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If Francis doesn’t soon make it clear that the synod can’t abandon Catholic teaching, his pontificate could spin out of control

Pope Francis arrives for a morning session of the synod (CNS)

The presentation earlier this week of the so-called “mid-term report” of the extraordinary synod of bishops on the family (the Latin headline of which, relatio post disceptationem, may seem to the unenlightened to give it an authority it doesn’t in fact possess) aroused a predictable level of interest in both the Catholic and the non-Catholic media.

Their general assumption has been (and the report’s half dozen authors clearly intended that the assumption should be) that what it conveys is that the Catholic Church is gearing up, not for any change in pastoral strategy, but for fundamental changes in the Church‘s teachings (hitherto immutable) on important questions to do with marriage and with sexual morality.

Have a look at this from the Mail Online. The headline reads as follows: “Massive Vatican shift on gay sex: Summit on ‘family life’ says unmarried couples living together can be ‘positive’, gays and divorcees must be welcomed and contraception ‘respected’.” Beneath that is a four-part standfirst:

• Catholic Church adopts rare progressive tone during talks of family issues
• Two-week summit reached midway point today with the release of a document summarizing the extent of the closed-door debate so far
• Meeting is the first time Catholic Church has held a family synod’ since 1980
• The summit has been described as a ‘step in the right direction’ by activists

That this “progressive tone” reflects the unanimous views of all the synod fathers is taken for granted by the Mail’s writer, John Hall, who went on to say that “Catholic bishops meeting to discuss ‘family issues’ at a two week summit have said unmarried couples living together can be ‘positive’, and gay relationships and divorces must be welcomed. Displaying remarkably liberal attitudes for a Church famed for its conservatism, bishops meeting in the Vatican today also said that a couples’ decision on the use of contraception should be respected. The summit, which reached its midway point today, has been described as a “step in the right direction’ by activists and boasts all the hallmarks of the notably progressive attitudes the Catholic Church has adopted since the ascension of Pope Francis last year.”

So there you have it. The fact that actually there was considerable resistance to these views at the synod was in no way reflected in the relatio post disceptationem, an effusion which bears all the hallmarks of an attempted PR coup (the word “coup” isn’t over the top here: spin, in our time, is one pathway to the seizure of effective power). Many would assume that of course the Mail must be misreporting the document: but the Mail, as it often does, is reporting the “report” accurately and fairly.

What’s inaccurate is the synod document itself. And that is precisely what the bishops who produced it intended. Consider the following: “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, (my emphasis) without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony? [the answer is “no”, but we are supposed to say “yes”] The question of homosexuality leads to a serious reflection on how to elaborate realistic paths of affective growth and human and evangelical maturity integrating the sexual dimension….”

In other words, it’s now time to junk everything the Church has ever said on the matter, clearly spelt out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (article 2357): “….Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” (In the following article, the CCC goes on to make it clear that homosexuals themselves “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”.)

Cardinal Raymond Burke has been outspoken on the way the synod is being reported: its reporting is, he says, being “manipulated…. The interventions of the individual Synod Fathers are not made available to the public, as has been the case in the past. All of the information regarding the Synod is controlled by the General Secretariat of the Synod which clearly has favoured from the beginning the positions expressed in the relatio post disceptationem ….

“While the individual interventions of the synod fathers are not published, yesterday’s relatio, which is merely a discussion document, was published immediately and, I am told, even broadcast live. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see the approach at work, which is certainly not of the Church…

“While the document in question … purports to report only the discussion which took place among the Synod Fathers, it, in fact, advances positions which many Synod Fathers do not accept and, I would say, as faithful shepherds of the flock cannot accept.”

As he says, “the response to the document in the discussion which immediately followed its presentation manifested that a great number of the Synod Fathers found it objectionable”.

The writer John Thavis describes the document as a “pastoral earthquake”, and reports that following its presentation in the synod hall, 41 bishops spoke about the content, and several pressed for clarifications on specific points: Some asked whether, in the section on homosexuality, there shouldn’t be mention of the teaching that “some unions are disordered,” a reference to the phrase the Church has used to describe homosexual relations”.

Is all this really what Pope Francis intended? He has now added another half dozen bishops to the drafting committee, forming an expanded group which will now go on to produce the next “report”: but is that an adequate response? If there is an adjustment in the reporting of the synod, it will take time: and this needs to be done quickly. Things are getting seriously out of control now. The Holy Father clearly doesn’t like being “dogmatic”: but it’s part of what he’s for, and he needs now to assert himself, for if he doesn’t, everyone will go on thinking that what has happened so far is what he wanted all along.

That’s what Cardinal Burke is now calling for, and he needs support: there’s a life-and-death struggle going on here:

Catholic World Report: How important is it, do you think, that Pope Francis make a statement soon in order to address the growing sense—among many in the media and in the pews—that the Church is on the cusp of changing her teaching on various essential points regarding marriage, “remarriage,” reception of Communion, and even the place of “unions” among homosexuals?

Cardinal Burke: In my judgment, such a statement is long overdue. The debate on these questions has been going forward now for almost nine months, especially in the secular media but also through the speeches and interviews of Cardinal Walter Kasper and others who support his position. The faithful and their good shepherds are looking to the Vicar of Christ for the confirmation of the Catholic faith and practice regarding marriage which is the first cell of the life of the Church.

“Long overdue” is a mild expression; what needs to be said is that such an intervention is needed with desperate urgency, and that if it does not come soon, this pontificate could spin entirely out of control.

The liberal clique which has seized power over the way the synod is being presented to the faithful have to be repudiated: if they’re not, it’s back to the most destructive period of the post-conciliar years. I think we should all be very worried indeed.