Of Humanæ vitæ and the approaching Synod on the Family

Ross Douthat and Msgr. Charles Pope have written blog entries pertaining to the approaching Synod and the anxiety it is provoking; Douthat’s piece follows up on his own New York Times column; Pope’s, in turn, on Douthat’s. 1 Some background will help before we get to them.

I. Phonegate

This fall, there will be a Synod of Bishops on “the family.” There has been growing delight on the left, and concern among everyone else (excepting those neo-ultramontanes who have blinded and deafened themselves to every concern about Francis) that the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is in the crosshairs. 2) “When Francis summoned cardinals to a recent session to prepare for [the Synod] …, he entrusted the opening presentation to [Walter Card. Kasper] … undoubtedly anticipating that Kasper would say something about readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to communion.” 3 Kasper predictably obliged, and with one exception, reaction was brutally negative—“[Camillo] Card. Ruini noted that some 85% percent of cardinals who spoke up after Kasper were against Kasper’s proposals.  [Ruini] opined of those who said nothing that perhaps they were simply ‘embarrassed.’” 4 Alas, the one high-profile exception was you-know-who, who promptly lauded it as a “beautiful and profound presentation.” 5

Against this backdrop, it was reported in late April that Francis had called an Argentinian woman whose irregular marital situation prevented her from receiving communion. He supposedly told her to go ahead. 6 The Vatican was invited to deny the story; two different spokesmen confirmed to two different outlets that the call had happened while refusing to comment on the content. 7 They instead complained that reporting was “confusing”—a preposterous posture insofar as they were not only in a position to eliminate any confusion, but were, indeed, being asked to do so. 8

One reaction might be to dismiss the allegations as absurd. A year ago, I would have; I would have urged caution, urged that a pope deserves the benefit of the doubt. 9 But it is not now a year ago—it is now, and our response to this has to take into account what we have seen over the last year:

The pope doesn’t just call people! Well, except… this one has repeatedly “just called people” over the last year. 10

The pope probably didn’t make this call! Well, except… the Vatican seems to have confirmed that he did.

The pope wouldn’t make so stupid and scandalous a comment! Well, except… this one has made a habit of making stupid and scandalous comments. 11

The pope wouldn’t do this particular thing! Well, except… this one effusively praised Kasper’s proposal that the Church do on large scale precisely what this call seems to have just done on an individual scale.

The pope wouldn’t do something so weird and passive-aggressive! Well, exceptthis one does. 12

Tellingly, the Vatican did not say “the allegations are frankly absurd, and the holy father said no such thing,” which is what one might expect if you-know-who said no such thing. I should imagine the Holy See should deny such a story as swiftly as the Clinton White House might have denied a story that Clinton had called a woman and had phone sex with her. 13 (Imagine that the Clinton WHPO, when asked, confirmed that the call took place, but, instead of denying the allegation as to content, said that it was private!)

No one supposes that this phone call changes church teaching, but, I argued (and maintain), is the scandal of it not troubling enough? Once the story became public, failure to drop the hammer on it swiftly and firmly allowed it to create scandal because there are many people who will cleave to Francis’ example over the Church’s teaching. They will deem such a dichotomy possible and legitimate, and they will conclude that the pope has “finally changed” the church’s “policy” on “divorce.” Father Dwight Longenecker—in a piece otherwise defending Francis, and so perhaps unwittingly—hit the nail on the head:

The bottom line for ordinary parish priests who are struggling with church discipline and the realities of marriage in modern life is that the secular press’ interpretations of the Pope’s actions become the new standard. 14

Quite. No matter how unwilling many people are to believe that Francis did this, their number and the intensity of their desire pales next to those who are very willing to believe it because they desperately want the church to accept their situation as regular. Francis didn’t change the teaching on marriage—but he didn’t change the rubric for the Mandatum, either, and yet, behold, his actions on Maundy Thursday are used to justify rubrical disobedience. In the same way, those who think the Church’s teaching is wrong, those who are desperate because of their own irregular marital situations, will gladly understand this as cover. 15 They will not seek to remedy their situation, they will not confess it, and they will compound the situation by receiving communion in a state of mortal sin. 16

II. Douthat and Pope

Francis’ praise for Kasper’s borderline-heretical and radioactive proposal, and indeed his very indulgence of the debate, were worrying enough, but the revelation of “the phone call” was the alarm call that should have woken everyone. It woke Douthat, who, in his original piece, destroyed the Vatican’s frivolous attempt to classify the call as a private action of no relevance to doctrine, and astutely proposed that we are risking “what you might call the late-Soviet scenario, in which Catholic doctrine is officially unaltered, but the impression grows that even the pope doesn’t really believe these things, and that when the church’s leaders affirm a controversial position they’re going through the ideological motions … and not actually trying to teach a living faith.” If that impression takes root (regardless of you-know-who’s actual, private intentions), souls will be lost.

