Five Guiding Principles for the Synod

A synod, as I’ve almost grown tired of repeating to friends, is not a legislature, but a consultation. In spite of all the anguish and upset we’ve seen prior to the opening sessions (which begin today), a synod may tell us nothing – or everything. Ultimately, the pope himself will have to decide what to do with the results. He may even, as Paul VI did when he reaffirmed Church teaching on contraception, simply reject advice offered. It’s one of the perks of the papal office: you may drive a Fiat 500, but you still have ultimate say over faith and morals.

One of the tasks I’ve set myself in the coming days is to try to sort out for you, day by day, gentle readers, what to worry about, and what not to, as the Synod on the Family unfolds. Our main concerns, of course, should be about what may pose a threat to the saving truths of the Catholic Faith in a mostly post-Christian world, not what may only be transitory clashes that only produce uninformed emotions. I’ll write about all that in this space every day for the three weeks of the Synod. You can click to each day’s report from the special box above, but our regular writers will also be appearing as usual on this homepage.

I hope TCT writers and readers alike will be informed, measured, and wise in all their reactions. I’ll also be writing in a few other places regularly as well to try and spread that word – this Third Letter on the Synod at First Things, for example, is the first of several more. And I’ll be appearing each Thursday evening on EWTN’s “The World Over” with the Papal Posse (Raymond Arroyo, Fr. Gerald Murray). We won’t always know everything that’s happening right away, and we will need to spend time, calmly analyzing and debating, based on the most reliable information we can find.

I was at the 2014 Synod and I saw how a very few inflammatory phrases could distract everyone from much needed efforts to shore up the family. We need to keep our eyes on the ball this time or the radicals will win by sheer default.

To help move us along, I’ve developed Robert’s Five Guiding Principles for the Synod. You may want to suggest others, but these are the crucial, the indispensable notions we’ll need in order to get the best out of what’s to come over the next three weeks, and beyond.

Principle No.1: Be Cautious About Drawing Large Conclusions. Everyone you meet will “know” what the Synod means. Wait. Practice healthy skepticism. Resist the temptation to claim things that will remain uncertain for a while. Truth takes time. Sometimes there may not be much truth in play. I’ve been in Europe the past several days, but followed the controversies about the pope’s meetings with Kim Davis and a gay couple at the nunciature in Washington. As shocking as it is that Papa Bergoglio maintains a casual relationship with a gay friend – something unthinkable for any past pope – and that Francis almost went into full stealth mode about Kim Davis and the Little Sisters of the Poor, I would not immediately draw any strong conclusions from any of it. Or from similar things you’ll see in coming days. The press just distorts too much, as do Vatican leaks.

Well, maybe I’d conclude a little about the gays. This pope is a man of gestures, not ideas. That doesn’t always mean he knows or can control what his gestures convey. USCCB President Archbishop Kurtz and Archbishop Lori of Baltimore, the Church’s point man on religious liberty, pushed Francis to express solidarity with people suffering under our New Sexual Absolutism. During his trip to America, he didn’t urgently press support for marriage against homosexual ideology and gender theory, or for the defense of unborn life or religious liberty, except in very general terms. You had to make an effort to look for that amid many other words. It was not one of his grand gestures. By contrast, there was a direct personal link, if private, with the gay friend.  But with this pope perhaps it’s more complicated than a seeming indifference to his sins. So read carefully, think deeply, go slow about conclusions.

Francis and the Synod fathers in 2014
Francis and the Synod fathers in 2014

Principle No. 2: But Don’t Be Too Cautious. The world is buzzing about  the Polish priest Krzysztof Charasma, who has “come out” on the very eve of the Synod, confessing that he has had a same-sex lover for years. We may see other such bombshells. If they start to look co-ordinated, it may be that the Gay Mafia that Francis has said he cannot find in the Vatican will finally have shown its face (cloven hoof?). Among many bizarre things, Fr. Charasma portrays himself as a victim of a cruel Church that preaches hate, and “must change.”

You would think from his rationalizations – a hodgepodge of once-fashionable contortions by Biblical scholars to show that the Bible was really speaking about something else when it mentions homosexuality – that he was forced from an early age to follow a distasteful career path into the prestigious Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which kept him locked up for years.

