Development of Doctrine or Accommodation?

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a leader of the Synodal Way in Germany

Whether it is justified or not, there is no question that Catholics who desire to re-consider or who even demand changes in some of the Church’s centuries-old teachings, particularly on moral matters related to sexuality, have felt emboldened by the papacy of Pope Francis to push the doctrinal envelope in hopes that Francis and the Church will embrace their positions. Francis’ seeming openness to new ways of thinking about marriage and sexuality have led some to already assume that the Church’s teachings have or are about to change. Catholics dedicated to those centuries-old teachings are regularly rebuked for failing to fall in line with what is claimed to be the Church’s new attitude toward sex, marriage, and a host of other moral matters, inspired, they insist, by Pope Francis. Indeed, it sometimes comes as a shock to these “progressive”-thinking Catholics, and even more so to their allies in the secular media, when Francis makes a statement supportive of the Church’s traditional teachings.

This is nowhere more evident than in the controversies surrounding the German Synodal Way. I have written about the Synodal Way (or Synodal Path) before. The Catholics of Germany, led (or followed?) by many of their bishops, are demanding that the Church re-consider or change her teachings on many aspects of sexual morality and on matters of governance, as well. They are calling for the ordination of women to the priesthood, the ordination of married men to the priesthood, the acceptance of homosexual sexual acts, and the acceptance of same-sex marriage. They also want the laity to have more of a say in who is chosen to be a bishop. These demands reflect changes in governance, sacramental theology, and sexual morality contrary to what the Church has practiced and taught for centuries and, in some cases, from the earliest decades of her existence. Letters to the Church in Germany calling on them to step back from the precipice of heresy have been sent from English-speaking bishops around the world, from Nordic bishops, and from Polish bishops. Pope Francis himself, in a 2019 letter to the German bishops, warned against the German Church separating itself from the universal Church.

Now, in a strongly worded statement, the Holy See has said that “The Synodal Way in Germany does not have the power to compel bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals.” The Holy See saw it as necessary to clarify this, so to “safeguard the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of the episcopal ministry.”

The Holy See went on to say, “It would not be permissible to introduce new official structures or doctrines in dioceses before an agreement had been reached at the level of the universal Church, which would constitute a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.”

Now, that statement is a bit disconcerting. It suggests that doctrines could be up for changes if “an agreement had been reached at the level of the universal Church.” That’s not going to happen, for as much as German and other “progressive” Catholics insist that the faithful have not embraced the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, a priesthood restricted to men, etc. the reality is that they are speaking only of their own flocks in the West, and even there it is limited. Many Catholics in Africa, South America, and Asia – and many even in the West – have embraced the Church’s teachings on these matters and have no desire to change them. It seems the Catholics in Germany regard themselves as the only Catholics in the world – or the only Catholics that count! Since they have not embraced these teachings, it must be that the entirety of the faithful has not done so. How arrogant! How Euro-centric!

It is important that the Holy See especially, but also other bishops around the world, call the Church in Germany back to the faithful proclamation of the Church’s counter-cultural teachings, not simply because they manifest a different set of priorities than those of the world, but for the basic reason that they are true – that they represent the revelation of God given to us in Christ and through His Church.

In another effort to re-consider Church teaching, the Pontifical Academy for Life has published a text calling for a “paradigm shift” in Catholic moral theology that includes changing the Church’s teaching on contraception, euthanasia and methods of artificial conception. The document entitled Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, and Practical Challenges, is described as a synthesis of proceedings of a 2021 Pontifical Academy of Life-sponsored seminar as “a contribution that elaborates a Christian vision of life by expounding it from the perspective of an anthropology appropriate to the cultural mediation of faith in today’s world.” Meh. In other words, a consideration of how the Church ought to change her centuries-old teachings to accommodate the culture of the West in the 21st century.

The document claims that it was guided partly by the criteria of “wide-ranging dialogue,” a dialogue that included Catholic theologians, but also non-Catholics and non-believers. In other words, those who put the document together discussed these matters with like-minded thinkers of all stripes, Catholic and otherwise. Since when does the Church consider the contributions of those who do not believe in Jesus Christ in discerning the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? It seems, however, that while the Pontifical Academy for Life was listening to the thoughts of non-believers, it failed to benefit from the reflections of its own members, many of whom were not consulted in the writing of the document. Elena Postigo, a Spanish-based bioethicist, wrote on Twitter: “As a member of the PAL: the book is not an official statement but the seminar records in which 20 people made their personal statements. Many members didn’t know about it and are astonished.”

Here again, Pope Francis is claimed as the inspiration for the pushing of this particular envelope. Father Carlo Casalone, SJ, a PAL member and drafter of the document, described the effort as one that sought to apply “the organic vision” of Pope Francis’ approach to bioethics. Sheesh! It seems Pope Francis is used as the scapegoat for all efforts to reject Church teaching in the goal to accommodate the modern culture.

It is important that other bishops, as well as Pope Francis, reject this document. Of course, it may be that that rejection will come in the form of never mentioning it again.

It needs to be clear that these efforts to change Church teachings on moral matters do not represent the development of doctrine, as much as their proponents might insist. They represent a break from Church teaching, a rejection of what the Church as taught as God’s revelation to us. The goal of that break is nothing other than accommodation to the contemporary culture of the West. Proponents will insist that the Church must change in order to re-capture the imaginations of modern men and women, who are leaving the Church in droves. In order to stop the flood of Catholics giving up on the Church, the Church must change. Nothing could be further from the truth! It has long been established that those who leave a church because that church does not teach what they believe do not return to that church once that church has changed its teachings. They demand change, but they do not “reward” the church that changes with their presence or support. No, they remain outside, demanding even more change before they will “bless” the church with their presence. The list is long of those churches in the Christian tradition who have surrendered the integrity of their doctrine for the sake of accommodating the culture. Episcopalian. Presbyterian. Methodist. United Church of Christ. Unitarian. None of these churches experienced a rebound in membership after they changed their teachings. Those who demanded the changes never intended to return, they only intended to use their new-found power over these churches to demand more changes.

The Catholic Church must never change her doctrines in order to accommodate the culture, for two reasons:

First, it won’t work. Those demanding change will not return to the Church or stay in the Church (even as much as they can be said to be in the Church). They will remain outside demanding more changes.

Second, it is not for the Church to accommodate the culture. It is for the Church to challenge the culture with the truth of God’s revelation in Christ. How can the Church do that if she abandons that revelation? It is not for us to change the truth, as if we could. It is for us to speak the truth with passion, and let the chips fall where they may.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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