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Did the Pope really say the Church ceased to exist?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 04, 2022

Here, I believe, is the ultimate expression of the “hermeneutic of rupture.” In his July 29 conversation with Jesuits in Canada, Pope Francis seems to have said that the Roman Catholic Church ceased to exist!

Read his words and check my logic. The Pope said that “the Church is either synodal or it is not Church.” Then just a few moments later: “Certainly, we can say that the Church in the West had lost its synodal tradition.” So it follows that the “Church in the West” was not Church.

The Pope does concede that synodality— thus, the Church, by his definition— continued. “The Church of the East has preserved it.” But this astonishing statement from this astonishing Pontiff seems to dismiss the authenticity of the “Church in the West”— that is, the Roman Catholic Church, which he now leads. And notice that he does not make this claim as a hypothesis; he begins the crucial sentence with the word “Certainly.”

The Pope’s statement does not specify the historical point at which the Western Church lost its synodal character. But he does point to the time when it was recovered: after Vatican II:

Paul VI set up the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops because he intended to go ahead on this issue. Synod after synod has gone ahead, tentatively, improving, understanding better, maturing.

In his famous 2005 address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict decried the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” which alleged “a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church.” But nowhere has that “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” taken such a radical form as this: the suggestion that the Church had ceased to be the Church prior to the Council.

In his remarks to the Jesuit community in Quebec, the Pope does not clearly explain what “synodality” means, apart from a statement that it is a movement of the Holy Spirit. The synod is not a parliament, he says. It is not a matter of debating and voting; “nor is it a dialectical confrontation between a majority and a minority.” But then what exactly is this crucial element, without which the Church cannot exist?

”If you want to read the best book of theology on the synod,” the Pope says, “then re-read the Acts of the Apostles.” That’s another very interesting remark. Because in the Acts, the most conspicuous exercise of synodality comes at the Council of Jerusalem, where the assembled bishops rejected the position held by St. Peter. If the next full meeting of the Synod of Bishops produces the same result— a correction of St. Peter’s successor— we can count it a great success.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Aug. 11, 2022 3:03 AM ET USA

    Thanks for providing a link to Francis’ complete public comments. They clarified something for me. I had thought that Kamala Harris was the reigning Top Chef of “word salad,” but it’s clear that Francis’ skills are at a different level entirely.

  • Posted by: Phil - Aug. 08, 2022 9:39 AM ET USA

    To answer a few readers' objections: True, the Council of Jerusalem did not reject anything that St. Peter had said. And after the Council, St. Peter gave his authority to the majority decision. But earlier, St. Peter's actions had encouraged the Judaizers, and prompted a rebuke from St. Paul. (See Gal 2) The Council affirmed what St. Paul said: thus I take it as a correction. St. Robert Bellarmine: "But we do not deny that popes can offer the occasion of erring through their own bad example..."

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Aug. 05, 2022 8:47 PM ET USA

    So the pope insists that the organization that he purports to be the head of, doesn’t exist, and hasn’t existed for centuries. This is the sign of madness! It is a kin even exactly the same as Someone who insists that his parents never existed. It is the sign of a madman!

  • Posted by: gbrisebois1656 - Aug. 05, 2022 6:50 PM ET USA

    Wait a second Phil; the Council of Jerusalem didn't reject the position of St Peter.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Aug. 05, 2022 11:04 AM ET USA

    Is Francis simply a sloppy thinking manipulated figurehead, or is he cleverly using words in a Machiavellian fashion knowing full well that they appeal to a majority of Catholics who have no ability to understand the full importance of the tectonic shift he is creating to our Faith?

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Aug. 05, 2022 8:17 AM ET USA

    So does the Church now have a 5th distinguishing mark? - One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Synodal? What blather from this faux Pope. And where are the Cardinals/Bishops to correct him? They're too busy chasing down and suppressing that subversive TLM and ghettoizing Catholics who love it.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 04, 2022 11:37 PM ET USA

    It seems that Francis is implying that the Church between the Acts of the Apostles and his election in 2013 got it all wrong. "But then what exactly is this crucial element [synodality], without which the Church cannot exist?" That we will never find out. Just as we will never grasp the meaning of the evils of "traditionalism," "clericalism" and "proselytising." But I wonder how "synodal" was the recent meeting in Chicago - by invitation only - of select bishops allied around card. Blase Cupich?

  • Posted by: dpennebaker9015 - Aug. 04, 2022 8:32 PM ET USA

    Bravo Phil Lawler. You are one of the main reasons I still read and give to Catholic Culture. Keep up the good work. Your balanced and reasoned commentaries are a welcome antidote to so much of what we hear from some.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 04, 2022 5:40 PM ET USA

    Taking us back to the Church found in the Acts of the Apostles, the oft-referred to "primitive Church", opens us up to the zeitgeist: the interpretations/understandings of this Church vary from decade to decade and from one theological school of thought to the next. Some theologians think it myth, others "sacred" history, others documentable history, others "the essentials", and so on. An appeal to the Acts of the Apostles is an appeal to rejection of nearly 2 millennia of doctrinal development.