Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Question Concerning Fears About Pastoral Practice After the Synod

A friend of mine had a question about the concerns of the synod that doesn’t deal with the doubting of Christ protecting the Church. That’s fair enough. I have a tendency to deal mostly with the doctrine, but there is always the concern about how the Church teaching gets applied in the parish.

He says:

There are thoseand I sometimes feel this way—who know that the Synod will not change doctrine but worry that there will be pastoral changes which involve watering down the way that the faith is taught and approving pastoral approaches which are harmful . . . . So it's not the doctrinal changes which concern people like me, it is how we go about conducting the day to day pastoral life of the Church.

We do need to remember that it is too early to assess what the pastoral changes may be. Why? Because this extraordinary synod is actually to prepare a relatio [the basis of what is actually going to be discussed] for the ordinary synod in 2015.  But I do understand the concern. After all, we have had problems in the past, and I am sure the people my friend refers to want to avoid a return to the period of rebellion and confusion.

Why This is a Concern

For those too young to remember, the Church had a demoralizing situation with the rebellion of some clergy and laity after Humanae Vitae was published in 1968. The rejection of authority, civil and religious, had effects on an entire generation. Popes Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have had to fight this, and it seems like we are only now recovering (though some believe we are still going through it). I’m old enough to remember liturgical abuses like songs from Barry Manilow and Jesus Christ Superstar used as “hymns” in the 1970s, and I remember the “Spirit of Vatican II” school of thought from the sisters who ran the college I attended from 1989-1992, which held that the only people who didn’t get Vatican II were the members of the Magisterium who happened to be there at the Council. It felt like the spiritual anarchists were running rampant. We don’t want to have to deal with that again.

Of course we need to distinguish what is caused by the practice as established by the Church and what is caused by disobedience. The two are not the same. We had a generation of people from the “Spirit of Vatican II” (AKA: the Make up whatever the hell you want school of thought) who claimed to know what Vatican II “intended” even though it had nothing to do with (and usually contradicted) the actual words of Vatican II and the interpretation given by Popes who actually attended.

So What is Pastoral Practice?

So we have a distinction to make. What do we mean by pastoral practice? The term is not a formal Church term, but when used in Church documents, the general sense is the way Church teaching is carried out, whether it is the way the Church intends it to be carried out or whether it is an abuse practiced in a region. The term is equivocal (open to more than one interpretation) and we need to recognize that fact.

Do we mean what the Church says we must do? Do we mean guidelines open to personal interpretation? Or do we mean spiritual anarchy caused by the “make up whatever the hell you want” school of thought? These are different things, and the role of the Church is different in each case. Before we can say the pastoral practices of the 2015 Ordinary Synod (this extraordinary synod is preparation, remember) might be harmful, we need to consider what the teaching authority of the Church can do vs. what  a member of the Church may decide to do.

Remember, all of us are sinners and all of us have free will. None of us are impeccable. We can choose to what is wrong in spite of what the Church says we must do. Or, in other words, the Church can tell us what we need to do to be faithful to Christ, but she can’t force anyone to choose it. All she can do is try to correct, and seek better ways to communicate. 

But First, A Fallacy Warning

An important fallacy to avoid here is the post hoc fallacy. This fallacy looks at two events that happen in sequence and presume the first event was the cause of the second. Sometimes it turns out to be the case, but not always. One has to look at the events to see if there are links between them. Sometimes, there isn’t. For example, take this bit from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

A body might stump his toe, and take pison, and fall down the well, and break his neck, and bust his brains out, and somebody come along and ask what killed him, and some numskull up and say, 'Why, he stumped his TOE.' Would ther' be any sense in that? NO. (Chapter 28).

That’s an exaggerated example, but people make this mistake a lot. One example in the Church is the association of Vatican II with the rejection of Church authority. Many people opposed to this council note that the Second Vatican Council ran from 1962-1965 and called for changes in some things that were seen as distracting. They also note that in the late 1960s we had many acts of rebellion against the Church.

