"As the Church has always taught...."

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

What is the synod on the family going to achieve? How are they approaching these issues that have, in advance of the synod, led to such seemingly stark differences of opinion among leaders of the Church?

A window into this was provided by a video interview with Cardinal Donald Wuerl at Catholic News Service. Here is the video. Commentary continues after it.



Three key elements emerge from the cardinal’s short commentary. First, and this should not be news to anyone with even a vague familiarity with the Second Vatican Council, there is a distinction between the doctrines of the Church and the application of those doctrines in current pastoral praxis. And, indeed, in the history of the Church, different doctrines receive attention for historical and cultural reasons, at the expense of other doctrines. As the sands of time shift, those latter doctrines are retrieved because changes in the lived experience of the Church require attention to them. Just as at Vatican II, so at this synod, there are those who conflate current praxis with particular doctrines, neglecting other doctrines, and insisting that nothing can change. As the cardinal indicates, if nothing can change, there would be no need for a synod. I am reminded of Blessed John Henry Newman’s observation: To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

Second, the praxis of the Church has changed. Not in my lifetime, but in the lifetime of my grandparents, there was a major change in the Church’s attitude towards the reception of Communion. Under the guidance of Pope Pius X, who was no liberal, the Church began promoting the frequent reception of Communion and lowered the age at which children can receive Communion. One unfortunate consequence, still to be addressed, is that lowering the age for First Communion muffed up the sequence of the sacraments of initiation, so that now children receive Communion before they are confirmed, which makes no sense. The Orthodox Churches baptize, confirm and give Communion to infants. None of this is from the mouth of the Lord. As Cardinal Kasper made clear, and as Pope Francis has echoed, we should resist the neo-Pelagian attitude that sees Communion as a reward for moral purity and, instead, see it as food for the journey. Indeed, in the context of the divorced and remarried, Holy Communion, which is itself a sacrament of mercy, may not only be permissible but essential.

Third, change comes from within the tradition, prompted by the pastoral experience of the Church. Think of the theological developments that led to Dignitatis Humanae at Vatican II. Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ did not turn to Locke in formulating his thesis, but to Gelasius and Bellarmine. Whatever you think of Murray’s thesis, and it has been receiving a much-needed critique in recent years, it was not the adoption of a secular agenda and baptizing it. Yes, the lived experience of the Church demonstrated to all but the most blind that the former understanding of the relationship between Church and State was unworkable, it did not persuade, and it brought real harm to the Church. And, so it changed.

As predicted here, if there is to be a consensus forged at this synod, and there will be, Cardinal Wuerl will be one of those most engaged in that formation. Why? Anyone who knows +Wuerl knows that he is not what you would call doctrinally lazy or unconcerned. And, as a pastor, he is not terrified by experience. Watch the video again and see how he uses the word experience without getting flustered or anxious, how he speaks of these issues as a pastor does, as a churchman does. Compare that with Cardinal Raymond Burke’s recent interview at Vatican Radio. He is only one paragraph into his second response and he is fretting about the “homosexual agenda.” It is funny the way these culture warrior prelates do not see how it is they, not churchmen like +Wuerl, who are beholden to a secular agenda. They continually take the bait and act and speak like politicians not pastors.

Let’s look at this issue of developing doctrine and changing pastoral practice as it relates to the “homosexual agenda” which has +Burke so exercised. For years, for centuries, the Church shared the biases of the ambient culture. Homosexuality was the sin that dare not speak its name and gay people were ostracized and worse. There was little in the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family that was crafted with even a thought to the existence of LGBT people and no obvious congruence between that teaching and the lived experience of gay Catholics. But, what the Church neglected for all those years was a core, foundational doctrine: All human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. This doctrine is, I dare say, even more foundational than the Church’s teaching on marriage, indeed, the Church’s teaching on marriage and all ethical issues is built upon the imago dei, but nobody, until our lifetimes, thought to apply this doctrine to the pastoral care of gays and lesbians.

What changed? First, the experience of HIV/AIDS. In the same way that the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin demonstrated to all the suffering and horror of slavery to people who knew little about it, the AIDS epidemic called forth the most basic Christian, humane sensibility: compassion. The Church’s pastoral response to the epidemic was in many cases magnificent. The sisters, always the healing hands of Jesus at work in the world, opened hospices and brought dignity to those who were dying, even when many in their own families stayed away. Cardinal James Hickey not only presided at the funeral of Fr. Michael Peterson, the first priest in the U.S. to publicly announce the cause of his death, +Hickey specifically linked Fr. Michael’s suffering with that of Jesus on the Cross in a few, breathtakingly powerful words at the close of that funeral. The Church has been, in a variety of ways from support for human rights to the fight for the dignity of the unborn, retrieving that core belief in the imago dei and now applies that belief to the pastoral care of gays and lesbians. That is what the couple from Australia evidenced in their presentation at the synod: He is our son. This is what the U.S. bishops undertook in their groundbreaking pastoral letter, Always Our Children. It is the people at LifeSiteNews and Cardinal Burke and his acolytes who are the ones who denigrate the doctrines of the Church when they continue to speak about gay people as if they were lepers.

There is an old joke that when the Church announces a change, the document always begins, “As the Church has always taught….” This is usually cited as a way to suggest that the Church is a bit cynical, even hypocritical. But, in fact, this is how change happens in the Church. “The Church has always taught” that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, we just forgot to apply that to gays and lesbians for a few centuries. The Church has always taught that Communion is the food of mercy, essential to the on-going conversion of all Christians, not just the divorced and remarried. No one is going to “change doctrine” at this synod, but the synod fathers are trying to retrieve lost insights, recalibrate the way our doctrines are applied in real pastoral praxis, discern new ways to proclaim the Gospel. The synod is evidence that the Church is alive and still attentive to the Holy Spirit, not only to the treatises on canon law. Those who are afraid of this synod – and of this pope – and the ones of little faith.  

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters