Priest-theologian: if worst-case scenario at synod occurs, Catholics must resist changes

Matt C. Abbott
October 10, 2015
© Matt C. Abbott
Reproduced with Permission

I asked Father Brian Harrison, a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom and an emeritus professor of theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, the following questions:

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass in regard to the synod, what are we to think of magisterial teaching? Would we have to accept the changes as a form of doctrinal development as with Vatican II?

Father Harrison's response is as follows:

First of all, the synod itself is not a magisterial body. If it votes (heaven forbid!) to authorize Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, we will have to wait and see what Pope Francis decides to say and do about it.

If, as seems quite possible, he compromises (in reality, surrenders totally) by allowing different bishops' conferences to make their own decisions about this controversial matter, I myself will not accept that as a 'new doctrinal development' that requires my assent.

Why won't I?

The only thing our faith assures us, through the dogma of papal infallibility, is that God will not allow Francis to impose this disastrous and heterodox teaching on the universal Church in the solemn form of words that characterizes an infallible, ex cathedra definition. We know in advance that no such papal document will be issued.

In other words, if Pope Francis does promulgate a document allowing the Kasper proposal, it will be non-infallible and readily recognizable as such by its less solemn style and form of wording. Now, non-infallible of course does not necessarily mean false. Indeed, the great bulk of non-infallible papal teaching is true.

But in this particular case, we will have to conclude that the hypothetical pro-Kasper papal document is in fact false and unorthodox, for it will contradict Scripture and two millennia of Tradition by saying that some persons Our Lord describes as adulterers may nevertheless receive sacramental absolution without any purpose of amendment and then go to Holy Communion.

So instead of becoming part of authentic magisterial teaching, this new document, if it is issued, will have to be resisted and openly rejected by faithful Catholics as a monumental papal error.

Indeed, it seems clear that Pope St. John Paul II has settled the matter in Ecclesia de Eucharistia , #36, in such a way that even a future pope has no right to change the discipline. He wrote: 'Along these same lines, the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly stipulates that 'anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.' I therefore desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul's stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, 'one must first confess one's sins, when one is aware of mortal sin.''

Thus, Pope St. John Paul II affirms that this teaching can never be changed! It's definitive and infallible by virtue of the ordinary and universal magisterium. And, of course, by 'confess[ing] one's sins,' he means what every pope has always meant by that term, namely, a confession that includes a firm purpose of amendment regarding the mortal sin one is confessing.

That, of course, is precisely what's lacking in the Kasper proposal: he and his supporters are proposing a superficial 'penitential process' in which a priest gives people absolution and access to Communion even though they acknowledge to him that they definitely intend to continue sexual intimacy with someone to whom they are not validly married.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, a delegate at the synod, admits in this report that the synod fathers are deeply divided on key issues. (We are not hearing this from the official daily Vatican press office reports.) However, he himself appears unwilling to line up clearly with either side of the division.

His 'moderate' approach is exemplified by his saying, for instance, that although any actual blessing of 'gay' unions is unacceptable and off the table at the synod, the Church has to use less harsh and condemnatory language about homosexual liaisons and activity. (Hmm. When was the last time you heard any priest or bishop actually using such language? The current trend among the hierarchy and clergy, from the top down, is all in the other direction - at least among prelates and priests from Western countries.)

Archbishop Coleridge's middle-of-the-road style is also shown in his approach to the notorious Kasper proposal to give Holy Communion to some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. On the one hand, His Grace says he wouldn't personally agree with that proposal; but on the other hand, he confesses to being shocked and scandalized by one bishop who said on the floor of the Synod that we have to choose between 'the way of Jesus' and 'the way of Cardinal Kasper.' Now, that kind of talk is much too divisive for his liking!

Archbishop Coleridge's kind of 'moderation' appears rather analogous to what we have seen from 'pro-choice' Catholic politicians: 'I'm personally opposed to abortion, but...' He sees the German cardinal's view on divorce and remarriage as a matter of legitimate debate, of respectable pastoral and theological opinion. He probably wouldn't go for that option himself, mind you, but what really offends him is to suggest that the Kasper proposal is ruled out by the law of Christ himself - that it's heterodox.

But that's precisely what it is!

The real scandal is that a matter settled in the Catholic Church for two millennia and explicitly reaffirmed by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio - namely, that those living in objective adultery (bigamists) may not approach the Eucharist - should even be on the table for open discussion at the present Synod.

Archbishop Coleridge then brings us some good news and bad news. The ostensible good news is that, according to his estimate after listening to what has been said at the Synod in the first couple few days, probably two-thirds of the synod fathers are likely to vote against the Kasper proposal. Well, you say, that's great news! Not so fast. It turns out that what His Grace thinks is that two-thirds of the bishops would probably vote against it as a new uniform practice for the universal Church.

The bad news is that he also thinks the synod fathers would probably be about evenly divided as to whether bishops in different regions of the world, or different episcopal conferences, should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Archbishop Coleridge says he himself would be sympathetic to that solution to this contentious issue.

Of course, it would be no solution at all. On the contrary, that kind of 'decentralized' and 'pastoral' accommodation would be a total disaster. The idea that a certain form of conduct is mortally sinful in some countries, and so debars one from Communion, while in other countries it's OK for Catholics after a 'penitential process,' is plainly preposterous.

It treats a matter of basic morality (whether you can be in the state of grace while living in a bigamous, and therefore adulterous, union) like a matter of mere human positive law that Church leaders can freely change at their discretion. Just like civil laws, for example, that determine which side of the road to drive on: driving on the left is obligatory in Australia but illegal in America.

Indeed, any such absurd 'regional' solution, if proposed by the synod and confirmed by higher up, would become obsolete almost before the ink was dry on the papal motu proprio that authorized it. We would see Gresham's Law in economics ('Bad money drives out good') leap immediately onto the religious stage: bad doctrine will drive out good.

That is, divorced and remarried Catholics in lands where conservative bishops are dragging their feet, i.e., not yet allowing what the pope himself allows them to allow, will immediately clamor for vindication against this intolerable 'discrimination' on the part of their retrograde shepherds. Petitions with innumerable signatures will cascade in to the Vatican demanding that such Catholics not be 'mercilessly' denied Communion for merely geographical reasons, i.e., for living in the wrong country. And of course, their petitions will then be 'mercifully' heeded in short order.

(You'll recall that we've seen this sort of development before: Communion in the hand and female altar service were originally permitted only as exceptions to general norms of the Church, admissible only in certain countries or dioceses. But these 'exceptions' quickly became the de fact o rule.)

We can only pray that in the 15 remaining days of the synod, the Holy Spirit will dispel this kind of insanity from the minds and hearts of our Church leaders.