Thursday, November 05, 2015

Dr. Janet Smith on the decades of doctrinal infighting that will follow this Synod and how to meet the challenge

Dr. Janet Smith, "What Comes After the Synod" (First Things, November 5, 2015).  Excerpts:

 Whatever Pope Francis does in the wake of the Synod on the Family, we have a new Humanae Vitae moment on our hands. Decades of relentless infighting over what exactly the Church teaches is on the horizon and will negatively affect the priesthood, religious life, religious institutions, parishes, families and individuals. Just as those who dissented from Humanae Vitae were able to use a seeming openness to their point of view in the process that preceded the encyclical to legitimize their view, so too will dissenters find justification for their positions in the debates at the Synod....

... Then along came the synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. While before I never thought things would become as good as they have, now I have trouble believing that dissenters were given such a prominent venue in which to market their discredited views. And where was Pope Francis in this? He gave very conflicting signals. Had the ordinary synod of 2015 decided to give to dioceses and regions the decision of admitting divorced and civilly “remarried” couples to the Eucharist, for instance, a very strong case could be made that anyone able to read pontifical tea leaves would have been able to predict that outcome. Had the synod given a robust defense of the scriptural and doctrinal grounds for not admitting the same group to the Eucharist, prognosticators skilled at connecting dots could have said they knew it was going to happen all along.

No one expected any doctrinal change: the fight was over what kind of pastoral accommodations would be made. Some were convinced that some proposals would seriously undermine doctrine and lead to a de facto change in doctrine. For instance, if priests were permitted to decide that some divorced and remarried Catholics could partake of the Eucharist, many knew well that this would lead Catholics to conclude that marriage is not a pledge to life-time fidelity, is not indissoluble. They also understood that it would give a primacy to conscience that robbed the claim that there are objective absolute moral norms of all force.

The final document certainly was not fully satisfactory to those looking for either outcome. Still, it seems that the forces pushing for significant pastoral change have more reason to celebrate. In the end, although no accommodations were made that explicitly affirm pastoral solutions incompatible with doctrine or current practice, several elements of the final report supply loopholes that serve the purposes of those who are determined to permit the divorced and civilly remarried to receive the Eucharist. One such element is reference to the “internal forum,” which means allowing a divorced and civilly “remarried” couple to explore with a priest what sort of participation in the Church in their case is compatible with the “demands of truth and charity of the Gospel.”

Although there is nothing in the final report that explicitly permits readmission to the Eucharist, it is also true that nothing explicitly rules out readmission. Thus, those who are pushing for readmission will claim that the document supports their position. Unfortunately, there is just enough ambiguity to allow for this interpretation. In addition to noting that the fact that the question was given such attention at the Synod and that those who were the strongest advocates were given special prominence by the Holy Father, they can reasonably claim that they have been given permission to proceed to use the “internal forum” for readmission. Furthermore, those who wish for “progressive” pastoral solutions will claim that the Holy Father’s closing address to the Synod gives further support to their efforts: they will say he harshly criticized “conservatives” and even better was his approval of honoring the “spirit” of the law, over the law itself. That dichotomy, of course, was precisely what dissenters used to bypass the letter of the documents of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, as they claimed the “spirit” of Vatican II in behalf of their positions.

The similarities of the circumstances surrounding the reception of Humanae Vitae and the circumstances surrounding the deliberations of the Synod are many. While the Special Commission convened by Pope Paul VI to look at the question of contraception in the modern world was not directed to consider whether the Church should or could change its teaching, the Commission decided on its own to take up that question and sent reports to the Holy Father that advocated that the Church permit married couples to use contraception. There was an explosion in the media. Dissenting theologians proclaimed victory, and the world and the Church waited for a year before Pope Paul VI promulgated a document that unambiguously reiterated the constant teaching of the Church that contraception was not compatible with God’s plan for sexuality. He enlisted bishops’ conferences around the world to issue statements of support. Unfortunately about a dozen or so issued weak statements that, in fact, served to establish a “conscience” loophole that allowed dissenters to claim that couples whose consciences did not consider contraception to be wrong in their case, could use contraception without sin.

