False Expectations and the coming Synod

On September 1 of this year, the bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, Most Reverend Johan Bonny, produced a twenty-one page series of “wishes” concerning the upcoming Synod with the title, Synod on the Family Expectation of A Diocesan Bishop. Also, an Australian priest-theologian from Canberra and Gaulburn has written a smaller piece entitled, A hermeneutic on Divorce and Remarriage, which discusses the possibility of persons in an invalid marriage receiving Holy Communion without a declaration of nullity.

As I read both pieces, they reminded me of the 1970s, when theology was oversimplified and there was a desire for the teaching of the Church on contraceptives to be changed—to accommodate and accept couples as non-sinners who use them in difficult conundrums. This was seen as a merciful solution. However, this was proposed instead of challenging people to excellence and eminent virtue based on the assisting grace of God. Bishops and priests alike preferred to be benevolent and tolerate sinful solutions to their problems. This meant that on their own, couples could decide what was right for themselves and so fulfill their values on their own “steam”, as it were. Such a course of action necessarily implied that they would rely on themselves and their consciences rather than sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium supplying the truth for their actions. It is similar to Adam and Eve who decided that Yahweh was wrong about forbidding them to eat of the apple of good and evil. They would decide what was best for themselves. In a sense, this was the beginning of the heresy of Pelagianism, a do-it-yourself means of acquiring virtue and heaven itself.

marriageSynthesizing the contradictory praxis and teaching is yet another example of the loss of logic and metaphysics since the Council, as if being and not being, good and evil, truth and falsity are ultimately reconcilable. What McGavin and to some extent Bonny seemed to have forgotten then in the 1970s and now concerning both Humanae Vitae and Veritatis splendor, is a sentence from the Council of Trent: “For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes you to do what you can, and to pray for what you cannot (do alone), and helps so you are able to do it.”

My confreres of the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies (among several others) penned a long study of the question of the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and invalidly remarried couples. They show from arguments of reason and faith, as well as authoritative documents of the sacred Magisterium, that receiving Holy Communion for the divorced and invalidly married a second time is not possible (with the exception of when they are living as brother and sister). It is clear that this teaching is part sacred Tradition and not merely a disciplinary matter found in Canon Law. Their study was sent to many bishops throughout the world and will be published soon by Nova et Vetera. McGavin simply dismisses these theologians.

The evolution of moral or dogmatic doctrine does not imply a complete break from past decisions of the Magisterium, which is why teaching in continuity with the past is called “homogeneous” evolution, while a contradiction is called “heterogeneous” evolution. These contradictions cannot be harmonized or synthesized logically. The Holy Spirit can surprise us with deeper insights into revealed moral norms and with greater understanding of the natural law, but never in contradiction to settled teaching, which is what He did in Gaudium et Spes  concerning marriage and family life.

Sins of sacrilege, fornication, adultery, sodomy etc., as understood by the Magisterium of popes and bishops for centuries going back to St. Paul (1Cor. 6, 1-11) cannot become a virtue in 2014 by a seeming possible decision of bishops and popes finding new “values” in these sins. To claim that the present Church teaching on these matters is merely a brand of ahistorical fundamentalism, or an easy answer, or a mere ready formula, or a rule or restriction is utterly naive, theologically speaking. Moral prohibitive norms are deep shafts of light into what will help a person flourish and be fulfilled both humanly and, in grace, divinely. Behind forbidding certain human acts is a positive “yes” to human flourishing. Pastoral desires to have an accommodation to “sin” encourages a dehumanization by making an apparent good seem like a secondary good or a value away from a received gift of light from the Holy Spirit. Difficult circumstances for married people that require them to become heroic is the stuff of the holiness. As Lumen Gentium (#3) reminds everyone, “All are called to holiness”, which means the perfection of virtue (theological and moral) and not the transformation of a vice. The lust of contraceptive acts or living in an invalid marriage or just living together without marriage cannot be transformed into virtue. Difficult and heroic marital problems are unable to be solved with good intentions—or worse encouragement by bishops or priests. One can hope these sins will lead to virtue by a special grace of God, but one cannot do moral evil that good may come from it.

The understanding of moral norms is not a monolithic body of doctrine based on St. Thomas Aquinas and does not exclude rationality, dialogue, tolerance, compassion and mercy. Centuries of thought have gone into the Church’s teaching on these matters and her theologians still grapple with many unsettled issues in bioethics, social teaching of the Church, sexuality et al. However, there is a short list of definitive and immutable precepts revolving around intrinsically evil actions. There are acts that substantially eviscerate sanctifying grace out of the soul, which we can know only by revelation. Jesus forgave sinners who repented, but warns us about not having a “wedding garment” (Mt.22, 1-14), and also about the possibility of perpetual death.

If only more episcopal conferences had reiterated Trent’s fine advice when Humanae Vitae was published: “For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes you to do what you can, and to pray for what you cannot (do alone), and helps so you are able to do it.” Perhaps then we would not be witnessing the chaos of millions contradicting the Church’s teaching and discontinuing their attendance at Mass.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
Articles by Fr. Cole:

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  • Aliquantillus

    When the author says that grave sins “cannot become a virture in 2014 by a seeming possible decision of bishops and popes finding new “values” in these sins”, he’s obviously right, but also naive. The problem is that the present Magisterium thinks otherwise and they have the power to impose their view on the Church. In the end all the traditiionally minded will only have the choice between caving in and defending the new realities by spinning it into a “hermeneutic of continuity” or leaving the Church. Whatever revolution the Pope and the Kasperians have in mind, and whatever egregious decisions they’ll take, in the end all opponents will have to cave in and declare that the pig is kosher. They’ll be forced to declare that “the Church has always implicitly been in favour of stable homosexual relations” or some nonsense like that, for example that “Church doctrine has gradually developed to the point we now are”.