The problem with the assertion is we know that this rebellion did not only affect Catholic countries. It also affected Protestant and even non-Christian nations, and was not solely a rejection of religion. It also rejected civil authority. So to say that Vatican II caused the Catholic dissent is an example of the post hoc fallacy—there are too many reasons outside of the reach of the authority of the Council that can better explain this rejection of authority. You might as well say that the Lateran V Council (1512-1517) caused the revolt of Martin Luther and others beginning October 31st 1517.

So the point to remember is, a sequence of events do not show relation. It may be a coincidence or there may be a connection . . . you have to research the link before you can say there is cause and effect.

Now that we are aware of this, let’s keep in mind when considering the different meanings of “pastoral practice."

Pastoral Practice In the Sense of What the Church Mandates

I have found that when the writings of the Church are actually read, they are pretty level headed. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent do not come across as draconian, and the decrees of Vatican II do not come across as Hippy-Dip. They recognize the importance of following Christ and recognize the fallen nature of humanity and the tendency to sin. The difference of language between the documents of the Council of Trent and Vatican II is that they were addressing Catholics of different eras where the political and social conditions were very different. Both attempted to explain the faith to people where they were at.

I expect this extraordinary synod and the 2015 ordinary synod will attempt to do the same thing. After the sexual revolution in the world and a period of widespread dissent in the Church, there are a lot of people who never learned to distinguish doing what is right from “you have to follow the rules or else.” The Church has to reach out to them in their ignorance or defiance (whatever the case may be) to show the truth.

There can be some legitimate differences of opinion on the best way to carry out the teachings of the Church. That’s not sinful—provided that people recognize that it is the Magisterium that has the responsibility and authority to judge what is legitimate and what is not. There were members of the Church who would have preferred that the changes to the Order of the Mass in 1970 would have been handled differently. So long as they recognize that it is the Magisterium that has the responsibility for making that decision and respect the decision made, that is fine. If the Church decided to reverse herself and go back to the missal of 1962, I’d be in the same boat they are in now, and I hope I would practice what I preach and follow.

I think that pastoral practices in this sense will reflect doctrinal norms. For example, with the fear/hope over admitting the divorced and (invalidly) remarried to the Eucharist, the result must reflect the doctrinal norms because we know Christ called this adultery (see Matt 19:4-9) and we know we cannot present ourselves to the Eucharist in a state of grave sin (see 1 Cor 11:27). So we can be sure that whatever pastoral practices the Church adopts will reflect doctrinal teachings. Any person who presents a claim that pastoral practice permits something that goes against doctrinal teaching—as taught by the Magisterium, not as the radical traditionalist claims—is exposed as a fraud.

Pastoral Practice in the Sense of Guidelines We Have to Interpret

There are times where we have to apply the Church teaching to our lives in a way where the Church decrees a pastoral practice and the person has to assess how to apply it to their life. The Church does not plop down a 3000 page compendium where you look up your specific case and see what you can do. No, she exhorts the faithful to behave in line with the teachings of the Church and permits us to assess how to apply the Church teaching to our lives. The effectiveness of these teachings do depend on how well the teaching is expressed of course, but another part of it is how honestly the member of the faithful applies the teaching. If the Church teaching is not easily understood, then people may accidentally run afoul of it. If it isn’t precise, people may not know where to turn in difficult cases. Try looking up Probabilism in the 1913 Catholic Dictionary for examples of different schools of thought (some accepted by the Church, and others rejected). We don’t want to make situations where the faithful feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

But we do have to remember that when the Church exhorts us to live in a certain way, we do have to use our judgment and form our conscience in line with the teaching of the Church. In other words, we also have the responsibility to seek out and do what is right. So let’s look at one of the cases where people seem to be most concerned with what was cited from the synod. The case of a couple from Australia who alarmed people when they spoke about welcoming the partner of a son with same sex attraction home for Christmas.

Now, the mainstream media seems to understand it that everything mentioned is enshrined as doctrine, but that isn’t the case. what it boils down to is that this couple spoke about issues concerning them . . . how do we deal with such situations? The point of the extraordinary synod is to take their shared experiences and break them down into the relatio saying “we need to address these issues.” Cardinal Burke gave an insightful breakdown of how the Church needs to consider what they said.

