Fundamental Distinctions for the Upcoming Synod

This is the third article in a three-part series on the upcoming Synod. See the first article here, and the second here.

Going forward to the Ordinary Synod on the Family this October and afterwards as well, the Church will need, in my view, to make clear some fundamental distinctions. Three significant ones come to mind.

History vs. historicity

First, the Church needs, more than ever in a world awash in relativism, to articulate the difference between “historicity” and “historicism,” especially when it comes to articulating both religious and moral doctrine. The conservative Catholic, like the liberal one, affirms the historical nature of the human person and the Church. Is there anything but history that we live in? So yes, we obviously live in history and are, in some ways, products of our time and culture. But affirming this fact is a far cry from espousing historicism–the idea that we can never stand “outside” of history and render an objective judgment on a specific action. Here’s the problem with that view: As soon as you say, “Every statement must be understood in the historical context in which it is uttered,” you have already “relativized” that statement. That statement is, in fact, characteristic of a certain time and place. The Church recognizes historicity in adopting, for example, the personalistic language of St. John Paul II since it is more accessible to people of this time than traditional natural law language often is (More on natural law below). Historicists, on the other hand, want to overturn a teaching always taught and understood to be true always and everywhere. Getting this distinction right, I believe, will be crucial in the coming debates over “development versus change” in all areas of Church teaching.

Authority vs. authoritarianism, freedom vs. license

VATICAN-POPE-SYNODThe next distinction might sound surprising in some ways. It is making the case for the rightful exercise of authority and distinguishing it from authoritarianism. This will be hard to do. I know that’s an understatement! For one thing, the clerical sex abuse scandals of recent memory have eroded people’s trust in the Church’s moral authority and in those who exercise it. But authority must be exercised in the Church (as it is exercised in all areas of human life), and someone must exercise it. Christ has given this charism and charge to the Magisterium. The sound formation of a Catholic conscience depends, among other things, on its looking to authoritative sources of moral guidance: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium are “the big three.”

Therefore, we must show why well exercised authority is actually a positive good and not a necessary evil. The writings of the late French Catholic philosopher Yves Simon–I think expressly of his great 1962 book, A General Theory of Authority–can serve as a good starting-point for how to think wisely about authority, as well as to rehabilitate its poor reputation among both Catholics and non-Catholics. The exercise of hierarchical authority should, of course, be modelled on Christ’s own servant-leadership (see Lk 22:26). It should never take the form of authoritarianism; of “lording it over” people (cf. Lk 22:25) and insisting that people obey those in power just because they have power rather than because, in the case of the bishops in union with the Holy Father, they have been entrusted by the Holy Spirit to teach the truth.

This treatment of authority must go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on a proper understanding of freedom, distinguishing it from license–too often the default mode of our secular culture and Christians too greatly influenced by it. In his classic, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Eng. trans., 1995), the late moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, O.P. wrote of the difference between “the freedom of indifference” and “the freedom for excellence” (see chapters 14-15). Only the latter corresponds to a virtuous freedom. Free choice leads to a morally good character and our flourishing only when it is directed to the good, not when it is simply free to choose, but “indifferent” to the content–good or bad–of what is chosen.

Natural law vs. ethical subjective “isms”

Finally, the Church’s leaders must be very careful not to throw out or alter the natural law framework for her moral teaching. She must contrast (and thereby distinguish) natural law moral methodology with the many modern moral subjective “isms”–relativism, utilitarianism, consequentialism, proportionalism, etc. – patiently explaining it and showing its superiority to these various (un)ethical “isms” (Pope St. John Paul II provides a model for this crucial work in Veritatis splendor, Ch. 2). One key task of this project will be to explain how the “principles of the moral order” [i.e., natural law]…“have their origins in human nature itself.” (See Dignitatis humanae, no. 14). These are the same principles that the Church teaches she can “declare and confirm by her authority…”

The “Working Document” of the Extraordinary Synod (see “Instrumentis Laboris,” June 2014, nos. 20-30) had unfortunately floated language that implied a significant reworking or at least a significant change in terminology to describe the natural moral law (see also John J. Conley, “Has Natural Law Died?”). The reason for this revision being what? It’s this: Natural law theory is simply a foreign country for many people of our day, including our fellow Catholics. It is a reality, the “Working Document” said, that many find “highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible” (no. 21), a concept seen as an “outdated legacy” (no. 22).

Now, in fairness, the “Working Document” proposed the biblical concept of the “law written upon the heart,” as found in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (2:14-15; 1:19-21) as one way of renewing or repositioning natural law language to better reach the modern world (See no. 30).  This is commendable. It is to be welcomed. The “new evangelization” depends, in my opinion, on the success of this effort. But when using different expressions and formulations for natural law, one must be careful to preserve the substance of the reality. Otherwise, the moral teaching itself, which is rooted in natural law and illumined and deepened by divine revelation (cf. Bl. Pope Paul VI, Humanae vitae, no. 4), will be compromised.

After all, natural law insists that there are some moral truths everyone is capable of knowing without extensive instruction: e.g., that the direct and deliberate killing of innocent human beings is always wrong. Science certainly cannot prove such a truth. And while it is a truth taught by virtually every religion and culture, if it is not an objective, universal truth, only those who accept various religions and cultures need accept it. Interestingly, it should be noted, the final Synod document left out all language referring to the natural law. This may be a fortunate or unfortunate move, depending on how the document would have treated natural law! The concept does not appear in the “Instrumentum Laboris” (Working Document), The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World, for this fall’s Synod; although the term “natural” marriage is used several times (e.g., see no. 40).

In concluding, let me add one more item. We must pray for Pope Francis and our Bishops and Cardinals as they prepare for the 2015 Ordinary Synod.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
Articles by Mark:

  • NDaniels

    Let us not forget that The Faithful are obligated to let those who are trying to undermine our Catholic Faith by denying that God Is The Author of Love, Life, and Marriage, that they are no longer in communion with The Body of Christ, Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The question is, why is pope Francis allowing dissension in regards to that which a Catholic must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith? Confusion is not of The Holy Ghost!