A Different Kind of Catholicism?

Note: Today, Fr. Murray analyzes some recent remarks by Pope Francis that tried to strike a balance between past and present, but that, in reality, seem invariably to raise expectations of virtual revolution within the Church on long-settled moral and dogmatic matters. And the “Synodal Way” in Germany, though mildly criticized by various voices in Rome, has not only set the agenda in that country, it seems to be a template for the Synod on Synodality, whether that’s Pope Francis’ intention or not. You can be sure that this whole set of dangers will be with us – and probably growing – all through 2023 and 2024, as the worldwide synodal process continues. Fr. Murray recommends at the end of this column that we lay people raise our voices, to God and to Rome, so that something can be done to stop this. The Catholic Thing will be in that business and much more in the coming year. But we can only do our part if you do yours. We’re getting close to the goal. Let’s finish up the end-of-year fundraising so that we can all turn our minds back to the Christmas season. – Robert Royal

Pope Francis recently gave an address to the International Theological Commission (ITC) in which he returned to a theme he often emphasizes: the dangers of traditionalism and the need to avoid going backward. Traditionalism is – unfavorably – contrasted in his view with a proper understanding of the Church’s tradition. In theory, this has some value; in practice, it’s leading to disaster.

He identified tradition as “what makes the Church grow upwards from below, like a tree: the roots.” And he continued:

On the other hand, someone else said that traditionalism is the “dead faith of the living”: when you close in on yourself. Tradition – I want to underline this – makes us move in this direction: upwards from below: vertical. Today there is a great danger, which is to go in another direction: “backward-ism.” To go backward. “It has always been done this way”: it is better to go backward, it is safer, and not go forward with tradition. This horizontal dimension, as we have seen, has led some movements, ecclesial movements, to remain fixed in time, somewhere back when. They are the backward-ists.

The Church’s tradition is, therefore, like the roots of a tree that grows upward. Yet for that to happen the roots must also grow downward. Without the support of a deep root system, the tree will lack nourishment and stability. What we see reaching up into the sky is sustained by the always deepening roots burrowing down into the earth.

In this perspective, the growth in time of our understanding of the tradition of the Church is not a matter of growing up and away from where it originated. Pope Francis told the ITC that a correct development of the Church’s tradition involves “the vertical direction, where growth occurs, the moral consciousness grows, consciousness of the faith grows, with that beautiful rule of Vincent of Lérins: ‘consolidating with the years, developing with time, deepening with age.’”

The forward-backward juxtaposition mirrors the contrast between upward-downward. It all seems right and good, but this way of looking at the Church’s mission to safeguard and teach God’s truth is fraught with problems and contradictions.

The Catholic Church professes with St. Paul: “I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you.” (1 Cor 11:23) True progress in better handing on what we have received involves deepening our understanding of that deposit of faith and remaining in unwavering fidelity to the Church’s constant witness to the meaning of that teaching.

Is a tree with strong roots closed in on itself? Is a faith that remains steadfast in upholding what has always been taught from the beginning a backward faith?  Is it somehow backward to respond to erroneous innovations that deny Catholic teaching with the simple statement: “What you deny, the Church has always believed”? Is going forward in deepening our understanding of the Church’s tradition a matter of developing a new consciousness of the meaning of the Catholic Faith?

The notion that progress in understanding the Gospel depends upon not looking back to what the Church has always done and taught is dangerous. It leads to the idea that each succeeding generation is not bound by what came before. “Look ahead, not backwards” is a formula for an ongoing revolution.


We are seeing this very thing happening in the German Synodal Way. Bishop Georg Bätzing, the President of the German Bishops Conference, said recently: “we want to be Catholic in a different way.”

What kind of different way? In September 2022 the German Synodal Forum approved these statements which directly contradict Catholic teaching:

Since a homosexual orientation is part of being a human as created by God, this orientation is not to be judged differently in ethical terms than a heterosexual orientation.

Same-sex sexuality – also practiced in sexual acts – is thus not a sin that separates a person from God, and it is not to be judged as bad in itself.

The status in the human sciences is: Homosexuality and bisexuality are neither diseases nor disorders nor something that can be chosen. Rather, they represent natural minority variants of people’s sexual preference structures. These sexual preferences. . .are. . .not changeable. . . .Homosexuality. . .is a variant of the norm and not a “minus of this variant.” As a normal case, it belongs to God’s good creation.

These erroneous and heretical statements are proffered by the German bishops as progressive changes that rectify the Church’s earlier misunderstanding of the Gospel and the natural law. Those who oppose them would be dismissed as “the backward-ists” who believe that the truth cannot change over time.

The manifest hesitation of the Holy See to stop the propagation of error and heresy by the German hierarchy and others is a dereliction of duty and a great failure in charity. There have been various Roman statements of concern and well-reasoned criticism, including from Pope Francis. But unheeded warnings and rebukes are no substitute for real action to defend the faithful from erring shepherds. Combined with the rhetoric of “not going backwards,” such inaction can only serve to encourage those who, sadly, like the majority of German bishops, find Catholic doctrine intolerable.

The Synod on Synodality, too, is on a trajectory to put Catholic sexual morality on public trial, with the goal of getting rid of what are scorned as backward doctrines. The fact that the German bishops have enjoyed effective immunity from the Holy See in their pursuit of heresy and immorality is a plain disaster that must be stopped before it leads to even greater confusion and error.

The Catholic faithful need to raise up their cries to Heaven, and to the Holy See. No group of bishops who have repudiated Catholic doctrine should be allowed to turn the synodal forum, which is designed to promote the mission of the Church, into an unholy nightmare, dominated by advocates of unbelief presenting themselves as the heralds of a long overdue “different” kind of Catholicism.

*Image: Christ Among the Pharisees by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1660 [Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, France]

You may also enjoy some of our most popular columns from the last dozen years:

Robert Royal’s Pope Francis, Fr. Martin, and Faith without Reason

+Fr. Mark A. Pilon’s The Dangerous Road of Papal Silence

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.