What Will Francis Choose: ‘Expert’ Opinion or Orthodoxy?

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Nobody was under any illusions about the stakes at the Synod on the Amazon. Ostensibly, the synod was convened to help the Pope address concerns about the Amazon in consultation with Amazonian church authorities. It was evident from the very beginning, however, that the synod would serve instead as a staging-ground for progressively-minded bishops to challenge Church teachings that have stood unquestioned for millennia. Given that a well-known ally of liberation theology like Cláudio Cardinal Hummes was chosen as relator general, many assumed the final document was drafted before the synodal fathers even bought their plane tickets.

Now the synod is over—and, to quote its most vocal progressive, Bishop Erwin Kräutler: “It is what we expected, of course.”

The final document does indeed recommend the Pope allow for the ordination of married men in the Amazon and asks that he “reopen” the possibility of female deacons. Francis has consistently refused to rule out the possibility of either. The synodal fathers also request that Rome consider the possibility of formulating an “Amazonian Rite” liturgy.

As Robert Cardinal Sarah pointed out during the synod, the decision to ordain married men in the Amazon “would mean in practice to question the obligatory nature of celibacy as such.” If married priests are a viable solution to the vocations crisis in the river basin, why shouldn’t they be so in Germany or France or America?

 

Likewise, Gerhard Cardinal Müller condemned any effort to use the synod as a platform for advancing the cause of female deacons. “The impossibility that a woman validly receives the Sacrament of Holy Orders in each of the three degrees is a truth contained in Revelation and it is thus infallibly confirmed by the Church’s Magisterium,” His Eminence warned.

In any event, both sides have said their piece. All that remains to be seen is whether Francis takes the synodal fathers’ advice.

One insight into the Holy Father’s mentality is the large majorities by which the bishops (whom Francis hand-picked to address these questions) voted in favor of radical changes. 76 percent of synodal fathers expressed support for ordaining married men in the Amazon, with the final document noting that “some [bishops] were in favor of a more universal approach to the subject”—that is, they were already discussing the possibility of abolishing clerical celibacy across the Latin Church. 82 percent of those present supported further study on ordaining women to the diaconate. A whopping 88 percent support the so-called “Amazonian Rite.”

Yet Pope Francis has previously expressed his reservations about changing the law of celibacy. This past January, Francis echoed Pope St. Paul VI in saying, “I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.” And, while he remains open to the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate, the Holy Father seems to genuinely understand the gravity of such a decision. “I can’t do a decree of a sacramental nature without having the theological, historical foundation for it,” he said back in May, addressing a nun who supported women’s ordination.

Closing the synod, Francis also warned against “a group of elite Christians who want to get into intraecclesiastical matters.” He urged Catholics to focus on helping the Amazon, not settling ideological scores.

Speaking of Paul VI, Francis canonized the Pilgrim Pope just last year. Of course, 2018 also marked the 50th anniversary of Paul’s encyclical Humanae Vitae. Like Francis, his papacy was marked by deep divisions within the Church’s two ideological factions. Though he expressed skepticism at his predecessor Pope St. John XXIII’s decision to convene the Second Vatican Council, he dutifully implemented its “reforms” upon ascending the Chair of St. Peter. He also received the final report of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control—another mess inherited from John. By a majority of 64 to 4, the commissioners recommended that Paul authorize Catholics to use contraceptives.

Paul spent two years weighing their arguments before stunning the world by issuing Humanae Vitae, categorically forbidding the faithful from practicing artificial contraception. He called it “an evil thing” that makes it too easy for us to break the moral law, and prophetically observed that “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman,” leading him to “reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

We can pray that Francis learns from his hero’s decision to buck popular opinion—and the opinions of his own “experts,” for that matter. May he not only uphold orthodoxy, but positively affirm it with Paul’s rhetorical force. Paul drew that force from his conviction that Holy Mother Church must always stand on the side of human dignity, even (or especially) when the outside world refuses to do so.

Let me ask this of you, then. Follow Pope Francis’s advice and resist the temptation to “say this side won or that side won.” Don’t give in to the temptation to pick fights about the synod on Facebook. Ignore all Twitter snark from triumphalist progressives. Take no heed of pessimistic conservatives, either. For instance, Rod Dreher—who, on the main, I can’t praise enough—believes that the synod has already put the Church outside the bounds of historic Christianity. “After what Francis has done this month,” Mr. Dreher writes on his blog, “I am certain that there is absolutely no way the Orthodox East will ever reunite with Rome.” There’s not a phantom of a whisper of a shred of evidence for such an apocalyptic view.

Still, we ought to (as always) pray that Pope Francis does the right thing. Offer the intentions of your Masses, rosaries, novenas, and fasts that our Holy Father does God’s will. Now is the time to recall—and allow ourselves to be comforted by—the perfect certainty that St. Peter has taken Francis into his special care, St. Joseph will not allow error to enter the Church, and Christ will defend his Bride to the last.

Photo: Pope Francis at the closing Mass for the Synod on the Amazon (POOL/AFP via Getty Images) 

Michael Warren Davis

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Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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