The dissenters took control of the Catholic “world” and invocated the “spirit” of Vatican II and the primacy of conscience over objective norms. Dissent spread to virtually every teaching of the Church and for decades, faithful Catholics were faced with reestablishing the authoritativeness of Church teaching, and, in fact, generally did more than that; they also advanced understandings of the very teachings that were being challenged both in theory and fact.
Ambiguity and Confusion
Both those victories threaten to be short-lived. This synod most likely will result in much of the same confusion. George Weigel defends the paragraphs (84-86) of the Synod report against “German spin” doctors; unfortunately, it could be said that his defense shows the weakness of the paragraphs and the document. It is not possible to point to explicit statements in the Report that the divorced and civilly remarried are not eligible to receive the Eucharist. So Weigel has to interpret what X means and Y means, and what it means that something was discussed but not included, etc. One of the most seriously troubling portions of the Synod Report is the omission from section 86 of the part of the paragraph from Familiaris Consortio 84, which states that the divorced and civilly divorced may not receive the Eucharist and balances an earlier portion of the same paragraph that calls for “discernment” about how the divorced and civilly “remarried” can participate in the Church. Weigel argues that since the omitted portion was written as a clarification of the earlier statement on discernment, it must be seen to be of a piece with the earlier portion, and thus its absence cannot be used to argue for admitting the divorced and civilly “remarried” to the Eucharist. On the other hand, the omission of the qualifying portion can plausibly be said to indicate that the Synod was not endorsing all of FC 84 and was permitting “discernment” that could lead to reception of the Eucharist and arguably have the stronger position since attempts to get the clarifying portion included were defeated.

When such interpretations need to be made, what the document is saying is not clear. Moreover, confusion will extend not only to the issues discussed. If a significant number of theologians, bishops, and priests operate with a concept of conscience (and perhaps seemingly with the Pope’s blessing) that reduces objective absolute moral norms to optional guidelines, that concept will free Catholics individually to determine what is right and wrong not just about divorce and remarriage, but about many other issues.

The central doctrinal issue that unites the dissenting response to Humanae Vitae and the elements of the report of the Synod that would allow for admitting the divorced and civilly “remarried” to the Eucharist is a view of conscience that does not correspond to that taught by the Church, a view of conscience that has been refuted numerous times (splendidly in Veritatis Splendor). The project of faithful Catholics after Humanae Vitae was to provide solid defenses for Church teaching using a variety of arguments. Again, I believe that has been done for the Church’s teaching on conscience and a multitude of other teachings. The current challenges do not call primarily for scholarly debate or studies (though they are always helpful and should be undertaken). Yet, in my view, showing the weaknesses of the arguments of the opposition is not our foremost task. Again, that has been done by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1998 who explained why the divorced and civilly remarried cannot receive the Eucharist and why the “internal forum” is not a sufficient recourse in this situation. There is also the recent volume Remaining in the Truth of Christ. After Humanae Vitae, we won few if any converts among dissenters, but we did make enormous progress among those who were willing to give our work a fair hearing.
The Way Forward
How disappointed am I by these setbacks? Very. Am I despondent or despairing? No, not at all. We are much better situated to fight and win this battle than we were to fight the troubles that came after Humanae Vitae....   Read more >>

Janet E. Smith is the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. 

[Hat tip to Paul Borealis]


c matt said...

The synod docs suffer from the same ambiguity as the V II gibberish. The "mistake" is arguing that the Spirit of V II somehow conflicts with the letter of the V II documents. It doesn't. The V II documents are sufficiently ambiguous that just about any interpretation can be justified. It is so obviously by design, it is embarrassing that anyone would even argue for a "conservative" victory.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

It has been more of the same heterodoxy ever since Pope Saint John 23rd read the Montini-written opening speech at Vatican Two that repudiated disciplining heretics and teaching the truth unequivocally and so the drift into doctrinal dissolution initiated then continues and it always continues in the same direction with the sole variable being whether the drift is increasing in intensity and frequency of heterodoxy (as it is now) or whether or not there will be a brief respite (but not a restoration and/or move back toward orthodoxy) as there was under Benedict XVI.

Janet Smith is ACES but she is not calling the shots, Bergoglio and his boys are, and it is quite clear what his/their intentions are and so the Inertia Into Indifferentism will continue and faithful intellectuals like Dr Smith will work unto their own Salvation and Sanctification but their efforts will bear no discernible universal fruit for the fish rots from the head down and until a faithful Pope is elected, one who will act with certitude and authority - including MASSIVE excommunications of sodomites and heretics - we can expect more of the same old same old as they will outlive him.