In his follow-up, Douthat clarifies his concerns for a non-Catholic audience. 17 He points out that “what’s being proposed and discussed and debated … [is an] official mechanism whereby a divorced and remarried Catholic could, without having their previous marriage declared invalid, do penance for any sins involved in their divorce and then receive communion without their new marriage being a moral impediment to [communion].” For Douthat, “it is very hard … to understand how this kind of change wouldn’t create some pretty significant internal problems for Catholic doctrine as currently and traditionally understood,” and he recognizes that if Francis approved such a change, he “would be either dissolving important church teachings into what looks to me like incoherence, or else changing those same teachings in a way that many conservative Catholics believe that the pope simply cannot do….” And vitally, he further recognizes—he may even be the first to have said so publicly—that even if it is unlikely that Francis will do so, “it is being debated with his apparent encouragement, so the possibility has to be addressed….”

Msgr. Pope is unwilling to address the possibility. His post insists that the teaching is clear, and that it is not going to be changed. In comments, he says that we must not address the possibility, that we must trust the Holy Spirit. “For a little evidence,” he says, “go back to 1968 and everyone expects the Pope to cave on contraception. The ‘majority report’ of theologians urge him, priests and bishops are urging him. Everyone presume[s] the change is imminent. To almost everyone’s surprise Paul VI … had to say ‘No.’ Whatever Pope Francis’ personal practices of the past, when it comes time for him officially rule on the matter and write the synod exhortation, he will not, he cannot teach error in this regard.”

Six or twelve months ago, I would have said something similar. I am less and less optimistic about that, but let us set that aside and stipulate that Msgr. Pope is right. I agree that the parallel is apt, but I’m not sure that the Church’s scandalous dithering over contraception in the 1960s is entirely reassuring. Francis is heading for a “Humanæ vitæ moment,” I want to agree, and have said so, 18 but that’s not reassuring. Humanæ vitæ was catastrophic. Not because it was wrong, mind you, but because its effects were magnified by the Church’s failure to squelch the idea that it would say something else. It was “met with ‘bitter contestation’ from entire groups of bishops and was disobeyed by ‘countless faithful’” because it came only after the Church’s failure to clearly say “no” in a time in which anticipations created a “‘driving crescendo of anticipations of change.’” 19 When it came down, then, those who most wanted the change were not only wounded, they were able to convince themselves that disobedience was warranted because the decision was not only painful, it was illegitimate and wrong: everyone knew that the Church was about to change, and that everyone wanted the change, so what in God’s name was Paul doing?

On standard ecclesiastical assumptions, the Bishop of Rome will not teach error, period, 20 and on those assumptions, it follows that after the Synod, you-know-who must issue a postsynodal exhortation that is analogous to Humanæ vitæ insofar as it will reaffirm the Church’s teaching in the face of massive expectation of a different outcome. So: What happens when a freight train traveling at speed hits an immovable object? In the 1960s, the Church allowed lay opinion to get up to a dangerous speed down a track that led to an unacceptable result. In the end, as Msgr. Pope says, Paul did not actually teach error—but he was silent for too long, in an era in which the truth was openly challenged, and when he finally bestirred himself to teach the truth,  it was too late. The fallible part of the Church had already done the damage. The train was already in motion, and when Paul installed crash buffers with Humanæ vitæ, the result was a violent derailment that scars the Church to this day.

