Fr. Gerald E. Murray: A Church in which each person recognizes himself in his personally curated set of beliefs, may promise satisfaction. But it’s a make-believe, delusional religion of self-worship.
The Instrumentum Laboris [IL] (Working Document) for the October Synod on Synodality, released June 20, embodies the now familiar pattern seen in the various stages of the synodal process. Certain questions are asked, others are ignored, predictable answers are given, and expectations are raised that a new Church, the Holy Spirit-inspired Synodal Church, will emerge in which everyone will feel seen, recognized, welcomed, accepted, accompanied, cared for, listened to, valued, not judged, and so on. “[A] synodal Church is open, welcoming and embraces all. . .[t]he radical call is, therefore, to build together, synodally, an attractive and concrete Church: an outgoing Church, in which all feel welcome.”
The motto for this new Synodal approach could easily be “People, not Doctrines, Я Us.” This emotion-centered focus is the template for the hoped-for “soft” revolution in the Church in which Catholic doctrines that contradict decadent Western sexual mores and radical feminist claims of oppression in the Church are framed as obsolete, regrettable, and needless sources of discord and alienation, as holdovers from a cruel past. These doctrines, of course, need to be jettisoned, lest anyone feel unwelcome.
At the press conference presenting the IL, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, General Rapporteur for the October General Assembly, responded to this question from Diane Montagna: “[In the IL] two questions are asked: How can we create spaces where those who feel hurt and unwelcomed by the community feel recognized, received, free to ask questions and not judged? In the light of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, what concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality (for example, remarried divorcees, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people, etc.) Isn’t the only possible answer to these questions that, for these people to feel accepted, the Church must change her teaching on the inherent immorality of any use of the sexual faculty outside of a lifelong and exclusive monogamous union of one man and one woman?”
Hollerich’s response reveals why this Synodal process is a disaster that is bringing great damage and sorrow to the Church: “We do not speak about the Church’s teaching. That is not our task and not our mission. We just speak to welcome everybody who wants to walk with us. That is something different.”
Different indeed. Proclaiming Catholic doctrine is not the Synod’s task or mission? What is the mission then? The IL states that the Synod “represents an opportunity to walk together as a Church capable of welcoming and accompanying, accepting the necessary changes in rules, structures and procedures. The same applies to many other issues that emerge in the discussion threads.”
Among the “issues that emerge,” contested Catholic doctrines will undoubtedly be unfavorably scrutinized and found wanting by those in favor of “accepting the necessary changes.”
The IL observes that:
[s]ome of the questions that emerged from the consultation of the People of God concern issues on which there is already magisterial and theological teaching to be considered. To give just two examples, we can note the acceptance of remarried divorcees. . .or the inculturation of the liturgy. . . .The fact that questions continue to emerge on issues like these should not be hastily dismissed, rather, it calls for discernment, and the Synodal Assembly is a privileged forum for so doing. In particular, the obstacles, real or perceived, that have prevented the steps indicated by previous documents from being realized should be considered and reflections offered on how they can be removed. . . .If, on the other hand, the problem stems from the difficulty of grasping the implications of the documents in ordinary situations or an inability of persons to recognize themselves in what is proposed, a synodal journey of effective reception by the People of God could be the appropriate response. Another instance could be the reappearance of a question which emerges as a sign of a changed reality or situations where there is a need for an “overflow” of Grace. This requires further reflection on the Deposit of Faith and the living Tradition of the Church.
Is the judgment of the truth of Catholic teaching dependent upon everyone’s ability “to recognize themselves in what is proposed”? What does the concept of “effective reception by the people of God” mean? Who decides that there is a “changed reality or situations” that “requires” what is euphemistically called “further reflection on the Deposit of Faith and the living Tradition of the Church?” What is an “overflow” of grace? Does it mean “going beyond” what has always been taught by the Church?
In the new synodal Church it is the people who instruct the bishops on the meaning of the Faith: “Since consulting the local Churches is an effective way to listen to the People of God, the Pastors’ discernment takes on the character of a collegial act that can authoritatively confirm what the Spirit has spoken to the Church through the People of God’s sense of faith.”
Indeed, the Synodal Assembly’s “task will be to open the whole Church to welcome the voice of the Holy Spirit.” What if a bishop does not go along with a supposed manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s will, expressed through the voice of the people? The IL responds with these revealing questions: “How can we deal constructively with cases in which those in authority feel they cannot confirm the conclusions reached by a community discernment process, taking a decision in a different direction? What kind of restitution should that authority offer to those who participated in the process?” Restitution? Will a bishop owe some form of reparation to a group of advisors when he disagrees with their advice?
The IL does not want such uncooperative behavior on the part of bishops to happen: “in order not to remain merely a paper exercise or to be wholly dependent on the goodwill of individuals [read here: bishops], co-responsibility in the mission deriving from Baptism must take on concrete structural forms. Adequate institutional frameworks are therefore necessary, along with spaces in which community discernment can be practiced on a regular basis. This should not be read as a demand for a redistribution of power, but the need for the effective exercise of co-responsibility that flows from Baptism.”
