There are arguments being made in the Catholic world over what happened in the recent Synod. The fear on the part of “conservative” or “orthodox” Catholics is that the Synod, both this year’s and, even more, next year’s session, will change Catholic teaching over, essentially, admitting practicing homosexuals and couples in “irregular” marriages to Communion. Basically, the fear is that this pope will unilaterally make a decision to do this in spite of a Tradition teaching just the opposite that’s lasted for 1,500 years or more.
The fact is, even after the pronouncement of papal infallibility by the first Vatican council, this should be impossible. With that pronouncement, the assumption was that the pope was a steward of Tradition and could do nothing outside of it, and this is the substance of one line of argument going on over the rather sloppy actions of the Synod: things that have been taught always and everywhere and accepted by the entire Church, i.e., all the bishops, cannot be changed, even by a pope.
Yet, it’s clear that there is a large number of Catholics who follow the second line of argument, that divorced and remarried couples and active homosexuals should be admitted to Communion and that Francis can make the changes necessary to bring this about.
All of this brings some focus on my reasons for deciding to pursue Orthodoxy once again. The fact that such a split can exist in the Catholic Church, one that may lead, if not to actual schism, then to one in practice, worries me. It means that the Catholic understanding of what the Church is, is mistaken. It would mean that the pope isn’t infallible and that matters of faith and morals are issues that can be decided on the whim of just one man. It would be no different from the Presbyterian church I left 20 years ago except that such questions were decided by vote at the whim of a committee.
There are interesting points underlying all this centering around the fact that we are seeing, or may be seeing, an ever so slight move of the Catholic Church closer to the Orthodox view of things. At the conclusion of the Synod, Francis may have bowed to the truth of the “orthodox” Catholic position by recognizing that the teachings of the Church cannot be changed without substantial assent by the assembled bishops. There was no such assent shown in the Synod for such a move. It struck me that, this is, in effect, a living out of what the Orthodox have been saying all along, that the Church is governed through the communion of all bishops meeting in council. We may have seen a chink in the armor of papal supremacy. This might have resulted in a transfer of some power over doctrine back to the assembled bishops and out of papal hands. It’s too early to tell for sure, but this may have happened.
The other point is that, in the Catholic understanding of things there is a distinction between doctrine and sacramental practice. I won’t go into all the gory details at the except to say that, in terms of marriage, it’s possible to envision a situation where, on a limited basis, Catholics who were married in the Church and then divorced and remarried to different spouses in civil ceremonies, all without benefit of annulment, could be admitted once again to communion. All this would happen through a change in sacramental practice and would, in effect, bring the Church closer to the Orthodox view of things on divorce and remarriage. It might be possible, as a result of the next Synod of Bishops to see this step being taken, perhaps as a sop to those like Cardinal Kasper, who were so roundly defeated in the meetings earlier this month. There could be no change, as far as I can see, on the question of practicing homosexuals receiving communion.
All this leads me to the question I’ve been asking myself: If the Catholic Church is going to begin moving closer to the Orthodox view of things, could it be that the Orthodox had it right all along? Looking over the book of Acts and letters of St. Paul in particular, it seems that argument could be made.