    • Linda Almaraz

      No, like Humanae Vitae, the Pope will stand firm with the past teaching of the Church even if most in his Council think otherwise. Then they will scurry back and do nothing in preaching or explaining why the Church stood firm on reception of Holy Communion by those divorced or in invalid marriages. In fact, I think we will see openly and in “full view” disobedience from bishops and priests as never seen before.

      • Aliquantillus

        There’s not a shred of evidence for what you say. In fact it is the Pope who has encouraged Kasper, as it is the Pope who is leading the actions of suppressing traditional movements or replacing traditionally minded Cardinals in the Roman dicasteries. The Franciscans of the Immacultate were destroyed by the Pope. Cardinal Burke will be replaced by the Pope in order to set a liberal over the CDF. It is the Pope who recently married a number of couples who were living in sin or got phony annulments. All this comes from the Pope, who is hard-core liberal and a know-nothing about historical Catholicism and who himself said that he considers fundamental theology a boring discipline.

        • Linda Almaraz

          Friend, I stand with you on Francis’s appearance and stand that would lead many to believe he is a radical and liberal minded Pope. I asked you to see beyond his facade. Let us considered what you said. That he encouraged Kasper to do what? Voiced his opinion on his thoughts as to what can be done to help those suffering because of their irregularity on their married status? So what..Paul VI called many to voice their opinion on contraception. History will show that the majority were all in favor of allowing it. The Francician of the Immaculatate were asked in charity to suspend the Traditional Mass because of the scandal of dividision within the walls of their order. It was tearing apart this order. I myself am a lover of the Traditional Mass and I would have given it up for love of my brothers that were clamoring for the Novus Ordo Mass. Least we forget, it is the Eucharist that is the source and summit of our Faith. Why shouldn’t our tradtional brothers be the first to comply with the request from their Pope to keep unity. In fact I think Francis knew they would be more charitable than the other brothers. As to Cardinal Burke, are you not getting ahead of yourself? What Pope Francis is showing us is his radical love for the many who are suffering because they have put themselves in a position where they are unable to receive the many graces offered through some sacraments. He offered to marry those couples so they would be inside the Church. Thanks be to God they accepted his offer. Why was it wrong for him to do this charitable act? Friend, be at peace and wait before you paint Francis into doing something he has not done.

          • Aliquantillus

            Francis’ modernism and liberalism a facade? Well, in that case Francis is nothing else but facade, which is in agreement with his never-ending quest for popularity. I don’t believe a word of what you say. Actions speak louder than words, and Francis’s actions tell me enough. The newest example is his appointment of the modernist Cupich as bishop of Chicago, as the successor of the faithful card. George. It is very clear for those who have eyes in their head and don’t let themselves be deluded by Francis’ words and gestures, but simply look at his actions, that he is a hard-core modernist, hell-bent on destroying traditional Catholicism.

        • Linda Almaraz

          So you don’t believe that the Holy Spirit prevents the Church of whom the Vicar of Christ is the Bishop of Rome, from teaching heresy? Worked for two thousand years so….in your opinion what has changed? Study the church’s history and see that there has always been troubling times in the Church. Revelations tells us that the end times will have many who will fall away from the Church due to false teachers (many of them in the Catholic Church) and lukewarm Catholics that preferred their own perceived truths instead of what has been handed down. Truth is unchanging. So many comments that speaks against the Church’s teachings do so because they have chosen to believe the views put forward so cleverly by the Modernists or they have become victims to their emotional senses and jettisoned all reason and truth. I have been called judgemental just for standing with the Church’s teachings. I have been called a stupid sheep for not thinking for myself.
          I always used to wonder why Jesus remained silent at his trial when Pilate and Herod questioned him. After all, he was God and able to reveal his power to anyone he pleased to do so. So “Friends” ( there may be many out there who say I am not their friend but you cannot speak for me) it appears to me that if you will not accept his teaching that the Church is the pillar of Truth, and he appears to remain in silent as he did with Pilate and Herod, you pretty much have two choices. I choose to follow what has been handed down by Mother Church for two thousands years.

  • weakland

    Why permit a bishop to continue that cant understand a fundamental logic of our faith? Is this not the same as an unchaste pederast priest…the souls he destroys? Are these bishops infested….as they infest me?

  • Harri

    Basil Cole has a point of view that requires a commitment to a story that is no longer relevant to many people. He also doesn’t understand that selective scholarship to support a personal viewpoint to ensure the continuity of the group in power is wrong. The importance of personal conscience to make decisions in life is critical and cannot be overridden by any Church Group that assures itself, and others, it is the only voice and it has the “power of God” on its side. So the jaundiced view of theology in the seventies can be treated with the derision required.
    If the evidence of the people leaving the practice of the catholic faith can’t be understood then there is little chance that Basil and his male friends and scholars will be able to grasp what is being discussed.
    The Synod is about listening and discussing. It doesn’t say here are all the rules see if you can get around them. It’s not a time for “Gotcha”.
    There are biblical quotes that any person can use to bolster their case but it is really necessary to read what Bonny and others especially women have to say that will matter.
    Basil if it doesn’t go your way will you leave the Church that only presently seems to have only a male point of view?

  • bluesuede

    Excellent Father. No double-speak here.