by Deacon Nick Donnelly
We owe Pope Francis our gratitude for stirring up the mud laid down over the past fifty years and allowing the poisons to hatch out.....
When I was a teenager I didn’t miss an episode of the BBC Classic drama ‘I Claudius’ based on Robert Graves’ novels about the life of the Roman Emperor. Surrounded by scheming officials jockeying for position and by betrayal, Claudius refers to himself as ‘Old King Log’, a character in one of Aesop's Fables. In Graves’ version of the fable, Old King Log, at great personal cost, floats in a noxious pond to draw out all the bitterness and poisons in the Royal Court in order to return the pond to its pristine state of pure and sweet water. The Emperor Claudius says:
‘Yet I am, I must remember, Old King Log. I shall float inertly in the stagnant pool. Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.’ (Robert Graves, Claudius the God, p.391)
Re-reading the acts and documents of the Synod, and hearing the spin and expectations of Synod enthusiasts, it seems to me that we are now living through the time of ‘Old King Log’. The Extraordinary Synod has done the Church a great service by drawing out into the open for all to see the bitter divisions, wrongheaded thinking, vain egotism, and worldly compromise that have poisoned the Church during the aftermath of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. We owe Pope Francis our gratitude for stirring up the mud laid down over the past fifty years and allowing the poisons to hatch out. Though painful and distressing, this detoxification is necessary for the purification of the Church.
Challenging Heresy Helps the Church More Clearly Grasp the Truth
Fr Karl Rahner SJ, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, had some interesting things to say about the role of heresy in the Church that reminds me of the story of ‘Old King Log’. Rahner explains that heresy – deriving from the Greek for choice or preference – takes a truth of Christian faith out of the context of the whole of doctrine, thereby exaggerating, distorting, and misunderstanding it. Heresy, like Old King Log, serves a positive role in the Church because:
‘It is only by hearing contradiction and rejecting it as repugnant to her truth and her understanding of herself that the Church acquires a clearer grasp of her own truth’
(Karl Rahner, Concise Theological Dictionary, p. 207)
During the Synod we witnessed this process of the Church rejecting what was repugnant to her truth and her self-understanding, when a sizeable number of Synod Fathers rejected Archbishop Bruno Forte’s Relatio post Disceptationem. Forte’s report distorted the Church’s doctrine of salvation beyond recognition by focusing almost exclusively on God’s mercy and ignoring the deadly seriousness of man’s sin. According to Vatican observer John Thavis ‘At least one bishop asked what happened to the concept of sin. The word “sin” appears only rarely in the 5,000-word relatio.’
Cardinal Burke also explains how some of the Synod Fathers sought to rectify the serious implications of Archbishop Forte’s distortion and misunderstanding about sin:
‘Errors had to be corrected: for example, the one that positive elements can be found in sinful acts, such as cohabitation, adultery, or in sexual acts between persons suffering of the homosexual condition. This confusion was too grave.’ ‘How can one say that there are positive elements in an act which is gravely sinful, namely to engage in the marriage act when you’re not married? There can’t be any positive element to that. It’s against the divine, natural and revealed law.’
As a consequence of the Synod, we can now see clearly the danger of unbalancing the Church’s doctrine on salvation by over-emphasising God’s mercy to the point of laxity and downplaying the seriousness of sin to the point of omitting it. However, it is widely acknowledged that during the final week of the Synod faithful cardinals and bishops succeeded in regaining the Catholic balance between mercy and sin. Bishop Athanasius Schneider recently affirmed this:
‘Fortunately the Message of the Synod Fathers is a real Catholic document which outlines the Divine truth on family without being silent about the deeper roots of the problems, i.e. about the reality of sin.’
Unbalancing the Relationship between God’s Mercy and Man’s Sin
However, since the close of the Synod a number of bishops have been busy laying down markers for the 2015 Synod that again unbalance the relationship between God’s mercy and man’s sin. Cardinal Nichols has published his own written intervention at the Synod that contains this passage:
‘In describing the reality of our world we are surely called to rejoice ten times in all that we see as good and to comment only once on all that is a sign of our human failure. Our sins are widely felt and echo all too readily and strongly in our hearts. We do not need to be reminded repeatedly of our weaknesses.’
