Christianity,  Theology/Bible

When Popes and councils contradict each other

Andrew Sullivan calls the news out of the Vatican yesterday a “pastoral revolution.” That point is being vigorously contested right now by the likes of Robbie George, George Weigel and R. R. Reno, who point out that the statement in question has no official status. Some reports say that the report reflects the sentiments of a plurality of bishops participating in the synod. Still, it is significant that a synod of Bishops has even released an interim report affirming the church’s traditional teaching on marriage and sexuality while calling for “courageous pastoral choices” that include valuing gay “sexual orientation.”

At least some of these bishops wish to maintain the language of the catechism but to adopt pastoral practices that contradict it. This enables them to say that the church’s teaching on homosexuality has remained constant and that the only change is in how it is applied in people’s lives. But in this case, that distinction doesn’t work. One cannot value something and at the same time repent of it, and yet that is what these bishops appear to be calling for. Most people (I think) can see the contradiction.

There is another problem with the synod’s statement. The Catholic catechism bases its teaching on sexuality in part on Persona Humana, an official church statement on sexual ethics. In that document, the defenders of Roman Catholic faith are specific about the church’s teaching and pastoral applications of that teaching. Note the underlined portion:

In the pastoral field, these homosexuals must certainly be treated with understanding and sustained in the hope of overcoming their personal difficulties and their inability to fit into society. Their culpability will be judged with prudence. But no pastoral method can be employed which would give moral justification to these acts on the grounds that they would be consonant with the condition of such people. For according to the objective moral order, homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality. In Sacred Scripture they are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God. This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of.

In other words, Persona Humana prohibits any pastoral choice that would imply moral approval of a practice that the church forbids. And yet, this is precisely what the synod’s statement yesterday achieves. It calls for “courageous pastoral choices” that value gay sexual orientation. This is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled.

Perhaps the final statement from the synod will have a different message than the one we have now. The Vatican already appears to be walking-back the so-called “pastoral revolution” that it launched yesterday. There’s some indication that conservative bishops are quite unhappy with the interim report, which has no official status anyway.

When Martin Luther made his famous statement at the Diet of Worms, he said, “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other.” Martin Luther’s critique still resonates today, for this interim statement from a synod of bishops is a clear contradiction of church teaching. What good is official church doctrine if so-called “courageous pastoral choices” are allowed to contradict that teaching? That is the question that this synod has yet to answer.


  • Christiane Smith

    Hi DENNY,
    your initial concern seems to be based on this portion of the report from the Synod:
    ” 50. Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

    over the next year, these are some of the questions being DISCUSSED among the bishops and Pope Francis wants their honest reflections and responses . . .

    that is far different from a ‘confrontation’ between the Pope and the Bishops (he is actually a bishop himself) . . . it is a request for the leadership of the Church to face and deal with some difficult and pressing issues that call for examination, thought, reflection, and prayer in an open arena culminating with a future conference, at which time some new directives in ministry may be decided in a collegial manner among those at the gathering. Francis wants to hear what the bishops think now. It IS controversial. It IS open to mis-interpretation. But I think he has done the right thing for the Church at this time in raising to the fore what is uncomfortable and unresolved, and applying to that trouble the hope that focusing on Christ will bring for good to come. In short, it’s not all ‘bad’. We Catholics are plowing up our fallow ground, DENNY. And the Church does also listen to the thoughts and concerns of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters with respect for what they too can offer as insights. πŸ™‚

  • Daryl Little

    Is there room for misinterpretation” Sure.

    But this can only be interpreted one way “valuing their sexual orientation”.

    No faith, claiming to believe the Bible, can say such a thing (consistently). But Rome has long set aside Scripture on more important things. It’s not hard to see that language like that will either lead to a change in church teaching or schism.

  • John Bugay

    There is no need for “misinterpretation” — Roman scholars have ways of re-shaping what their doctrines say:

    β€œEssential to a critical interpretation of church documents is the realization that the Roman Catholic Church does not change her official stance in a blunt way. Past statements are not rejected but are requoted with praise and then reinterpreted at the same time” (Raymond E. Brown, β€œThe Critical Meaning of the Bible,” New York, NY: Paulist Press Β©1981, Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur, pg 18 fn 41).

  • Jay Hall

    I’m not Catholic, but we shouldn’t assume that the “sexual orientation” means in this context what we take it to mean, should we? Even as a Protestant, while I do not value my sexual orientation in terms of lust and sin, I don’t think that that’s all my sexual orientation is. Yes, I’m a homosexual, but I’m also celibate, and I view my celibacy as a gift. Many of my Catholic friends, similarly chaste, view their sexual orientations in such a way. They do not value the lust, the temptations, or the sin, but they value the unique opportunities, sensitivities, and gifts that this unique life circumstance has brought into their lives, and that’s how I see mine.

    • Ryan Davidson

      I would agree. The plain meaning of the statement suggests that the Church needs to do a better job of being a welcoming, safe environment for chaste gay Catholics (i.e., celibate gay Catholics or gay Catholics in mixed-orientation marriages). I can’t for the life of me see anything remotely unorthodox about that.

      After all, some of the Church’s more notable saints were gay, e.g., Saint Aelred of Rievaulx.

  • robert karl


    There are a lot of mean spirited anti-Catholic statements here.

    What would your good friend, the late Richard John Neuhaus say about this. He did not insult others faiths, he loving and gently explained himself. Fr. Neuhaus spoke lovingly about Protestants (even you Denny !!) Lets follow Fr.Neuhaus example.

    • John Bugay

      Robert Karl — I can’t imagine what you think is “mean spirited” here. And as for “anti-Catholic”, well, to be Protestant is to be “anti-Catholic”. To use the phrase “anti-Catholic” is just a bit of name-calling on your part.

    • Ken Abbott

      Mr. Karl: Your recollections of RJN’s print demeanor are a bit different than mine. The man did not lack for a bite in his pen.

      There are no “mean-spirited anti-Catholic statements” in Denny’s post or in Daryl or John’s posts, unless one believes that plain truth written plainly is mean-spirited.

    • Ken Abbott

      I appreciate the spirit on display, Mr. Karl, and I believe I can trust you to speak for yourself. However, unless you have heard from RJN on the matter it is perhaps better for you not to make any rash promises.

  • Chris Ryan

    I think all our churches could be more welcoming. When we say “Hate the sin, love the sinner” it has to mean more than just judgmentally condemning them to hell while saying, ‘but I love you’. I know evangelical pastors who were once homosexual. They didn’t come to Christ because we sat in judgment of them, they came to Christ because we showed them love. I think that’s all Francis intends.

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