2014: Synod Day 1 – Between Paul VI and the “Legalists”

Towards the end of the Instrumentum laboris, the detailed work-plan that will be guiding the participants in the Synod on the Family, which starts its deliberations today, there’s a notable passage that seems intended to sum up:
Pope Paul VI, in publishing the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, was well aware of the difficulties his statements could cause over time. He wrote, for example, in the document: “It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. An intensive, clamorous outcry is being raised against the voice of the Church which is made more intense by today’s means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a ‘sign of contradiction.’ (Lk 2:34). She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.” (HV, 18)
That’s some statement, especially in the current climate in the Church.

Unlike the preparation for most other synods, the pope himself was intimately involved in the planning and writing of this document, which sorts through, with surprising acumen, the results of the worldwide survey the Vatican conducted on attitudes about the family among Catholics. And this passage, along with the pope’s announcement that Paul VI (a “prophetic voice,” as Francis has called him) will be beatified at the closing Mass for the Synod on October 19, is a strong indication of something overlooked amidst the widespread controversy in recent weeks.

Because as is quite clear, since the 1960s, when contraception became generally accepted in the developed world, the family has been increasingly in crisis. The ongoing efforts to promote “safe sex” or sex with no consequences, personal or social – as if such a thing were possible dealing with mighty Aphrodite – has required averting our gaze from the very real human cost in broken marriages and ruined lives, the result of the very thing we were told, sometimes by Church figures in the 1960s, would strengthen families and bring about greater human fulfillment.

Just to notice this truth, however, forces us to realize what a steep climb rises before the Synod. It’s worth reading through the Instrumentum laboris, which is not long and quite incisive by Church document standards. At one point, for example, it wryly records that Catholics in predominantly Orthodox countries report that the Orthodox “pastoral” approach to divorce and remarriage, proposed by Cardinal Kasper, has not reduced the incidence of divorce.

This is a work-plan that means business. And despite its often-repeated calls for better catechesis and more effective efforts to “show the beauty” of Church teachings, it focuses on some real and crucial questions not only in the self-indulgent societies of the West, but around the globe.


Pope Francis has a genius for getting what he does noticed – or at least part of what he does. The references to Paul VI cited above pass over the heads of the secular media and most Catholic outlets. They prefer controversy, particularly when it advances liberal mores.

Over the weekend, the pope gave two homilies that will probably draw attention, therefore, and may have set something of an agenda, without really specifying where the agenda should wind up. At his Friday morning Mass at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he resides, he asked the question “whether we are open to God’s way of Salvation.” [emphasis added] Coming at the beginning of this important weekend, it caused a flurry of commentary since he denounced the “ruling class” of Jesus’ time. He then went on to note the people of God saw that their salvation lay in Jesus. But he contrasted them with another group, “Their leaders, on the other hand, reduce salvation to the fulfillment of the 613 commandments they have created through their intellectual and theological fervor.”

It’s difficult not to think that this remark is directed at those who defend traditional practice about Communion for the divorced and remarried. That’s nowhere directly stated, of course, but who else might be plausibly said to be attached to “legalism”? (I’m not making this argument myself, since I believe the defenders of the traditional position have Scripture and history and charity itself on their side.) The judgment against these “legalists” is harsh, too, and clearly meant to be such.

In a similar mode, during yesterday’s opening Synod Mass, Francis pointed to the parable about the vineyard and denounced those greedy shepherds – greedy for both money and power – who placed burdens on the people that they were unable to bear. Rich clerics are a regular target of Francis’ scorn, as are those who seek power in the Church. There was a less biting and more encouraging tone:

The Synodal assemblies don’t serve to discuss beautiful or original ideas, or to see who’s the most intelligent one. . . .They serve to care for and maintain better the Lord’s vineyard, to cooperate in his dream, in his project of love for his people. In this case, the Lord asks us to take on ourselves the care of the family, which from its origins is an integral part of his design of love for humanity.

Still, if we read him literally: he’s saying don’t be legalistic, promote mercy not rigor. Those being chastised are the rulemakers, not the rulebreakers. Depending on your position or experiences in the Church, this may strike you as a necessary, urgent message. Others, observing the confused Catholicism all around us, may have a different view.

In America, at least, rigid application of Church rules doesn’t seem to be the main problem – indeed quite the opposite. And the same appears to be the case in Europe and Latin America. Secular journalists have been going out of their way to interview divorced and remarried Catholics who simply take Communion anyway – and don’t believe the Church has any right to tell them no. Anecdotal evidence confirms this to be a pretty widespread practice.

But whether we look to Pope Francis’ honoring of Paul VI or his dishonoring of those he classifies as merely imposing man-made rules on the people, much is now open for discussion, debate, denunciation, rehabilitation – perhaps, Deo volente, resolution.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.