Now you-know-who is repeating the same mistake. There is nothing pastoral about letting people believe that an intimate and painful teaching is about to change when it isn’t. There is nothing merciful about all-but inviting people who are already hurting to go into schism. If our ecclesiastical assumptions are right, the expectations that Francis has raised, the hopes that he has raised or allowed to be raised, are going to crash into the buffers and violently derail at high speed, just like the hopes that were raised before Humanæ vitæ. 21 For many people, it will be unbearably-painful. Francis will (as Msgr. Pope says) suffer for it, just as Paul suffered for Humanæ vitæ, but in the end, it’s the Church that will be worse for it, just as she was after Humanæ vitæ. 22

What Paul should have done was apply the brakes years sooner. He should never have let the train get moving, and if it was moving before his election, he should have stopped it at the very first opportunity while there was still time to do so gently. It’s sterile to talk about what Francis should have done differently, but what he should do now, and the sooner the better, is to stop this train. Right now. Gently if possible, forcefully if not. Expressly and personally reaffirm the teaching, cancel the Synod, excommunicate Cardinal Kasper—a better-looking idea with each new day—and depose the renegade German prelates. Because with every passing day, it picks up more speed and the crash will be worse. The salient lesson of Humanæ vitæ, it seems to me, is not that the magisterium was preserved from teaching error, but that the Holy Spirit was pleased to rescue the Church from error only after every human element failed.

* * *

Tempers snapped so violently when Paul reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on contraception because hopes had been stretched so very taught in anticipation of change; as we reflect today on the run-up to the synod, as we consider that hopes are being stretched ever-taughter in anticipation of a change that cannot, will not come, we must surely foresee a violent reaction. And the more that you-know-who ups the anticipation that he’s about to apostatize on divorce, the more pain and disenchantment and blowback he will create when (or if) he affirms the traditional teaching.

When or if? I must admit that the last year has beaten Msgr. Pope’s optimism out of me. I applaud Douthat for being frank and honest enough to raise the possibility of catastrophic consequences; he sees clearly that “the church’s claim to a constant, non-contradicting authority lies close to the heart of why many conservative Catholics are conservative Catholics.” He’s right. If the Church of Rome apostasizes, there will be a very serious argument that the premise for my being Catholic will stand falsified. 23 The fact that she is even flirting with apostasy is scandalous and distressing enough! But if she actually does it, I may have to face the possibility that the Catholic Church is not what I thought she was. So will you.

That said, the Synod is unlikely to do anything cleanly and clearly, and this pope is incapable of it, so I think it unlikely that I will wake up one morning to discover in the newspaper that I have been wrong all along; whatever comes out of the Synod will probably have to be weighed and disentangled. There are certainly proposals that could come out of it that would be stupid, dangerous, pastorally unacceptable, and yet not actually heresy. 24 But I think we need to start thinking about the possibility. Everyone sees where this is going, the direction we are being dragged, and there seems little that we can do to stop it. So we have to start considering, as Douthat wisely does, what the world looks like the day after a postsynodal exhortation endorsing the Kasper proposal is handed down, lest we be blindsided. We have to start thinking about what can be said to calm the storm thus unleashed to allow the weighing and disentangling just mentioned, because if anything seems certain, it is that what comes out of the Synod will be less straightforward than it appears at first blush.

As Msgr. Pope recognizes, the Church cannot change this teaching. So what, then, will we do if the Synod makes a mushy, vague recommendation of “mercy” (=change) and Francis writes a mushy, vague endorsement of “mercy” (=change)? That seems the most likely outcome and we know what will be done with such statements “on the ground,” as Fr. Longenecker recognizes. If the Church is what she claims to be, she cannot do this. If she does do this, what will we then think?