Why is it that Catholics think electing an orthodox Pope is enough; it isn't. We require a Pope who will enforce discipline with an iron will and iron rod and who will kill the Lil' Licit Liturgy once and for all. Period. No questions allowed.

The sad reality is that the doctrinal infighting is nothing new, nor are the defeats of the Traditionaists and Faithful Catholics in those infighting battles new even though the Trads/faithful strive to uphold the Faith once defivered.

There have been two recent massive and crushing defeats - the new annulment process and the recent Synod - and when you do the sums of what will result from our new Synodalism (Think Lambeth Conferences on flakka) then there is no cause for joy or hope.

And so the theological virtue of Hope has been actualised because it is only when it seems hopeless than Hope comes into being; so, we've got the Hierarchy to thank for that.

Thanks, Hierarchy

O,and ABS recently returned from a vacation and he and The Bride were able to assist at the Lil' Licit Liturgy (Saturday Night English) at The Brompton Oratory and while it is quite true that is a beautiful church, and while it is true the nine Oratorians sang beautifully, and while it is true the Liturgy was solemn, dignified, and serious, the fact that the Lil' Licit Liturgy was actualised in that beautiful consecrated church rendered all of that physical beauty nearly nugatory for missing from the liturgy was that which makes a Catholic Church truly beautiful - the Real Mass.

When ABS and The Bride went to Christopher Wren's St Paul's building (Catholics have Churches, protestants have buildings) missing was Iconography and stained glass windows but, in that building, that was far less objectionable for that absence was intended whereas what has gone missing in the Lil' Licit Liturgy was intended, from time immemorial, to be there, but the Hierarchy shared much of the same protestant ideology as did Mr. Wren and so it erected an ecumenical service acceptable to all without all of those objectionable prayers about sin and sacrifice.

A.S. said...

The video by Peter Steinfels with his proposal for the Synod is worth watching. I thinks he's right that the rejection of the Church's teaching on contraception is widespread and an open wound, Though I agree with Ms. Danielson, his first commenter that Steinfels fails to acknowledge God as the author of marriage and sexuality. The challenge of authentic Catholic teaching demands an abundance of Divine grace. While Janet Smith rightly emphasizes conscience, she fails to acknowledge human frailty in
her First Things piece. We cannot expect Catholic laypeople to live up to the Church's teaching unless the bishops' acknowlledge the failure in the last 50 years to teach it. Startng with a new emphasis on catechism for the youngest children and memorization. RCiIA should be abandoned and a return to indispensable teachers like Fr. Leo Trese, Fr. John Hardon and Fr. Francis Ripley. The CCC fails to integrate its many doctrines.

Chris Garton-Zavesky said...

Surely you mean that Dr. Smith HOLDS the Fr. McGivney chair, not IS the chair itself?

Pertinacious Papist said...

"Holder of the endowed chair" would have been more accurate, wouldn't it. I think it may be a residual knee-jerk reaction to avoid the now politically incorrect "chairman" (which OF COURSE couldn't possibly used when it applied to a woman, even though no woman I know would fail to be deterred by a sign on a door warning: "Beware: MAN-eating Tiger. Do not enter!"). And now the habit of academic self-censorship has led to nominalizing anything that used to have a "man" on it, simply by the prefix; hence, "chair," even when, as here, there is no call for it.

Anonymous said...

The medium *is* the message, and hence ambiguity in documents makes them liberal by default, unless and until they are later clarified. By their very nature the documents suggest clarity and proper understanding are not necessary. It is quite interesting to watch the current news event unfold as it surrounds the Mormon Church's gay couples policy. People are hurt and angry that the LDS Church actually enacts a policy consistent with its belief that gay pairings are sinful and that you cannot uck fundamental Church teachings on sexual morality and remain in good standing. How dare they be consistent. I think Pope Francis should do a new music video version of Sandi Patty's "Love in Any Language, Fluently Spoken Here." Centuries of Tradition reduced to Beatles' inspired-CCM mantras. And we wonder why Latin America became an Evangelical trophy.