Will Pope’s Defense of Faith at Synod Ease Anxious Minds?

In my last piece I wrote “If Francis doesn’t soon make it clear that the synod can’t abandon Catholic teaching, his pontificate could spin out of control.” I didn’t, I fear, hold out much hope that he would; and nearly everyone seems to have taken it for granted that he didn’t, even those who, like John Thavis, claim to have read the Holy Father’s address closing the Synod, an address in which it’s quite clear to me THAT HE DID unambiguously and with emphasis make it clear that the depositum fidei had to be the foundation of everything.

And yet in all the many comments on the Synod’s end I have read, not one writer so far as I can discover noticed what the Pope actually said. Does nobody read (rather than just skimming through, half-blinded by prejudice or wishful thinking) what anyone says or writes anymore?

Of the Pope’s actual words, more presently: but this is what Thavis thought had happened by the end of the Synod itself: “The short-term result making headlines is that in the concluding report, the more conservative members of the Synod of Bishops on the family managed to pull back some of the amazingly open language regarding those living in ‘irregular’ unions, including gays. But I think the long-term results are more significant. Chief among them is that Pope Francis clearly placed the Church on a new path, toward an evangelizing style that is less focused on doctrine and more willing to invite people in, no matter what their ‘status’.”

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Well, undoubtedly, it’s true that certain conservative bishops, notably Cardinals Burke and Pell, did manage to have some of the “amazingly open” (ie. utterly irresponsible) language of the concluding report struck out, largely because it was a complete distortion of what had actually taken place. But that the Pope placed the Church on a new path, less “focused on doctrine,” is just not the case, if what that means is that the Church’s teachings on faith and morals had been junked.

Certainly the Pope mentioned, among the various temptations of groups like the synod “a temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans: rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. “From the time of Christ,” the Pope went on, “it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called—today—‘traditionalists’ and also of the intellectuals.” Well, there’s actually nothing there that a real traditionalist (rather than many of those so-called)—that is, someone wholly committed to the traditio, to the living and developing but also unchanging magisterium of the Church—could object to.

And the Holy Father makes THAT clear by the other temptations he then goes on to reject:

The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo: “self-righteousness,” maybe?], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4).

The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it].

All that, it seems to me, is a more than adequate response to Cardinal Burke’s entreaty, made last week: The Catholic World Report asked the Cardinal whether he thought the Pope should 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 replied simply “In my judgment, such a statement is long overdue.”

Now, the Pope has made a full and emphatic statement which does just that. His words require the close attention which so far they have not had. In particular that reference to “the temptation to neglect the ‘depositum fidei’, not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]….” Isn’t that a profound and deadly accurate dismissal of the liberal mentality?

This Pope isn’t a liberal. But he has given the liberals their head; and it remains to be seen whether that particular genie can be got back into the bottle. At the next synod, some of those who just about saved this one won’t be there. Cardinal Pell will be: but the hero of this Synod, Cardinal Burke, is (in my opinion deplorably) being eased out of his influential post as head of the Vatican’s supreme court. And there are deeply disquieting rumors that Cardinal Gerhardt Müller’s days as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are numbered, too.

What will happen next? And what, for the matter of that, just happened? “Some,” as John Allen sums it all up, “believe the soap opera quality of the two-week gathering, with conservatives complaining of a plot to stifle their voices and liberals grousing about a lack of nerve, suggest Francis has let loose forces he can’t control. ‘I don’t think he’s much of a strategist,’ one cardinal told Crux on Sunday night. ‘I used to think there was a plan underneath the chaos … now I’m wondering if the chaos is the plan’.”

“I must admit,” says Fr Blake, “I still don’t understand Francis. Is he the greatest thing since unsliced bread, a cunning old Jesuit, a conservative, a trad, a prophet, a fool or even the anti-Christ; a breath of fresh-air or the stench from the tomb of those rather detestable men who surrounded the Blessed Paul VI and added to his suffering?”

Well, I don’t think he’s THAT. He’s certainly more conservative than people think: but has he, as many undoubtedly believe now, let loose forces he can’t control, one thing a Pope should never do? That’s the question nobody seems to be able to answer.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared October 21, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: Wikicommons)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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