“We’re here to preserve democracy, not practice it.” Such were the words of Captain Frank Ramsey (played by Gene Hackman) in the 1995 film Crimson Tide. Ramsey, Commanding Officer of a nuclear submarine, said this to his Executive Officer, Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (played by Denzel Washington), when the two differed on what decisions to make after radio communications problems aboard the USS Alabama prevented the sub from receiving its orders clearly during a tense confrontation with Russian warships.
The extreme opposite seems to have occurred on October 1, when German Catholic bishops and lay leaders, in a 168 to 28 vote—with five abstentions—openly defied the directives of Rome as they called for the Church to bless same-sex relationships. Rome, in March, had stated this was impossible since God “cannot bless sin.”
“Apparently,” as stated by Annette Florczak of Maria 1.0, an organization dedicated to upholding traditional Catholic doctrine, “the members of the Synodal Path see the Church as a democracy where teachings and truth change with a majority vote. It is beyond presumptuous and beyond depressing.”
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Yet this is not what a synod is supposed to be.
As explained by canon 342 of the Code of Canon Law, “The synod of bishops is a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world.”
The synod of Bishops is a national episcopal conference, a group of bishops within a specific region or different parts of the world who meet at specific times with a fourfold purpose:
- to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the College of Bishops;
- to assist the Roman Pontiff in the defense and development of faith and morals;
- to assist the Roman Pontiff in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline;
- to consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world (i.e., the specific modus vivendi et operandi of the Church, the People of God).
Since the beginning of the institutional Church, the word “synod“ has been applied, with a specific meaning, to the ecclesial assemblies convoked on various levels (diocesan, provincial, regional, patriarchal, or universal) to discern, by the light of the Word of God and listening to the Holy Spirit, the doctrinal, liturgical, canonical, and pastoral questions that arise as time goes by.
This is founded in Sacred Scripture. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, “seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom” were chosen by the Apostles and entrusted with the task of “giving out food” (Acts 6:1-6).
This does not mean that a synod can establish its own disciplines, especially if they are contrary to the observance of Church doctrine. Nor can a synod settle matters or draft up decrees, unless the Roman Pontiff has conferred it deliberative powers; he then ratifies decisions, if any, as he sees fit.
A synod’s specific function is to discuss the matters proposed to it and set forth recommendations, nothing else. Yet what happened in Germany was an attempt to misconstrue and debunk Church doctrine, simultaneously jeopardizing the faithful’s communion with Christ and His Church. All of this because the German synod, in its democratic approach—it tended to be more oligarchical —overwhelmingly voted to disobey the laws of the Church.
This is not an attack on democracy in which government of the people, by the people, for the people is to debate, stipulate, and legislate its own ordinances of reason for the tutelage and promotion of natural rights. In the Church, however, there is no room for disputing the faith and morals revealed by God in Holy Writ, let alone voting on such matters.
Pope St. Pius X, in his encyclical Notre charge apostolique (1910), warned us against such procedures within the structure of the Church:
We do not have to demonstrate here that the advent of universal Democracy is of no concern to the action of the Church in the world; we have already recalled that the Church has always left to the nations the care of giving themselves the form of government which they think most suited to their needs. What We wish to affirm…is that it is an error and a danger to bind down Catholicism by principle to a particular form of government. This error and this danger are all the greater when religion is associated with a kind of democracy whose doctrines are false.
While the Roman Pontiff is elected by the Sacred College of Cardinals—elections of men to govern the Church are founded in Scripture as with the “election” of the Apostle Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:21-22)—the Church itself is not a democracy because it is a non-political institution, contrary to what the German bishops have led their faithful to believe.
While bishops may possess executive, legislative, and judicial powers within their own respective dioceses, it is not up to them to decipher what Church laws are to be or not to be observed. Nor for that matter can a pope, despite possessing “full and supreme power in the Church” (Can. 332 §1), validly legislate a norm that would obligate the faithful to act against faith and morals.
The ultimate problem is not necessarily the loose cannons in the Church hierarchy who pick and choose, rather it is the lack of enforcement of Church norms by those entrusted with this task.
In June, the Episcopal Conference of U.S. Catholic Bishops voted to keep President Joe Biden and other self-proclaimed Catholic politicians who openly support abortion from receiving Holy Communion. Paradoxically, the bishops who voted for this did the right thing, even though denying the Eucharist to a public sinner should not be put to a vote as it has already been stipulated by Church norms.
Yet Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urging them to carefully deliberate before making a decision on whether Catholic public figures—like President Biden—should be denied Communion if they support abortion rights. In other words, one is free to deliberate for him or herself what Church teachings to follow.
What Holy Mother Church teaches and professes does not depend on majority votes or how an individual may feel about a particular doctrine. While there may be certain things within our Christian faith open for persons or congregations to decide, they are nevertheless limited; these things are small in number. Truth is Truth, and that which the Church teaches cannot be disavowed, regardless of what the majority decrees.
[Photo: Archbishop Georg Baetzing, Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference (FABIAN SOMMER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)]