The CDF, once run by Joseph Ratzinger, is responsible for doctrinal vigilance, meaning not Gestapo-like enforcement of an ideology but a careful assessment of what harmonizes, and not, with the Gospel. Fr. Charasma accepted a job as an overseer of correct Catholic teaching. He took priestly vows of celibacy of his own free will (there are plenty of Christian denominations that would not have asked for it). He promised to be obedient to a bishop, and much more – the kind of commitments adults make in all kinds of human institutions. So what should we think of this whole firestorm?

Principle 3: Look out for claims of a false sense of freedom in the Church. There’s a false sense of liberty in all the developed societies that says governments exist to enable us to do whatever we want, crimes excepted, and that restraint, physical and moral, is a fetter on human flourishing. That’s why Fr. Charasma presents himself as a victim of the Church and the secular world “gets” it. Because that is the view of the human person that is the default setting in our whole society: not man under God, living within natural givens, restrained by rational thought, but man as an autonomous will – even if he’s a Catholic – that is, will as primary, anterior, superior to everything.

Principle 4: Stay focused on how that false freedom is corrupting concepts like love, mercy, charity. This really should have been one of the central “sociological” and “anthropological” focuses of the Instrumentum laboris, the working paper intended to guide the Synod in discussing “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.”  (And you thought it was all about gays and divorcées.) Because people who believe we have a God-given nature and that we only do well when we respect that nature, especially as it affects the family, inevitably clash with those who believe human nature can be whatever we want to make it.

A distorted democratic impulse has emerged, even in the Church, that regards the human will, especially in sexual matters, as somehow the voice of God; and Christian revelation as the voice of the devil (“preaching hate”) or more neutrally mere artificial doctrine, subject to change. That’s the overall division behind many of the particular debates that you’ll see starting to unfold in the next three weeks.

Principle 5: So, Increase Your Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. We can’t be sure anymore that even Church leaders have the energy and will to save our tottering civilization from itself. Demographic collapse is far more likely to hit us than climate change. It may take centuries and the rise of a wholly new civilization until Christian principles may operate in the world again. A Christian needs to know how to live well in the meantime. Don’t be passive. That’s already half-dead. And don’t panic. The Lord is not a God of panic and fear.

Be committed, first to the steadying and clarifying spiritual things that you can do under any regime, in any age. There will be many disturbing moments, no doubt, in coming days, but perhaps a few uplifting ones as well. In either case, never forget:

Wisdom hath built herself a house, she hath hewn her out seven pillars.
She hath slain her victims, mingled her wine, and set forth her table.
She hath sent her maids to invite to the tower, and to the walls of the city:
Whosoever is a little one, let him come to me. And to the unwise she said:
Come, eat my bread, and drink the wine which I have mingled for you.
Forsake childishness, and live, and walk by the ways of prudence. (Pr 9:1-7)

See you tomorrow with news about the first day.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

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 A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • Tom Williams

    The clarification about a synod being a consultative body only is a very important one. The pope does have the final say on what to do with the information presented to him as agreed upon principals by the participants of the synod. I suspect this document will not be a consensus of all who did participate, perhaps not even the simple majority which the new rules set by those who have an agenda put in place. We have tricksters at work in the Vatican. Regardless of what Pope Francis does or does not do with the (tainted final report) [pardon the judgement], the damage of perception of change has already happened in the minds of many.
    I agree it will take a long time before any stability prevails in the governance of The Church.
    Self Will run riot is what I anticipate for awhile, unless of course The Lord chooses otherwise.
    I see The Church of The One True Faith becoming much smaller as has been eluded to by a trusted servant of The Lord some 40 years ago. We must remain faithful to tradition and revelation with the sure knowledge that God is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

    • One thing to hang your hat on- If Pope Francis does pull the same trick Pope Paul VI did, in the information age it’s going to be a lot harder to censor the encyclical like Humanae Vitae was censored.

  • Manfred

    Robert, if you wish to be taken seriously as a Catholic reporter,, use the terms homosexual or sodomite to describe men who sin against God and nature. We are told their sin cries out to heaven for vengeance. Take an opportunity to describe to your readers how homosexual men perform coitus and then show the video of the Pope embracing his “friend” and his friend’s friend.
    Thank you.

    • william manley

      Manfred, don’t you think the embrace was a gesture of “love the sinner; hate the sin?”