  1. Douthat, More Catholic than the Pope, NY Times Blogs, April 29, 2014, http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/more-catholic-than-the-pope/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0; Douthat, The Pope’s Phone Call, The New York Times, April 26, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-popes-phone-call.html; Pope, The Church Cannot Change Her Doctrine on Marriage and Divorce: Concerns for the Upcoming Synod, Archdiocese of Washington Blog, May 4, 2014, http://blog.adw.org/2014/05/the-church-cannot-change-her-doctrine-on-marriage-and-divorce-concerns-for-the-upcoming-synod.
  2. Cf. Ed Peters, Let’s understand what’s at stake, In the Light of the Law, Dec. 12, 2013, http://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/lets-understand-whats-at-stake. As this post goes to press, Edward Pentin reports that Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, the secretary-general of the Synod, and thus, as Father Zuhlsdorf astutely observes, a man positioned to skew the proceedings of Synod, “says he wants a change in Church teaching on marriage,” that “it is time to update Church marriage doctrine, for example in connection with divorce, the situation of divorcees and people who are in civil partnerships.” Edward Pentin, Synod Secretary General Wants Change in Church’s Teaching on Marriage, The National Catholic Register, May 7, 2014, http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/sec.-general-of-synod-wants-change-in-churchs-teaching-on-marriage; Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, What is Card. Baldissieri up to?, May 8, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/05/what-is-card-baldissieri-up-to/ . Nevertheless, the characterizations are Pentin’s, and it is not yet clear what Baldisseri said.
  3. See John Allen, Fracas over divorce stirred by call from the pope, The Boston Globe, April 25, 2014, http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/world/2014/04/25/fracas-over-divorce-stirred-call-from-pope-francis/jooLklqtjP90teJpEk7drM/story.html?rss_id=Top-GNP .
  4. Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, Secret Consistory: How did other Cardinals react to Card. Kasper’s proposals?, WDTPRS, March 26, 2014, http://wdtprs.com/blog/2014/03/secret-consistory-how-did-other-cardinals-react-to-card-kaspers-proposals); see, e.g., Edward Pentin, Criticism Mounts Over Cardinal Kasper’s Speech on Divorce and Remarriage, National Catholic Register, March 25, 2014, http://www.ncregister.com/blog/edward-pentin/criticism-mounts-over-cardinal-kaspers-speech-on-divorce-and-remarriage; Robert Fastiggi, A Reflection on Cardinal Kasper’s Speech on the Family, Zenit, March 12, 2014, http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/a-reflection-on-cardinal-kasper-s-speech-on-the-family .
  5. Transcript: Pope Francis’ March 5 interview with Corriere della Sera, CNA, March 5, 2014, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/transcript-pope-francis-march-5-interview-with-corriere-della-sera
  6. See generally Allen, supra note 4.
  7. See Daniel Burke, Pope stirs Communion debate with call to woman, CNN Belief Blog, April 23, 2014, http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/04/23/popes-stirs-communion-debate-with-call-to-woman; Vatican: Francis phone call doesn’t mark a change in Church teaching, April 24, 2014, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/04/24/vatican-francis-phone-call-doesnt-mark-a-change-in-church-teaching. It was interesting watching the evolution of the neo-ultramontane spin on the story. First, they insisted that the call never happened. Then the Vatican confirmed it and the neo-ultramontanes said that we still can’t be sure, that the confirmation was ambiguous. Then the Vatican gave a second confirmation, and it became futile to deny the obvious. Thus defeated in spin 1, they next insisted that the call didn’t involve the alleged content. But in light of the Vatican’s refusal to deny the content of the call, which amounted to confirmation, it seems futile to deny the obvious.
  8. Doubts increase over Pope’s alleged phone call on divorce, CNA, Apr 24, 2014, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/doubts-increase-over-popes-alleged-phone-call-on-divorce/ .
  9. When you-know-who was elected, Rorate coeli and many in its orbit went berzerk. They insisted that Jorge Card. Bergoglio had been an avowed foe of the usus antiquior. I defended him; the evidence tendered was scanty at best and a pope deserves a fair shot. So I did not start as a critic.
  10. See Allen, supra note 4 (“As he’s in the habit of doing, especially with people from his native country or his adopted home in Italy, Francis picked up the phone on Monday after reading the letter and called her” (emphasis added)); Andrea Gagliarducci, Pope Francis calls a traditionalist writer who criticized him, CNA, Nov. 23, 2013, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-francis-calls-a-traditionalist-writer-who-criticized-him/ .
  11. “Who am I to judge”; “small-minded rules”; “stubbornly try[ing] to recover a past that no longer exists”; “we don’t want to change and what’s more there are those who wish to turn the clock back”; “we can’t be obsessed with abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives”; “I am a son of the church”; “[g]iven that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence”; “even the atheists, everyone!”; “sacristy christians”; “yes? does this sound good?”; “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent”; “I want people to make a mess.” These are just examples that spring readily to mind.