Following the logic of downplaying sin, according to the Voice of the Family Website, Cardinal Nichols at a press conference comes to the conclusion that a broken sacramental marriage ‘remains a source of grace’ for ‘remarried’ persons ‘as they carry on making the best of their lives with all sincerity and integrity’. Simply put, Cardinal Nichols is proposing that when a divorced and remarried couple commit the grave sin of adultery they receive grace from the original marriage they are betraying. This conclusion cannot be reconciled with the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage and the importance of fidelity.
The fact is that in the light of Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross in atonement for our sins, there are no grounds for such a downplaying of sin in favour of the worldly good in our lives. Rather, Scripture and Tradition are clear about man’s primary identity as sinner:
‘But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God’. (Romans 5:8-9); ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.’ (I John 4:10).
Pope Francis does not share Cardinal Nichols approach to sin but instead teaches that it is only when we honestly and openly acknowledge our identity as sinners that we encounter the mercy of God, ‘Look to your sins, to our sins, we are all sinners, all of us ... This is the starting point.’ The Holy Father even talks about the importance of feeling shame about our sins:
‘Don’t be one of the ‘”unashamed”, because they are people who do not have the ability to be ashamed and to be ashamed is a virtue of the humble, of the man and the woman who are humble and childlike before God’.
The Rise of the Unashamed
What we are witnessing seems to be a concerted effort to engineer a new version of Christianity that owes more to Person-Centred Counselling and Political Correctness than it does to Jesus Christ. Again, Karl Rahner is insightful here about the nature of heresy. He writes:
‘There are “secularizing” heresies, which retain more or less some formal structures of Christianity, but transpose them into attitudes and doctrines which are secular, i.e., without relation to God’.
(Sacramentum Mundi, vol.3. p.22).
Bishop Athanasius Schneider describes the secularising heresy exposed at the Synod as conforming to the insipid ‘neo-pagan spirit of this world’ with its ‘idols’ of gender ideology, second marriages and concubinage. Instead of Our Lord Jesus Christ ‘fully revealing man to man himself’ (Gaudium et Spes, 22) in this neo-paganism secular man, with his post-Freudian suppression of sin, guilt and shame, becomes the insipid measure of Jesus Christ.
The recommendation made at the Synod that the Church drops the moral language of ‘intrinsic disorder’, ‘living in sin’, and ‘contraceptive mentality’ has nothing to do with Christianity’s proclamation of God’s mercy. Instead it articulates the attitude of ‘unconditional positive regard’ fostered in person-centered counselling which rejects challenging and confronting immoral actions.
It appears that some bishops mistake ‘unconditional positive regard’ as expressing God’s mercy, forgetting that true love seeks to help us recognise that sinful choices are objectively harmful. A truly Christian understanding of mercy upholds the importance of challenging and confronting sinful behaviour to help people do good and avoid evil.
Fear of Causing Offence to Man but not to God
The endless positive affirmations about homosexuality and divorce and re-marriage reveal a ready deference to political correctness among some bishops. Political correctness rigorously stipulates that nothing must be said or written that upsets or offends certain groups prized by western liberalism, often those engaged in sexual activities that are gravely sinful. Therefore, Pope Leo XIII’s warning about the dangers of clergy conforming to secular values applies even more today:
‘You know the temper of the times—how many there are who love to live delicately and shrink from whatever requires manhood and generosity; who, when ailments come, discover in them sufficient reasons for not obeying the salutary laws of the Church, thinking the burden laid upon them more than they can bear. Among those whose principles are sound there are many who, through a misplaced timidity, are frightened, and have not the courage even to speak out their opinions boldly, far less to translate them into deeds; everywhere the worst examples are affecting public morals. Therefore those who speak to the people should lay it down persistently and clearly that according not only to the law of the Gospel, but even to the dictates of natural reason, a man is bound to govern himself and keep his passions under strict control, and moreover, that sin cannot be expiated except by penance.’