When the papal document Amoris Laetitia was released scholars, on all sides of the spectrum, honed in on chapter 8 and a very ambiguous footnote. It soon became explosive, so much so that it now threatens to blow apart the unity of the church. How will Pope Francis choose to respond is the key Catholic question of 2017.
Within weeks modernist prelates were claiming the footnote a green light to enable the divorced and re-married, in certain cases, to receive communion without need of annulment. More traditionally minded Catholics attacked this claim- they insist the Pope has no authority to contradict the teaching of the church especially when this teaching comes from Christ himself.
Interestingly we reach the impasse which blew Anglicanism apart; between those who believe God’s revelation open to change and interpretation by man- and those who believe it fixed, the same yesterday, today and forever. Those ‘for change’ have the culture and world behind them. Those for ‘an unchanged position’ hold the clearer arguments from scripture and tradition.
Fast forward and today we face the ludicrous situation that in some dioceses the faithful- who are divorced and remarried -are encouraged to receive communion ‘so long as they feel at one with God’. In other dioceses bishops are claiming no change in praxis exists because there has been no change in teaching. What a mess.
Seeking some much needed clarity four Cardinals wrote ‘a dubia’ to Pope Francis; a document seeking yes/no answers to blunt questions. They submitted it in private and in full accordance with the customs of the church. Dubia have been submitted throughout history and the the norm is for an answer to be given.
To date Pope Francis has broken convention and refused to answer. This forced the Cardinals to go public. The Pope then set about labelling as ‘rigid’ those who seek fidelity to Catholic teaching, at the same time giving a nudge to those interpreting the document in a modernist manner. The Pope’s refusal to comply with convention, coupled with his tendency to demonise critics, has caused eyebrows to be raised. What is going on in the Vatican at present?
There is little doubt Bergoglio wants change. But what are the faithful to make of his unwillingness (inability?) to bring about change by convention that can satisfy reason, scripture and tradition, as it must? Why does he cause tension by encouraging change of praxis but not doctrine? I don’t have answers but I do offer observations…
The Dubia serves everyone whose desire is honest
No matter your personal opinion, everyone should congratulate the Cardinals who raised the dubia. Nobody is served when bishops are contradicting one another. If an unraveling of unity is to be avoided clarity must arrive and quickly.
It isnt about divorce!
The presenting issue might be divorce but it isn’t what the struggle is about. The same dance occurred within Anglicanism over women priests and contraception. Divorce may be the arena then but the actual meat of the struggle centres on how the church is run and does it’s business. What is at stake is the nature of revelation and how flexible it is to change. Should the church follow the culture or stick to its own teaching and that of Jesus Christ?
In reality there are few ‘rigid’ and ‘uncaring’ priests. Most understand full well the difficulty of the modern world and pain in people’s lives. But traditionalists believe they must respect the teaching of Christ and the teaching of the church in all ages. The modernists want to re-boot the church for the 21st Century and are using this issue as a testing ground. Should they succeed the way will be cleared for all other hot button topics.
As we saw within Anglicanism- when you abandon scripture and tradition once- artificial contraception was first within Anglicanism- soon there is no logical reason to stop other changes argued from sentiment. The church is then guided by popular opinion and the prevailing culture. Catholicity and authority are sacrificed to appease the world. Martin Luther wins.
Change via footnotes and winks rings alarm bells
If there is a proper way to progress, in keeping with church teaching, then those pushing for this change should come out in the open and explain it. Else they should apologise and retract the footnote. That many words are offered to fudge the issue is suspicious. Something is clearly off when fair questions are ignored, questioners demonised, but change occur anyway.
Why is the current hierarchy forging ahead via nods, winks and footnotes? That is not how Catholicism works but hints rather at a dangerous totalitarian and worldly mindset. Nobody standing for truth fears or dodges legitimate questions.
Ambiguity is not Catholic
This fall out from Amoris Laetitia is very reminiscent of Anglican days. For there a lack of central authority has long caused confusion and disagreement to the point that local churches now often contradict each other on vital matters of faith. But this has never been the Catholic way- and Pope Francis MUST respond sooner or later. It could prove an interesting year…not least as the Cardinals concerned about Amoris Laetitia have suggested a formal correction of the Pope might be necessary. Pray it doesn’t come to this.
There is a schism; it needs sorting
Since Vatican II division has bubbled away in the Catholic church. In one camp are those who view the council as a rupture– who created a modern expression of Catholicism based on liberal protestant models. Evangelical worship songs replaced Catholic hymnody. Altar rails and statues were replaced by guitars and felt banners. This group delights in Pope Francis, as does the secular media and nominal and protestant Christians. They are a group, in other words, who have long challenged Catholic teaching. Pope Francis is a product of this school of thinking and their poster boy.
Meanwhile others have viewed (correctly if you read the documents) Vatican II as continuation and have attempted to uphold Catholic teaching despite a widespread shift in culture within most dioceses that has favoured the model of rupture. They embraced Pope Benedict’s reform of the reform; the bringing back of altar rails and good liturgy. This group wants a church confronting the world not being conformed by it.
Clearly caricatures are simplistic but the division is real and that is what is causing the problem. The division- not the footnote-causes the squabbles over Amoris Laetitia. For these two groups have diametrically opposed understanding of revelation and the centre cannot hold. The fight was held off in recent pontificates because JPII and Benedict XVI sought some common ground. But Francis is cut from different cloth. His leadership style was not crafted in the liberal heartlands of Europe but the volatile world of South American dictators. He cares little for convention, office or tradition. It makes him a polarising figure at present and the fears of a schism under his watch are gaining traction.
Let us pray for those bishops bravely calling for clarity. Let us pray for Pope Francis that he might be humble and obedient to the teaching of the church in all ages and not swayed by popularism and political causes. Let us pray that the dubia is answered. So much depends on it being answered well.
How will Pope Francis respond? It is the key Catholic question of 2017.