The Extraordinary Synod: A Symposium

Our Lord said that the substitution of human tradition for the divine law is a key element in the spiritual disease of Pharisaism. The message is pellucidly clear in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. He told the Pharisees: “You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions.”

The pseudo-reform following the Second Vatican Council is a recrudescence of Pharisaism. Revelation and the commandments of God have been set aside in order to cling to fashionable theologians and contemporary prejudices, our century’s human traditions. As a result there is grave disarray in parts of the Church, particularly among affluent Americans and Western Europeans. This disarray, manifest on both the left and the right, has impeded the authentic renewal which the Holy Spirit mandated for the Church through the Second Vatican Council. The Holy Father thinks it is time to call us to that authentical renewal and away from the “human traditions” which mark that fatal spiritual disease, Pharisaism.

The lynchpin of the pseudo-reform has been a misapplication of one sentence from Vatican II’s very important document Lumen Gentium That sentence reads as follows:

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded (section 25).

Dissenters misuse this sentence as the doctrinal foundation they need for their dissent. They accept the plain meaning of the sentence, something misguided defenders of the Magisterium sometimes fail to do. Then, the dissenters say that the prohibition against contraception falls outside the parameters this sentence sets for infallibility. Therefore, they say that it is in principle legitimate to dissent from Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio, wherein the Church teaches that contraception under any circumstance is a violation of God’s law, because what the Church claims to teach about contraception she has solemnly said she cannot teach for sure (i.e., infallibly).

(I trust that we are all aware that the present disarray within the Church began in large part with dissent from Humanae Vitae, although it has since spread to an attack upon the whole fabric of Christian faith and morals. If the Holy Father can show that the dissent from Humanae Vitae was, and still is, illegitimate, then the restoration of sound teaching can begin.)

On September 5, 1979, the Holy Father began the task of demonstrating that the prohibition against contraception was part of the revealed moral order, implicit in Christ’s innovative teaching regarding marriage. He has carried out this demonstration in a series of Wednesday talks, which are readily available in three small books published by the Daughters of St. Paul. His demonstration, which I consider irrefutable, came to climax on July 18, 1984. On that day the Holy Father said:

Precisely against the background of this full context [which the Pope has taken nearly five years to elucidate] it becomes evident that the above-mentioned moral norm [regarding contraception] belongs not only to the natural moral law [dissenters commonly believe that they can dispute the natural moral law and that the church cannot teach it infallibly anyway], but also to the moral order revealed by God [which the Church does teach infallibly, through the Pope alone if necessary]: also from this point of view it could not be different, but solely what is handed down by Tradition and the Magisterium and, in our days, the Encyclical Humanae Vitae as a modern document of this Magisterium.

I don’t think the matter could be clearer. The Extraordinary Synod will meet from November 25th to December 8th of this year to try to check the spread, and to counteract the influence, of the “human traditions” which contemporary Pharisees [the dissenters] have built up trying to justify their attempt to “put aside the commandment of God,” which the Pope calls the “moral order revealed by God.”

The dissent, often referred to as the left, is not the only pseudo-Catholic group that has been despoiling the Second Vatican Council. The rightist group, usually called traditionalists whose extremists follow Archbishop Lefebvre, have also contributed in important ways to the present disarray. Not the least of their nefarious contributions has been to discredit the efforts of loyal Catholics to encourage the authentic teaching of faith and morals. The right has brought this about in the minds of many by identifying orthodoxy with a rejection of the Second Vatican Council. Their covert dissent and incipient schism, as well as their penchant for confounding orthodoxy with a certain brand of politics, have driven many to look to dissenters as the voice of authentic Catholicism. It is a great irony of history that these inauthentic traditionalists are as confused about Vatican II, and in the same way, as the dissenters.

The rallying point of the “traditionalists” is the allegation that in the Council document Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II broke with infallible teaching of the ordinary Magisterium concerning religious liberty. Dissenters make a similar claim. The “traditionalists” use the claim as a basis for rejecting the Council; dissenters use it as a justification for rejecting the teaching about contraception. The dissent’s reasoning is more complex than is the right’s. Dissenters rank both the teaching about religious liberty and that about contraception as fallible teaching of the ordinary Magisterium and then say that if the Council could change one, we can change the other. In this mare’s nest both left and right are wrong. The principles behind what Gregory XVI and Leo XIII said about religious liberty are infallible. The application was not. The principles behind Dignitatis Humanae are the same, while the Council’s applications, which do alter earlier applications, are an improvement. Here the sentence in which the Council recognized the parameters of infallibility has a correct application. Discipline or instruction regarding the politics of religious liberty does fall outside the Church’s competence to teach infallibly. Therefore, dissent and change within narrow limits is legitimate, although dissent from the principle, rightly understood, of freedom of conscience is not.

I think it is probable that the Holy Father has called the Extraordinary Synod this year because he feels that finally there are enough Catholics who are loyal to the faith and who can make the distinctions I have been making in this article, so that he will have a real following when he calls the Church to get out of the ditches on the left and the right of the road and back onto the highway of that authentic renewal the Holy Spirit called us to through the Second Vatican Council. I think he is right, and I praise him.

In this country dissenting and disrupting “traditionalists” are relatively small in number. They will not be able to do much damage when the Synod’s call goes out. On the other hand, the dissent is well entrenched in education, in publishing, and in Church bureaucracies. It is also unspeakably arrogant, used to the exercise of tyranny, and supported by America’s establishment for whom Planned Parenthood is the only church. This group will do damage. They are gearing up for it already, so it behooves loyal Catholics to be prepared to defend the faith.


  • Richard R. Roach

    Rev. Richard Roach was a Jesuit and teacher of moral theology at Marquette University.

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