Really? It is blatantly such a demand.
The IL lists topics that have come up in the various stages of synodal consultations. Included are: war, climate change, “an economic system that produces exploitation, inequality and a throwaway culture,” cultural colonialism, religious persecution, “aggressive secularization,” sexual abuse and “the abuse of power, conscience and money.”
It’s striking that abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, the spread of atheism, relativism, subjectivism, religious indifference, gender ideology, the redefinition of marriage in the laws of many Western states, coercive programs to impose contraception in the global south are not listed. Neither are the crises regarding sacramental practice in the Church today: the steep decline in Mass attendance, the practical disappearance of sacramental confession in many places, the decline in baptisms, confirmations and marriages, and the serious decline in the number of priestly ordinations in the Western world. Did none of these topics surface during the lead-up to the Synodal Assembly in October?
Nowhere do we find any mention of the Church’s paramount mission: the salvation of souls. There is not a hint that what is most important in the life of the Church is the preaching of God’s gift of eternal life, Christ’s call to conversion and repentance.
The IL also calls for an “effort to renew the language used by the Church in its liturgy, preaching, catechesis. . .[without] demeaning or debasing the depth of the mystery that the Church proclaims or the richness of its tradition, the renewal of language must aim instead to make these riches accessible and attractive to the men and women of our time, rather than an obstacle that keeps them at a distance.”
The expression “renew the language” here is plainly a calming euphemism for “change the words and thus the meaning” of contested teachings. What keeps some people “at a distance” from the teaching of the Church is not the supposedly incomprehensible words that are used, but rather the well-understood meaning of those words, which meaning they simply do not accept.
This calls to mind the effort underway to remove this teaching from the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC]: “Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. 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.” (#2357)
The IL states that “the final documents of the Continental Assemblies often mention those who do not feel accepted in the Church, such as the divorced and remarried, people in polygamous marriages, or LGBTQ+ Catholics.” As we saw above, the IL follows up with this question: “How can we create spaces where those who feel hurt by the Church and unwelcomed by the community feel recognized, received, free to ask questions and not judged? In the light of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, what concrete steps are needed to welcome those who feel excluded from the Church because of their status or sexuality (for example, remarried divorcees, people in polygamous marriages, LGBTQ+ people, etc.)?”
The use of the acronym LGBTQ+ is wrong; it gives the mistaken impression that the Church teaches that God created distinct categories of human beings with the intention that they would engage in sexual acts that are non-procreative, or would be trapped in the wrong body, or whatever + stands for.
The trendy conceit of “creating spaces” for people who reject various teachings of the Church gives the impression that they are not “safe” whenever they are reminded that their behavior is immoral according to God’s law. Is being hurt by the truth a problem? Is not such pain a purifying moment, a grace from God, who challenges us to examine ourselves according to the demands of his law, and not according to our own often mistaken choices? People who reject the Church’s teaching may claim to be unwelcomed by fellow believers. It is not they who are rejected, but rather it is their immoral behavior that is rightly stigmatized.
Why should the Church create a “space” where polygamists may feel “not judged?” The CCC teaches this about polygamy: “polygamy is not in accord with the moral law. [Conjugal] communion is radically contradicted by polygamy; this, in fact, directly negates the plan of God, which was revealed from the beginning, because it is contrary to the equal personal dignity of men and women who in matrimony give themselves with a love that is total and therefore unique and exclusive.” (#2387)
What more is there to discuss?
The IL endorses the discontent of those women who want to be ordained to the diaconate: “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?” The Church has already studied this proposal, and rejected it as not being possible. The IL also issues a wider call for the inclusion of women in “governance, decision-making, mission, and ministries at all levels of the Church.” Why wasn’t the modifier “non-ordained” placed before the word ministries?
There is a call for a discussion to end mandatory celibacy for priests in the Latin Church: “As some continents propose, could a reflection be opened concerning the discipline on access to the Priesthood for married men, at least in some areas?” This persistent agitation for married priests seeks a result that would do grave damage to the mission of the Church as Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah demonstrated in their book From the Depths of Our Hearts.
The IL does issue this excellent warning: “There are forces at work in the world that oppose the mission of the Church, based on philosophical, economic and political ideologies that are founded on assumptions that are inimical to the faith.” Sadly, the IL reveals that those forces are also at work within the Church.
And the IL asks this important question: “How can the Churches remain in dialogue with the world without becoming worldly?” The clear answer is: remain faithful to Christ and his doctrine, especially when it is opposed by those who want to change various teachings of the Church in the name of making people feel welcomed and accepted.
The Church of “Me, Myself and I,” where each person recognizes himself in his personally curated set of beliefs, may promise satisfaction. In fact, it’s a make-believe, delusional religion of self-worship in which God is relegated to the role of the Divine Affirmer of whatever each one decides to believe. God spare us from such an outcome.
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s Who Needs Synodality?
Brad Miner’s Homosexuality in Scripture
Fr. Gerald E. Murray
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.
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