In light of the concerns about the pastoral practices emerging from the synod, I imagine the synod will be looking into how one can balance the loving your family members who choose to sin while not being forced to choose between alienating the family member or appearing to tolerate that which is evil. I think that is a good thing to explore. I personally have to ask myself, “Am I coming across like a jerk?” "Am I giving the impression of indifference if I don’t speak?"

But i imagine some people will be (and some on both sides already are) misinterpreting the synod discussions as giving sanction to relationships the Church must call a sin. If the Church expresses herself clearly, she cannot be blamed for the people who misinterpret it because they never bothered to learn what the Church required.

That’s our job, by the way, to pray that the synod fathers will be guided to express the Church teaching in a clear manner to help the person of good conscience.

But “good conscience” is the key. Conscience has to be informed. It can err, if it is not informed. And if the person cares little about informing the conscience, the chances are they will habitually choose what is pleasant over what is right.

As the Vatican II Document Gaudium et Spes (#16) puts it:

Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a man who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

The Church does tend to be very clear. But this type of Pastoral Practice relies on the member of the faithful seeking out God’s will, not being the hair splitter by playing the rules to maximum advantage or minimum disadvantage. If one acts in bad faith, the Pastoral Practice will not be effective . . . if you police yourself, it’s easy to become a corrupt cop when your obligation tells you that you must do something other than what you want to do.

Pastoral Practice Twisted Into Spiritual Anarchy

That leads us to the third case to consider—the case of someone choosing to interpret the Church teaching in such a way to justify their behavior even though the behavior cannot be justified in the eyes of the Church. While it is fading as the rebels of the 1960s get older, for quite awhile we had all sorts of distortions of Church teaching through the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” that claimed to know what the Council intended to say despite the fact that the documents themselves and the members of the Magisterium who actually participated in the Council opposed.

I have seen the Church teaching on “double effect” twisted by people to try to justify abortion—even though abortion is considered a direct evil that one cannot deliberately choose (Double Effect says the bad effect cannot be deliberately chosen and cannot outweigh the desired good effect). I have seen the Church teaching on Natural Family Planning distorted into claiming it was not a sin to use contraceptives—entirely contrary to Church teaching.

A dishonest person can justify anything they want to simply by ignoring the facts that stand in opposition to their position. You can try to contrast the Church as being in opposition to Christ. You can say that if the Church really understood the issue, she wouldn’t have taught what she did. I’ve seen these arguments constantly used. They lack only one thing . . . authority that permits them to do it. The Church has never recognized the view that one may choose, without sin, to do what the Church forbids. In fact, not only has the Church never taught it, Christ Himself does not recognize it:

John 20:23 tells us, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Matthew 16:19 tells us that Jesus said to Peter, "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 18:17-18 has Jesus confirming this authority to the Church, saying, "If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Eventually, people will get to the Final Judgment and be asked by Our Lord, “Why did you think I did not mean what I said?"

The point is, the Church is not to blame for people disobeying the teachings she lays down. As St. Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim 4:3-4):

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.

Our Lord Himself, in Matthew 24:11-13, tells us that:

Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; and because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.

All she can do is teach, and offer correction when people go astray.


When it comes to the pastoral care that comes about by the teaching of the Church after the synods, we cannot just assume that any bad behavior is the fault of the Church. It is only the fault of the Church when she formally teaches something that can be reasonably misinterpreted by someone who makes their best effort to live according to what the Church teaches we must do.

But if the person never bothers to find out what they are called to do, or chooses to make excuses for what he or she knows is disobedience, the fault is not the fault of the Church. It is the fault of the person who willfully disobeys or refuses to seek out the truth, preferring to remain in ignorance rather than risk having to alter their behavior.

I don’t believe we’ll see bad pastoral practices caused by the synod teaching (remember the earlier warning about the post hoc fallacy here!) because even aside from the fact that Jesus Christ protects His Church from error, I believe we have a Pope and bishops who are concerned with doing what is right and concerned for the welfare of the faithful. They will do their best, cooperating with God’s grace, to teach as effectively as they are able to do.

Will we?

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