      • I’d hope so- after all St John Paul the Great had long term committed homosexual “friends” that he met with when he was in San Francisco back when I was in high school, and he was no lover of the sin of sodomy.

        But I cannot trust in what the God of Surprises has in store for us, and I am unable to discern exactly what spirit is speaking through Pope Francis.

      • Manfred

        William: Thank you for your reply. I have seen a sequence of photos (from a video?) showing the Pope entering the room to meet the homosexual pair. I have seen nothing of the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis and her husband. Her lawyer is emphatic that the Davises met the Pope and his aides in a room. The Vatican says he met them on a reception line with dozens of others.
        With this evidence, do you think the Pope/Vatican is more comfortable admitting the Pope’s presence with two homosexual “marrieds”, or with a heterosexual couple whose only reason for her being there was her opposition to homosexual “marriage”?

      • Sandra Trusso

        That’s what I thought the gesture was, but why isn’t he more clear? Why isn’t he more emphatic? Why does he go right to the political issues rather than positive and emphatic reaffirmation of the faith? I don’t want to know his political views. I have researched enough to probably know more about these than he does. He is the Vicar of Christ and should stick to matters of the faith instead of devoting a couple lines to them, and an entire presentation on political matters that we’ve heard from Obama, himself.

        • william manley

          Sandra, you hit the nail on the head. Why in God’s name does Francis feel he needs to preach on his political beliefs? He should be focusing solely on matters of faith and morals!

    • Joseph Micheal

      I love the sanctimonious tone of this comment. Moreover, the suggestion at the end of it would surely embarrass those involved and disgust those who watch. That’s just perfect in the hellish matrix you call a religion. News flash: it’s not about what “we are told”, but more about the “think for yourself and choose the more compassionate, therefore weighty” matter at hand. In short stop hurting people. No matter what “we are told.”

      • SD

        The truth is hate to those who hate the truth.

      • TomD

        I always find in fascinating when someone says, as a counter to the obligatory ” hellish matrix you call a religion” comment that always seems to pop up in comboxes, that we should “think for yourself.”

        It is possible, likely in fact, that millions upon millions of people who are orthodox in their belief and practice of faith are fully thinking for themselves. They choose – willfully, knowingly, voluntarily – to respect, honor, believe and live what has come before them . . . the faith that has been handed on to them. They balance their own personal impulses, needs, desires, wishes and expectations against the belief and experience of what has come before themselves, and, thinking for themselves, choose to follow the path of wisdom, prudence and truth in that which has been handed down.

  • merichiara

    Thanks Robert, well done. May God Bless you!

  • Best overview of what this Family synod is all about.

  • Mary

    Thanks! I needed that.

  • Diane

    Robert, if the result of the Synod and the Popes final declaration is to change the Doctrines of the Catholic Church, or, the practice as they are trying to spin, as if this not a change to the Doctrines. Will you tell the faithful what we must do to make sure we belong to the one, true Catholic Church instituted by Jesus Christ. Do we find a Parish where the Pastor is true to the Doctrines and against the change in Doctrine or practice. Where do we go and who do we go to. This is where the Church gets smaller, but we need guidance. We must stay Catholic, but we must stay Catholic in the right way and in the right place. I hope someone in authority is preparing for this and who is that authority?

    • Sandra Trusso

      Diane – This is my concern as well! I am a Catholic Convert, and everything that I have held dear since my conversion seems to be slowly stripped away. I cannot sit in Church listening to that which I know is untrue, and I don’t know where to go if the Synod declares changes in Doctrine.

      • Stay with the Church and believe [faith] and practise [morals] she has always taught, to the point of martyrdom.

        • Lilly Rose

          I believe that too. Jesus is in charge, thus we must pray and remain faithful to the Church, even if we are just a handful, we must remain at the foot of the Cross, like the Blessed Mother and St. John. All the others hand gone away in fear thinking that Jesus had failed, but Blessed Mary and John remained firm in their faith despite all contrary appearances. I think Catholics may be called to do the same.

      • Diane

        Sandra, there are Catholic Churches around that adhere to the Doctrines. Most of them are Opus Dea and even have Latin Masses. If your pastor does not want to follow the Doctrines, then, you should be able to find a parish that does. God Bless you and don’t leave the Catholic Church. There is nowhere else to go where you will be able to receive the real presence in the Eucharist.

