Over the past three weeks, Catholic Church leaders from around the world have gathered for the Ordinary Synod of the Family in Rome, the second in a two-part session that began in October 2014.
The meeting was a perfect opportunity for bishops to discuss how to strengthen the family in the midst of serious challenges — issues such as contraception, abortion and chastity in a sexually licentious culture. Instead, it has become mired in debates over long-settled teaching on sexual mores, with agendas advanced by progressive and controversial figures invited by Pope Francis himself. What we’re left with is nothing less than a battle for the soul of Catholicism.
The church’s teaching on marriage has always been that it is indissoluble. As we read in Matthew 19:6, “so they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” While annulments can be granted, those who divorce then remarry are living in de facto adulterous relationships, according to the church. This violation of the sixth commandment is, according to Catholic belief, a serious sin. It does (and should) preclude such individuals from receiving the body of Christ until they repent.
Despite this, the Synod might recommend relaxing this very serious rule.
In reaction, a group of concerned Catholic writers, theologians, journalists and lay faithful drafted a petition calling on Synod participants who stand for the unchangeable doctrines of the church to walk out in protest if this comes to pass. Such a gesture would make clear who among the flock is seeking to remake the church in their own image.
In the first 24 hours, the petition gained more than 2,000 signatures. Comments left by signatories were more telling than the numbers. “I am divorced, against my will,” wrote one man from Brooklyn. “I am a Catholic. Not the best Catholic, certainly overwhelmingly in need of Christ’s mercy, but I am Catholic. Watering down Christ’s explicit Word will not help me. It will not help my children in any way. If the Synod conforms the Church to the world, it will only make Catholicism irrelevant to the world.”
Some have tried to assuage such concerns. George Cardinal Pell of Australia, viewed as a leader among those Synod fathers faithful to church tradition, dismissed the petition request in a recent interview. “There’s no ground for anyone to walk out on anything,” he said.
His assurances provided little comfort. Bishops in attendance from Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia — regions where progressive ideology holds less influence — have continued to issue dire warnings about the Synod. Archbishop Peta of Kazakhstan said that he detects the “Smoke of Satan” in the meeting’s working documents and interventions, favoring compromises with Gospel truths that cannot be accepted. Archbishop Stankiewicz of Latvia said that “the admission [to Communion] of persons living in new unions would be an act of injustice against those couples who are struggling to save their marriage and with a great effort to remain faithful.”
Meanwhile, media coverage of the advances of radical proposals to change established practices, coupled with the implied approval of Pope Francis, has given the impression that many of the rules under discussion have already changed. Subsequently, individual Catholics are not waiting for a final document but are instead drawing the conclusion that the existing rules no longer apply to them.
Lacking a corrective word from the vicar of Christ, a gesture that might calm the storm, Catholics are left to wonder which side the pope is on. In his address last Sunday, Francis spoke of “the synodality of the Church” and his intention to impose greater “decentralization.” Were he to delegate to local bishops, as many suspect he will, the authority to determine such questions as whether the divorced and remarried could receive communion without a change of life, the effects would be catastrophically divisive, as the battle between opposing camps within the Synod has demonstrated.
Catholics are facing a watershed moment. The oldest and largest Christian denomination in the world is undergoing an identity crisis so profound that it may well split the church irrevocably along theological fault lines. For the first time since the Arian Heresy of the fourth century, Catholicism seems poised to break apart — shattered on an unalterable principle, the indissolubility of marriage, the image of the unbreakable union between Christ and his church. Despite our faith that the “gates of hell will not prevail,” it is a crisis that, for the foreseeable future, may engulf the church and scatter the faithful.