Deep concerns remain in the hearts of many Catholics regarding the just-closed Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I have written much in the past two weeks and you know my own concerns, especially the need for clarity on Catholic doctrine in those teachings most disputed by the western world: marriage, family, sexuality, and the dignity of human life. We need to keep praying, a lot!
I must say, there are words in the Pope’s concluding address that I take to heart and hope will guide us going forward. He warns of serious temptations faced by the Church and her leaders to veer from the truth in the name of a false “compassion.”
I would like to review the temptations that the Holy Father lists and make a few remarks of my own. Although Pope Francis does list in the first temptation a challenge to those with more doctrinal concerns, I hope that you will read on and see that the rest of the temptations he lists are challenges to those who seek what I would call radical change or a departure from the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. Please read all these temptations. In toto, they are a summons to apply courageously the remedy of truth to what ails us. As usual, direct quotes from the Pope’s texts are in bold, black italics and my own remarks are in plain red text.
Noting the tense climate of the Synod, the Holy Father speaks of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:
1. – A temptation to hostile inflexibility [trans. rigidity], that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
While warning of rigidity (something which I would argue that “liberals” are also very susceptible to) the Holy Father does hasten to add that flexibility must be exercised “within the law, within the certitude of what we know.” Hence what flexibility we can find is to be rooted in the humility of obedience to the truth and also the humility that we do not know everything.
For example, a Thomist might adhere rigidly to the scholastic formulations in a way that would embarrass even St. Thomas Aquinas himself, who was usually quite gracious to his opponents and would argue, “Now, because we cannot know what it God is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue). Hence, again, humility is an important stance with respect to sacred theology: we must have obedience to what is revealed with certainty and taught by God through the Church, but also appreciation for what we do not know with certainty and for which there can be a range of views that Sacred Tradition proposes.
But what is true for a Thomist or any traditional theologian must also hold true for those of more modern systems of thought. For example, I have met adherents to the historical-critical method who are every bit as rigid and possessed of hostile inflexibility as an iron bar. So we do well to note the Holy Father’s first caution and be aware of the temptation to be rigid when we don’t have to but to find flexibility “within the law,” and within the boundaries of certitude.
2. – The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
For in order to bind the wounds of sin we must first say and determine that there is sin. A doctor does not treat wounds by saying there is no wound. A true and good doctor says there is a wound, there is a disease or disorder, there is something wrong—and then proceeds mercifully to offer and begin treatment.
As the Holy Father states, there are a lot of so-called “do-gooders” who think that to do good is merely to please or ingratiate. He also warns that some are fearful, perhaps implying that they fear to offend or to cause the pain that healing sometimes involves.
We cannot be tempted to blindness, false compassion, or fear. Love and truth cannot be separated, though truth without love can be used as a bludgeon.
3. – The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
As Christians, we cannot deny the Cross or be embarrassed by it. The Lord points insistently to the necessity of the Cross and the endurance of suffering, and we can do no less. Saints Paul and Barnabas went about, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Paul also lamented that many in his own day who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Phil 3:18-19). But the same Paul also declared with conviction, We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24).
Yet today, sadly, many Christians are ashamed of the Cross when it moves from being an abstraction to making real demands of people. And thus those who cannot reasonably marry must live celibately. It is sometimes true that a woman who is raped becomes pregnant and yes, she must carry the child to birth and may not abort. Suffering and dying are not permitted simply to “check out” at will. People in difficult marriages need to be encouraged to work out their problems and not consider divorce and subsequent remarriage. But instead of pointing to the Cross and summoning others to courage and being ready to help them, many Catholics either go silent or insist that such crosses are not required.
Too many Catholics are tempted by the hedonism of the day, which insists that pleasure and happiness are the sole points of life, and thus tempted, they insist that the Cross is not required. Many think that God’s only goal for us is that we be happy and content. But they forget that true happiness comes from holiness and true holiness is often the fruit of suffering.
And yes, as the Holy Father also insists, we must also avoid the temptation to forget that the cross IS heavy for many. Alone it may be an unbearable burden. And thus we must help people to carry the Cross, not just point to it. We must continue to help women in crisis pregnancies as we do through the Gabriel Project and Rachel’s Vineyard; we must encourage those with same-sex attraction to live celibately as we do through the Courage Apostolate; we must work hard with couples to preserve their marriages; we must provide quality palliative care to the dying, and so forth. Sinners who struggle but are repentant must find understanding, compassion, and support in the Lord’s Church.
4. – The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
Of the Cross, I have already spoken above. Of the “worldly spirit,” the Holy Father says clearly that our job is not conform to it but rather to purify it and conform it to the truth and will of God: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven. Worldliness and popularity are grave temptations.
5. – The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing!
And here too, we can never neglect the glorious faith handed on to us. But neither can we allow it not to be fresh every day.
There are great challenges in preaching an ancient faith to a world that has lost touch with the vocabulary of faith. Yet the Church in every age, when she was strong and sure in her own faith and has not neglected the deposit of faith or been compromised by the world, has always used the arts, music, painting, song, drama, and preaching to convey the faith creatively.
We must continue to translate our unchanging doctrine to a changing world and bend the world, not be bent by it. The deposit of faith is non nova, sed nove (Not a new thing, but proclaimed newly (and freshly)).
I can only hope that these remarks are reflective of a mindset going forward. The Synod, at least “as seen on TV,” seemed to show in many the temptations described here. We who worship a crucified and risen Lord in our liturgy must be willing to take that Cross out into the world and announce that the Cross is the only way to glory. The Cross is the A440, the tuning fork that assures that our proclamation is pure and Christ-like. Whatever we might wish the truth to be, or however much we might wish Christ had said or done something differently, we must, in humble obedience to the truth, conform to Christ; we cannot demand that He conform to us or our will.
Toward the end of the talk, the Holy Father says the following words, with which I would like to conclude.
So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).