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Will conservative Catholics help media skew Church discussions on marriage?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 05, 2014

Seven months before the Synod of Bishops meets to discuss pastoral care for the family, one can easily foresee how the mass media will cover the prelates’ discussion. It is not easy to predict which themes will emerge as most prominent in the Synod fathers’ debates. But it is very easy to predict which themes will dominate the media coverage.

From the perspective of the secular media, the key question pending at the bishops’ meeting—really the only question that the media consider worthy of coverage—is whether the Catholic Church will back away from her traditional teachings on contraception, homosexuality, and divorce. The answer to that question is No. But reporters, prodded by "progressive" Catholics, keep implying that the question is unresolved. Regrettably, some conservative Catholics are encouraging them.

Influential voices within the Church are already calling for wholesale doctrinal changes. The bishops of Germany, having found that most lay Catholics in their country reject or ignore Church teachings, have thrown up their hands and hinted—or in a few cases said quite clearly—that Church stands on sexual issues must change. An American bishop has made the illogical claim: “Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium suggests the rejection of Church teaching on this subject.” An English Catholic newspaper has published an editorial referring to the Church’s stand on sexual issues as a “state of denial,” and lauding the Catholics who find Church teachings “incomprehensible or just plain wrong.”

To be sure, then, there are plenty of calls for change—as there have been demands for change in Catholic doctrine since time immemorial. But to complicate matters, the proponents of change today claim that Pope Francis endorses their ideas. That English newspaper, the Tablet, quoted the Holy Father’s reference to “pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness,” and leapt to the conclusion that the Pope was advocating some major changes in Church teaching.

Virtually every day’s news headlines include at least one story suggesting that the Pope is questioning some long-standing Church policy. Today, for instance, a USA Today headline announces: “Pope Francis leaves door open for same-sex unions.” In fact, in the interview on which the story was based, the Pope only said that secular governments might have various reasons of their own for providing legal protection for non-marital unions. “One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety,” the Holy Father said. The interviewer did not press him on the subject, so we do not know under what circumstances—if any—the Pope might think the Church could accept some legal recognition of same-sex unions. In the full interview the Pope did, however, firmly reassert the Church’s teaching on a closely related issue: “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Yes, it is true that in that interview with an Italian newspaper, Pope Francis might have “left the door open” to acceptance of some legal same-sex unions—by the state, not the Church. At least he did not slam the door shut. But in an interview in which he offered that clear defense of marriage—an interview in which he also praised Pope Paul VI for his controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae, and offered a defense of the Church’s response to the sex-abuse scandal—how could a journalist conclude that the Pope’s vague, off-hand remarks on same-sex unions were the most newsworthy part of the interview? That could happen only because the reporter (or the headline writer) was looking at the transcript with the issue of same-sex marriage uppermost in his mind, and exaggerated the importance of an exchange that formed only a small part of a long interview. (It is astonishing that the Catholic News Service, the agency supported and subsidized by the US bishops’ conference, ran the story under a headline quite similar to that in USA Today.)

Actually it should be no surprise that, in a quick response to a quick question, the Pope did not slam the door shut. Pope Francis has made a determined effort to avoid blanket prohibitions. He does not want to be perceived as another “Pio Nono,” because he does not want to reinforce the popular caricature of the Church as stern and inflexible. Rather, he wants to make winsome arguments, to appeal to a world that has lost its moral compass, above all to drive home the message that everyone can enjoy the benefits of God’s unlimited mercy.

Thus the Pope has challenged the Synod of Bishops to find new ways to address the problems of families, especially those families that are struggling. Following his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, he has made a special call for pastoral attention to Catholics who, because they are divorced and remarried, are barred from the sacraments. Nowhere has he suggested that the Church should change her teaching or her perennial practice. He has merely called for a discussion. But again commentators have gleefully leapt to the conclusion that the Pope favors such changes—or even conveying the impression that the changes have already taken place.

In October, consequently, the major theme of the media coverage will be whether the Church will surrender on issues of sexuality. More specifically, the media will focus on whether the Church changes her stand, and allows divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist.

A substantive change in Church teaching is highly unlikely. The Synod may recommend some pastoral provisions, such as steps to allow easier access to annulments. (Such provisions would probably not have much practical impact in the US, where annulments are already granted to nearly everyone who applies.) In his address to a special consistory in February, Cardinal Walter Kasper proposed a special penitential process that might allow for reconciliation of remarried couples under rare circumstances. The German-speaking bishops will no doubt push for a broader indulgence. But fundamental Church teaching will not change, and so the mass media will be disappointed.

