table.” Cardinal Schönborn, handpicked by the pope for the same crucial committee, has speculated about a future of women deacons, priests, and bishops. The committee’s president, Cardinal Hummes, believes the Church might “find reasons” to “review” its teaching.
But women’s ordination is, at least for Kräutler, only part of the picture. He frequently refers to the work of another bishop, Fritz Lobinger, who has written at length on ordaining married men. In Lobinger’s dream set of reforms, the priesthood as we know it will be pushed to the margins: Instead, married “elders”—perhaps, dear reader, you and I—will be trained part-time to take up our sacramental duties. We “elders” will still wear ordinary garb and do ordinary jobs, but we’ll also say Mass, hear confessions, and so on.
Eventually, Lobinger writes, there will be communities where “elders” outnumber the old-school priests by a ratio of 30 to 1, or 15 to 1, and Catholics may be able to “overcome the stage where they prefer” the old system. The “first hurdle” on the way to this reform, Lobinger believes, is women deacons—a proposal whose theological dubiousness hasn’t prevented it from being included in the Amazon Synod’s draft final document.
It’s often claimed that the synod’s married-priests debate is just about a possible local solution to the Amazon’s priest shortage. Lobinger is more honest: He admits that such a discussion “can be conducted only as a worldwide dialogue, because the decision of one part of the Church on this question will unavoidably touch all others.” It is “not just a temporary emergency solution,” he writes, “but a new image of the local community.”
Kräutler, too, hopes for revolution: “The Amazon Synod,” he believes, “can be the cause of an epochal step in the Universal Church.” That is what this synod is about: a plan, formulated by men who openly dispute Church teaching, to transform the religious experience of 1.3 billion Catholics. Hubris would be a polite word. But they have not acted without encouragement: At Kräutler’s 2014 meeting with Pope Francis, the pope himself brought up Lobinger’s proposals. Francis has read three of Lobinger’s books and spoken warmly of them.
So there it is: At the Amazon Synod, Pope Francis has empowered critics of Catholic doctrine to try to impose destructive reforms on the Catholic Church. The mind shies away from this conclusion, because Catholics are bound to love the pope. But to love him in spite of everything, to love him when we criticize his actions and even obstruct his wishes, is still love—and certainly a truer kind of loyalty than flattering him about his worst mistakes.
Few Catholics have ever shown such love for the pope as St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, martyred for refusing to deny papal supremacy. But that didn’t mean they admired the Vatican of their time. As the great Catholic historian J. J. Scarisbrick notes, in More and Fisher’s era “Rome was, humanly speaking, unlovable.” Yet each man had the clarity of mind to “set aside the repugnance he must have felt for it, on the human level, and laid down his life for it.”
Or take another example, from an even more reliable source. St. Paul tells us that when the pope of his time made some questionable ideological alliances, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned.” Would anyone really maintain that, at that moment, St. Paul failed to love St. Peter? Wasn’t it, rather, one of the moments when he loved him most?
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.
Like First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.