By Deacon Nick Donnelly


popesynodThe day after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the faithful woke up and groaned to find the Catholic Church in disarray. Familiar certainties about Rome, popes, and cardinals had been swept away. Among faithful Catholics there is a sense of numb disbelief over the attempted casual and brutal changes to the doctrine of the Faith in the name of pastoral care. There is also grief and anger at the destruction of so much good that was achieved over the last 35 years by Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.


In particular, just to name two good things that have been damaged are the personal authority of the pope, which was strengthened by St John Paul the Great, and has now been diminished by the appearance of scheming in the conduct of the Synod; and the clarity and beauty of apostolic teaching, attained by Pope Benedict, which has been replaced by an intentional ambiguity that can knock faith off balance.

Over the two weeks that I followed the Synod I was struck by the truth of Pope Benedict’s words about the Church always being in a fight between the desert of sin and the garden of grace:


‘The Church is always in a fight between the desert and the garden, between the sin that dries the earth and the grace that irrigates it so that it might produce abundant fruits of saintliness.’

The Extraordinary Synod was the occasion of an intense outbreak of this perennial conflict, but this time at the very heart of the Church, with the desert of sin producing bitter fruits of confusion and the garden of grace producing abundant fruits of saintliness. So there is good still to be found amidst all the harm being done to the Church.

The Bitter Fruit of Confusion

The abiding impression left behind by the Extraordinary Synod, despite all the spin, is one of chaos and confusion concerning the Church’s moral teaching about the most sensitive areas of life for Catholics. The muddle and ambiguity about marriage and sexuality that has been the hallmark of most Catholics’ lives for the past fifty years descended into pandemonium during the Synod.

The Synod was yet another missed opportunity to unambiguously re-iterate the Church’s clear teaching about sexuality definitively expressed in Blessed Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. But instead both the scandalous Relatio post disceptationem and the final Relatio Synodi misleadingly reduce Humanae Vitae to this ambiguous sentence:

‘In this regard, we should return to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI, which highlights the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of regulating births.’ (Paragraphs 54/58).

The confusing ambiguity of this sentence results in the Synod’s most explicit reference to Humanae Vitae bearing two contradictory meanings due to misunderstanding over the real “message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae”. It can be read as meaning that when couples evaluate methods of birth control they must respect their own inherent personal, spiritual and relational dignity and reject artificial contraception. Or it can be read as meaning the dignity of couples should be respected when they evaluate methods of birth regulation. This misunderstanding stems from the past forty years or so where many clergy and moral theologians have misrepresented Humanae Vitae as advocating that couples are free to use contraception by claiming the autonomous exercise of conscience. The question has to be asked, why didn’t the Extraordinary Synod clear up this confusion by simply recapitulating the clarity of Humanae Vitae concerning the moral evaluation of methods of birth control?

Blessed Paul VI wrote:

‘It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter… From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out.' (Paragraph, 10 emphasis added).

This ambiguous misrepresentation of Humanae Vitae is just one example of what Rev Prof Emeritus Vincent Twomey calls the ‘grave irresponsibility’ of the Synod that will cause ‘further confusion in a pastoral situation that, in the absence of little authentic instruction on the part of bishops and priests over the past forty years, is causing havoc in people's lives’. Fr Twomey places responsibility for this destructive havoc in Catholics’ lives at the feet of bishops, priests, most moral theologians and several Bishops’ Conferences who have rejected the Church’s teaching on sexuality in the wake of Humanae Vitae.

The havoc caused by confusion over Humanae Vitae has as a consequence of the Synod spread beyond the area of birth control to include other areas of moral doctrine that were once beyond doubt, such as homosexuality and sexual relationships outside of marriage, including post-divorce adultery. Even though the paragraphs covering these issues failed to attain a two-thirds majority among the Synod Fathers, Pope Francis ruled that these ambiguous and confusing paragraphs should be included in the Relatio Synodi alongside paragraphs that had been approved by the bishops.

Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia is right to highlight the harm caused by the Synod’s confusing ‘public image’ communicated by the media. He said, ‘I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion. Now, I don’t think that was the real thing there.’

I think Archbishop Chaput’s discernment about the confusing public image of the Synod is correct, but I also think that it’s unfair to lay the blame for that confusion totally on the secular media. The Relatio post disceptationem and the final Relatio Synodi are inherently confusing documents because of their failure to clearly uphold absolute moral truths, allowing the desert of sin to creep into the heart of the Church’s teaching office.

The Abundant Fruits of Saintliness

Cardinal Burke SynodThankfully during the Synod the voices of a number of faithful cardinals and bishops rose above the cacophony to challenge the confusion, scheming and flagrant attempts to betray the Faith. One name deserves special mention, and that is Cardinal Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. In his wise words and courageous actions, alongside Cardinal Pell, Cardinal Müller and others, we saw the garden of grace suddenly appear like an oasis in the depths of the desert, promising – in the words of Pope Benedict – abundant fruits of saintliness.

Cardinal Burke challenged the dangerous approach of so called ‘Lifestyle Ecumenism’ that gained ground at the Synod. This wrong-headed approach to morality proposes that pastoral practice should focus on so called ‘elements of sanctification’ and ‘sacrifice’ in adulterous, unmarried, or homosexual relationships. This focus is insufficient if it does not also challenge these couples to repentance from habitual sin. ‘Lifestyle Ecumenism’ is founded on the illusory hope that if positively affirmed these couples will gradual convert. Cardinal Burke exposed the error of this approach as follows:

‘One of the confusions is that it confuses the person with the sinful acts. In other words, it tries to say that if the church teaches that these acts are sinful that somehow they are turning on the people and driving them away from the church. Well, if the individuals involved are sincere and want to live the truth of moral law, the church is always ready to help. Even if someone sins repeatedly, the church always stands ready to help them begin again. But the truth of the moral law remains and it is compelling. It’s for now, it’s for me, it’s not something out there, some ideal out there that would be nice to realize but it doesn’t compel me.’

Cardinal Burke displayed great courage in confronting the confusion running riot at the Synod even going so far as saying the lack of clarity about Pope Francis’ position regarding Kasper’s proposal for divorced re-married and Holy Communion was harmful, ‘I can’t speak for the pope and I can’t say what his position is on this, but the lack of clarity about the matter has certainly done a lot of harm.’

Many faithful Catholics are aware of the high price Cardinal Burke is paying for his outspoken defence of the Faith. Not only has he confirmed that Pope Francis plans to demote him from his senior position as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, but he is being publicly vilified by self-appointed ‘defenders’ of Pope Francis. Cardinal Burke, and his allies among the cardinals, have been branded ‘rigorists’ and ‘fanatics’ who worship the idol of clarity and unity of doctrine. What has been seen as a virtue in Catholic bishops for two thousand years is now being ridiculed as a vice.

This demonization of faithful cardinals and bishops following the Extraordinary Synod reminds me of St Athanasius’ description of the fate of Orthodox Catholic bishops, including himself, at the hands of Arian heretics when they seized power in the Church:

‘And they who are zealous for the truth, however holy and pure they show themselves, are yet, as I said before, made culprits; whenever these heretics choose, and on whatever pretences it may seem good to them to invent.’

In fact, instead of blackening the names and reputations of cardinals such as Raymond Burke, these venomous attacks reveal to faithful Catholics those cardinals who we can trust to be ‘zealous for the truth’ in this battle between the desert of sin and the garden of grace.