  12. Compare Allen, supra note 4 (noting that regardless of Francis’ apparent sympathy for a doctrinal change, “[i]f a substantial bloc of bishops argues against change in October’s meeting, it might induce Francis to stay his hand”), with Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, Pope says married men could be ordained if world’s bishops agree, The Tablet, April 10, 2014, http://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/659/0/pope-says-married-men-could-be-ordained-priests-if-world-s-bishops-agree-on-it .
  13. See generally Sandino, Parsing the Modern non-denial denial, Daily Kos, Jan. 25, 2014, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/01/25/1271623/-Parsing-the-Modern-Non-Denial-Denial-A-Field-Guide-to-Statements-of-the-Unindicted. Stories quickly gain legs when they reflect the existing narrative about a person. See Simon Dodd, Developing an idea, Stubborn Facts, April 21, 2007, http://stubbornfacts.us/politics/partisanship/developing_an_idea .
  14. Rev. Dwight Longenecker, Did Pope Francis Just Endorse Communion for the Divorced and Remarried?, Aleteia, April 24, 2013, http://www.aleteia.org/en/religion/article/did-pope-francis-just-endorse-communion-for-the-divorced-and-remarried-5781297871978496; accord, e.g., Sandro Magister, Francis, the Pope of “Humanae Vitae”, Chiesa, May 1, 2014, http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350783?eng=y (the Vatican’s rationalizations of Francis’ actions and words “do[] not attenuate their impact on public opinion”).
  15. Cf., e.g., Chris Mooney, What is Motivated Reasoning? How Does It Work?, The Intersection, May 5, 2011, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/05/05/what-is-motivated-reasoning-how-does-it-work-dan-kahan-answers/ .
  16. I want to suggest that there is another problem here. Not only does this pope scandalize and jeopardize the souls of those who will be mislead into thinking their marital situation is okay, it also occurs to me that there is a problem at the other end. I know at least one person who is so scandalized by this wretched pontificate that he is flirting with sedevacantism. I think that there are some people out there who cannot reconcile the stupid things that Francis says with their beliefs (often unexamined, neo-ultramontane, and erroneous) about the papacy, and they will reconcile that cognitive dissonance in the most straightforward, painless way, which will never be (of course) to examine and correct their mistaken beliefs about the papacy, it will be to simply declare that Francis is not or cannot be pope, thus lapsing into schism, which is very likely a mortal sin per se.
  17. The insult “more Catholic than the pope,” which Douthat invokes (presumably tongue-in-cheek) in his title, is incompatible with a familiarity with papal history. There have been many pontificates in which one could say with little fear of contradiction that most laymen were “more Catholic than the pope”; there is an era of papal history so depraved that it goes by the name of “the pornocracy”—google it—and you can infer what kind of men sat on the throne of Peter in that era. John XII seems to have been a murderer, fornicator, and gambler: A “coarse, immoral man,” says the Catholic Encyclopædia, “whose life was such that the Lateran was spoken of as a brothel, and the moral corruption in Rome became the subject of general odium.”  See generally John Julius Lord Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (2012). To paraphrase John Henry Card. Newman, be be in any way familiar with papal history is to cease being an unqualified ultramontane.
  18. E.g. http://wdtprs.com/blog/2013/10/i-find-your-lack-of-faith-invalidating/#comment-435128.
  19. Francis will not be prisoner to public opinion, CNA, May 4, 2014, http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/francis-can-stand-against-the-majority-vaticanista-says (quoting Magister, supra note 14).
  20. N.b., this is an assumption, and one with a significantly broader sweep than the Church’s formal teaching about the papal magisterium.
  21. Accord Magister, supra note 14 (“the decision will come at the end of 2015 or at the beginning of the following year, not before, under the formidable pressure of a public opinion that at that point is likely to be almost exclusively expecting a yes”).
  22. The pain caused by thwarted expectations left people too hurt to listen to what Paul eventually had to say. I would venture that few of the ex-Catholics who left over Humanæ vitæ has ever read it.
  23. See Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA 80 (2012); accord Dodd, Authoritative teaching, liturgy, and authority, 3 MPA __ (2013).
  24. For example, as we go to print, Card. Kasper has just told Commonweal that you-know-who believes that half of all marriages are not valid. Patrick Archbold, Kasper: Pope Thinks 50% of Marriages Not Valid, Creative Minority Report, May 7, 2014, http://www.creativeminorityreport.com/2014/05/kasper-pope-thinks-50-of-marriages-not.html. So that suggests one possibility that would, presumably, satisfy Msgr. Pope’s insistence that the Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble, and she cannot and absolutely will not going to change that teaching, for she will do no such thing: She will simply declare that most purported marriages weren’t actually
    marriages at all, and while they would be binding were they actually marriages,
    they aren’t. So that’s okay, right? Nothing to see here. Cf. Benedict XVI, Audience with the Clergy of Rome, Feb. 14, 2013, available at
    http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2013/february/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20130214_clero-roma_en.html (noting that the media’s portrait of the a council may be mistaken for the council itself).