How will the media react? The coverage from the October Synod meeting will suggest that the “moderate” forces for change were stymied by the entrenched “ultraconservatives.” Insofar as Pope Francis will ultimately support existing doctrine, journalists who have been enthralled by the new Pontiff will be devastated, just as liberal journalists of an earlier generation were disappointed when Pope Paul VI confirmed Church teaching in Humanae Vitae. And then the real battle for public opinion will begin.

After Vatican II, the disappointed proponents of more sweeping changes formed an impromptu alliance with the mass media, to put out the story that the “spirit of Vatican II” was more important than the council documents. In his excellent book Turmoil and Truth, Philip Trower used a vivid image to explain how this campaign succeeded in making millions of people believe that Vatican II was a radical break from the Catholic past:

Six men are pushing a heavily loaded car which has run out of fuel. Three of the men, who have been riding in the car, want to push it 20 yards to get it into a lay-by. The other three, who have offered to help, mean to push the car 50 yards and shove it over a cliff followed by the car owner and his two friends. Once the pushing begins and the car starts moving it is probable the car is going to come to rest more than 20 years from the starting point even if it does not end up at the cliff’s foot.
Now let us imagine what a group of people watching from a nearby hilltop will make of the incident. They will start by assuming that all six men have the same intentions. The car is moving steadily forward. Then they see three of the men detach themselves from the back of the car, run around to the front and try to stop it. Which are the troublemakers? Those surely who are now opposing the process that has been started.

At the Synod meeting and in the weeks that follow, some German bishops will keep pushing the car, assisted by dissident theologians. Journalists, watching from a nearby hill, will wonder why Pope Francis and other bishops are resisting them. In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, debates along these lines wreaked havoc within the Church.

Unfortunately, in 2014 there is a new development that could create even more confusion. Some conservative Catholics have joined their liberal counterparts in announcing, day after day, that Pope Francis has jettisoned Church teachings. With their gleeful proclamations of doom, they have reinforced the impression that the Church faces a radical break from the past.

In his praise for Pope Paul VI, Pope Francis said that his predecessor had shown the courage to resist contemporary trends, to “exercise a cultural brake” with Humanae Vitae. It seems highly unlikely that the Holy Father had Trower’s image in mind, but his words fit nicely with the picture. Sooner or later Pope Francis will be forced to apply the brakes himself; it may be the greatest challenge of his pontificate.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bruno - Mar. 13, 2014 6:42 PM ET USA

    The two sides remind me of Jesus' parable of the children in the marketplace (Matthew 11:16-18). Everyone wants to direct the Church in a direction they approve. It is scary after all, being a follower of Jesus!

  • Posted by: phil L - Mar. 07, 2014 12:10 PM ET USA

    The teachings of the Church cannot change, but they can be developed in various ways that clarify or add to previous magisterial statements. That's what I have in mind when I refer to a "substantive change in Church teaching"-- which, again, I still consider unlikely.

  • Posted by: matthew.buckley1558 - Mar. 07, 2014 4:39 AM ET USA

    I thought the same thing jg23753479. Phil, in saying that a change in church teaching is only "highly unlikely" aren't you inadvertently being one of the encouragers? For it is *impossible* for the Church to change her teaching on this matter. We must get this right!

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Mar. 05, 2014 10:37 PM ET USA

    Sadly, Phil, I think the media is biased but it is not stupid. The Pope's vague, off-hand comments are quite disturbing. His praise of Humanae Vitae is followed by a glaring qualification that smacks of the very moral relativism that he claims to reject. And, yes, the Church has been in a state of denial regarding moral issues.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 05, 2014 9:49 PM ET USA

    Phil, you write, "A substantive change in Church teaching is highly unlikely." Shouldn't the last two words in that sentence be "totally impossible"?

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 05, 2014 6:36 PM ET USA

    I think the confusing situation we find ourselves in today should be ring familiar to those who lived under the pontificate of Paul VI. The expectations then for doctrinal overthrow were not just about human sexuality, but involved beliefs about communism, and economic rights, etc.. Disarmament and appeasement were the cause celeb. JP2 had to set things straight. JP2 was NOT readily misunderstood, and he was hated by the left, since he popped their fantasy bubble that Paul VI helped inflate.

  • Posted by: Defender - Mar. 05, 2014 6:04 PM ET USA

    Interesting that Cardinal Kasper, at 81, is prepared to junk the Magisterium that has served the Church so well. Of course, the Vatican has changed these few years with so many of the senior clergy seemingly seeking the media to be quoted. There are changes that must be made, however: gay priests need to be kicked out; fiscal control of dioceses; dissident theologians, schools and clergy (bishops too) need to be dealt with, to name a few.

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