    • veritasetgratia

      Diane, absolutely! Dont wait any longer. Even if it means driving for quite a while to get there, go to a Parish where you have a son of the Church who understands the Catholic faith and who has not had the wool pulled over his eyes. Confusion is everywhere even with some clergy unfortunately. No one should sit in church whilst a flawed catechesis is given. I sympathise is formation was lacking for some Priests but today, in a Faith with easily accessible material via the internet, there is no excuse for not searching and clarifying Church doctrines and teaching. If that is not a priority for a Priest, he is leaving his flock prey to the wolves.

    • thomistica

      This is indeed the question many persons are asking. The problem here is that if all parishes are required by the Pope to apply a new set of practices, and if we all know those practices are really tantamount to a change of doctrine, wouldn’t the parishes to which you refer (in which a priest opposes the change in doctrine) then be heterodox and not in continuity with Rome?
      Very vexing question, for those persons who might find that a papal edict like this creates a problem of conscience, insofar as they cannot accept change in practice. And yet who want to remain in continuity with Rome and faithful to the magisterium.
      I’m just not seeing this issue addressed much.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Since I am in a parish where the facilitator of Adult Catechesis has publically stated he sees nothing wrong in same sex “marriage” and has even In his capacity as JP presided
    over at least one such union, I greet each day in my church with fear and trembling, the same kind Paul talked about when working out our salvation. This is also my approach to the Synod and the awaited Papal declaration. Frances is a good and holy man but as Pope he seems to only confuse the flock with his “gestures”.

    • Frances is a good and holy man.
      How do you know that? Judge the tree by its fruit, and you have contradicted yourself with confuse the flock with his “gestures”, when he ought to be confirming his brethren.

  • Thomas Johnson

    Robert – I am excited about reading your articles on this Synod. Your one statement “As shocking as it is that Papa Bergoglio maintains a casual relationship with a gay friend” is odd to me. Do you not have friends who are not Catholic? Working in California, I really don’t know anyone who doesn’t have gay associations. These associations are seen in co-workers, neighbors, etc. Am I, as a Catholic, to avoid and spurn my gay friends? Extrapolation from there could go on and on you know. The main issue is marriage and secondly being actively gay within the Church. Please keep to the main ideas. I often forward TCT to my children – who are neither Catholic nor even christian. I do so to spark discussion. This article will certainly distance them.

    • SD

      If you see someone harming themselves do you ever utter a word of caution to them?

    • Evangeline1031

      I don’t know why this would distance anyone. There is an unusual context for that meeting between Pope Francis has his friend, that was only last week, so you may recall it. Add to that the vehement denial about the meeting with Kim Davis, and one can add this to just another odd situation for Catholics to decipher.

    • JaneSeymour

      Excuse me, you are not Pope so who cares who your friends are. Pope is the head of the Catholic Church and therefore he should know better who he can associate with. No wonder that gay priest suddenly gets courage to jump out with his lover in front of the world’s media and behaves worse than any secular gay we know of. Well, who are we to judge him when his boss has given him the green light.

      • Tanyi Tanyi

        Well said, the Pope gave a grave scandal at DC. It’s just a shame, this man! His whole attitude is to please the Western liberal media.

    • DeaconEdPeitler

      If you’re Christian, you should be evangelizing your gay friends. If you have any friend who has fallen into sin, ought you not to be introducing him or her to the Christ who came to redeem man from his sin. Unless, of course, you do not hold with the Church that sex outside the marriage between one man and one woman is gravely immoral.

      • Tarzan

        I totally agree. Christ said for us to repent and believe in the gospel. Reconciliation implies not only confession and forgiveness, but penance and a decision to not sin again. True mercy means leading the sinner back to the light.

    • Lilly Rose

      This sad event of a pope publicly meeting and hugging a former student and his homosexual partner, is simply disgusting and surely is not the same as anyone else doing the same. The pope is the visible head of the Catholic Church, and as such whatever he does or says carries the weight of his office. there was no need for this couple to come all the way from Argentina to have all this publicity if this did not serve to the homosexual cause. Of course interviews followed, it was all planned. I am so very sick of all this theater going on to champion this filthy ideology! There is nothing that this pope can say or do that will erase all this, how he enables the homosexuals , how he meets them even at the Vatican. Please Lord, have mercy on your Christians.

