Is post-Synod confusion better than the alternatives?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 03, 2015

Ross Douthat of the New York Times has argued forcefully that Pope Francis has created dangerous fissures within the Church by supporting the Kasper proposal. But now Douthat suggests that the Pope could head off a crisis by issuing a post-synod exhortation in which he would “just leave things where they are”—that is, say nothing explicit about Communion for the divorced/remarried.

Yes, and there’s another compelling reason why the Pope could and should avoid pushing ahead with the Kasper proposal.

We’re assuming, here, that Pope Francis wanted the proposal approved—or at the very least, wanted to explore every possible avenue toward its acceptance. Let’s assume, too, that the Holy Father believed such a change could be made without contradicting Catholic doctrine. (The former assumption is unavoidable, in light of the Pope’s statements and actions during the past two Synod meetings; the latter is obligatory for anyone who is not ready to denounce the Vicar of Christ as a heretic.)

However, although he favored the Kasper proposal (according to my assumptions) Pope Francis should also have recognized that he could not take such a dramatic step alone. The power of the Roman Pontiff is extraordinary but it is not unlimited. When he teaches with authority, the Pope must speak for, and in union with, the college of bishops. This year’s Synod meeting demonstrated that the world’s bishops are not united behind the Kasper proposal. By pushing the matter, then, the Pope would violate his duty to serve as the focus of unity within the episcopate.

In short, we may yet conclude that the Synod, rambunctious as it was, did its proper duty: the bishops advised the Pope against a course of action that might have compromised the integrity of the faith.

It’s true that, if I am right, we are left with what Douthat accurately describes as a “muddle.” Proponents of the Kasper proposal are already claiming victory; in many dioceses divorced and remarried Catholics will soon be receiving Communion (if they aren’t already), regardless of the Church’s official stand. The only way to avoid that outcome would be for Pope Francis to issue a very explicit reaffirmation of Church teaching on the topic.

But that sort of emphasis on doctrinal clarity would be completely out of character for Pope Francis, who has spent so many homilies denouncing the “doctors of the law.” Moreover, an emphatic rejection of the Kasper proposal would no doubt cause outrage among liberal Catholics, escalating the doctrinal warfare that is, as Douthat observes, only simmering today. Occasional doctrinal skirmishes can be a very serious matter for those who are directly involved (as Douthat himself knows all too well), but all-out warfare causes more casualties.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Reuben Slife - Nov. 06, 2015 10:57 PM ET USA

    I disagree. Francis is frequently clear about doctrine, and seems to me to not approve of Kasper's proposal. It would not be too hard to condemn it simply by citing the portion of Familiaris Consortio 84 on the topic. The Synod didn't cite it; but it was also unwilling to contradict it. No one could complain of a citation--and the Pope could phrase it to emphasize the mercy inherent in it. He has been silent, to hear the bishops; but he may not feel beholden to make their ambiguity his own.

  • Posted by: shrink - Nov. 04, 2015 8:37 AM ET USA

    Francis did not create the fissure, he is moving it out of the closet. He is simply acknowledging openly that the Church has been in a cold war since V2. The hermeneutic of rupture is a war, with tradition. It explicitly pits mercy against the law. This is what Francis favors. In so doing, he will make of marriage what Paul6 made of the perenial teaching on marital relations--a DEAD letter. In this hermeneutic, the words say one thing, the actions do the opposite. Mercy is life, the law kills.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 03, 2015 10:28 PM ET USA

    The SSPX constantly cites Vatican I against the threats of collegiality. The pope's the pope. But things are not right. Tradition matters. Recent decades have engendered an animus to Tradition from all quarters. This much is clear. In a word the answer to the title is: No. Dr. Mirus wrote speculatively of a smaller Church. It's here. Douthat wrote: "Welcome to the battlefield." The Church is One. The pope has the duty to preach the Gospel. This is the focus of unity within the Church.

  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 03, 2015 8:50 PM ET USA

    Green lighting of the reception of Holy Communion by those who live in non-sacramental unions would instantly undermine the very foundations of Catholic Faith. I just wish the Holy Father would persuasively encourage people to live out heroic virtues and support those who already do, rather than leave an impression that those virtues don't count much anymore because "mercy" overrules everything. We are all to take up the cross daily as we follow the Savior. There is no love without sacrifice.

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Nov. 03, 2015 6:06 PM ET USA

    I don't know what to think, and I am sad. Robert Royal says (see his article "The Still Unfinished Synod" today at National Catholic Register for one source) "a high-ranking cardinal, deeply involved in the synod, says the Pope has personally told him on three separate occasions that he does not support Cardinal Kasper." Yet, what you say is true, "emphasis on doctrinal clarity would be completely out of character for Pope Francis."