  • Diane

    I don’t think that the Pope should publicly embrace a homosexual couple. It causes scandal and confusion. That is condoning the sin in the eyes of everyone who sees. If he is friends with these men then he should tell them that they need to turn to God, become chaste and give up the homosexual lifestyle which is dangerous and destructive and only in private.

  • rjclarkson

    Mr. Royal’s intellectual and spiritual humility just amaze me . Why waste everyone’s time by bringing all these people to Rome . Royal already has all the answers to all the questions .

  • Evangeline1031

    Thank you Mr. Royal, and we will be reading your insightful commentary over the entire Synod and beyond.

  • Diane

    The Bishops and Cardinals must know that they cannot pull the wool over the eyes of faithful Catholics by telling us the Doctrines will not change, but the practice will. They need to know that this is a lie and that they should not spin like the progressives they are. This will still be a reason to find the smaller true Church. ‘it depends on the meaning of the word is, is’ famous spin doctors quote from the past.

  • Thanks Robert for providing sane analysis.

    The thing that amazed me about the Polish priest is that he is implicitly proposing two standards. Heterosexual priests who take a vow of celibacy should remain celibate, while gay priests who take a vow of celibacy are free to engage. The fact that he was fired only after he gave a public speech says a lot about about the state of the Vatican.

    The Church has been thoroughly infiltrated. Ultimately, the best thing we can do is point #5.

  • Diane

    I don’t understand why we must give in to #5. Aren’t there enough faithful Catholics clergy and laity who can turn this around and denounce what may be proposed from the synod? Are we bound to what the Pope declares, even if it is against the laws of God and the teachings of the Catholic Church? Who, then, defends the Church and its teachings? Why should we allow this to take place? I am very confused. We will wait to see the outcome, but it doesn’t look promising with this change in practice thing. It is being used as a spin. Mortal sin is mortal sin, period and must preclude any person from the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is simple. Those who will not or, in their mind, cannot follow this, must deal with God directly. If all of these things weren’t so ugly there would be room for discernment, but that is not the case. Adultery and active homosexuality are by their nature unclean and ugly.

    • Chris in Maryland

      No…we are not bound to what the Pope declares…we are bound to the Truth…and to the extent that a Pope or Bishop declares the Truth…we are simply bound together with him in the Truth.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Dear Robert Royal. Your article is thoughtful and well stated. The issue as I perceive it however is not precisely what Pope Francis says, does, or declines to address with clarity. It is the overall detrimental effect his papacy has on the Church, which is to render doctrine ineffectual. Fr. Peter Morello.

  • Thomist

    Thank you Robert. I might add, stay humble and let the Holy Spirit guide your influencers.

  • Superb points [vs. principles] especially 5 and 3 in that order.

  • juancunat

    Reference to Principle 4, I would like to highlight that freedom is the personal condition by which our will is fully committed to do what we ought to do. It is just then, and only then, when we attain personal freedom. Thus, it is absolutely engaged to morality and there is no real freedom in the absence of a moral set of values which Pope Benedict XVI regarded it as the “Dictatorship of Relativism”

  • juancunat

    Reference to Principle 4, I would like to highlight that freedom is the personal condition by which our will is fully committed to do what we ought to do. It is just then, and only then, when we attain personal freedom. Thus, it is absolutely engaged to morality and there is no real freedom in the absence of a moral set of values which Pope Benedict XVI regarded it as the “Dictatorship of Relativism”

  • Chris in Maryland

    I am beginning to come to the conviction that while it mattered a great deal what John Paul II said, and it mattered a great deal what Benedict XVI said…if Pope Francis has concocted a Synod that enables manipulation…then we may have a case that we have a Pope who deserves to be ignored.

    I pray every night with my son for Pope Francis, and the Holy Father Emeritus Pope Benedict, and all Bishops and the entire Church. But I am growing very accustomed to having the sense that most of the Church rejects Tradition, and prefers a counterfeit, commissariat form of the Church, and that many, many Bishops and Cardinals are intent on making accommodations with the zeitgeist.

    I won’t leave the Church…but I am increasingly convinced that the circle of Trust is shrinking.