No change in doctrine from synod, say bishops

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

by Thomas Reese

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The bishops at the synod on the family will not change any doctrines, according to reports from the Vatican Press Office on the second day of their discussions.

On the floor of the synod, "there was no language whatsoever of a need to change doctrine," reported Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica who attended the closed sessions. Rather, the desire was "to repurpose what we know in a way that's accessible" to all.

"I didn't hear anything about changing doctrine, but I heard a great desire to deepen our understanding of doctrine," he told journalists.

Over and over again, journalists are being told there will be no change in doctrine.

Jesuit Fr. Bernard Lonergan, the great 20th-century expert in theological method, is turning over in his grave. Hearing such language, Lonergan would have said that the bishops are caught in classical mentality and have not moved into a historical consciousness.

What did he mean? Here, I confess I am no expert in Lonergan, having broken my head many times trying to read Theological Method, so if I don't get it quite right, don't throw me in the fire.

Oversimplifying, the classical mentality comes from the Greeks (Plato and Aristotle), who believed that the perfect is unchanging. If God is perfect, he is unchanging. Truth must also be unchanging.

A modern, historical consciousness recognizes that everything changes, even church teaching. The church's teaching on usury (interest) changed, the church's teaching on capital punishment has changed, and the church's teaching on religious liberty was changed at the Second Vatican Council.

The problem with most of the bishops is that they were taught in seminaries where the classical approach to theology was supreme and Lonergan was considered a heretic. This problem is not going to go away because more recent crops of priests were trained in seminaries that were stripped of non-classical theologians during the papacy of John Paul II.

As a result, the only way the synod is going to change anything is for the bishops to first convince themselves that they are not changing doctrine, only the way they are expressing it. Any announcement must begin with "As the church has always taught ... "

Pope Francis causes confusion to those with a classical approach to reality. He wants to look at facts. He even says that facts are more important than ideas, something that would be inconceivable on the lips of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis saw in his own country how ideologies of both the left and the right destroyed lives and harmed the poor. He has no patience with them.

Theological ideologies can do the same by imposing rules and regulations that are pastorally counterproductive. That is why he has asked the bishops to first talk about their pastoral experiences. Sharing their pastoral problems can lead bishops to a recognition that something must change even if they don't know how to explain it in their classical framework.

"Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent," the pope said at the opening Mass of the synod. "They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity."

Perhaps bishops, guided by the Spirit, should just discern better pastoral practices and then leave it to the theologians to explain why they are OK.

What we will see coming out of the synod is a desire to change the way the church speaks. Phrases like "living in sin," "a contraceptive mentality," and "intrinsically disordered" may be consigned to the historical dustbin. The bishops have come to understand that "to label people," explained Father Rosica, "does not help in bringing people to Christ."

Rather, the "law of graduality" is being rediscovered, which holds that people leading imperfect lives can grow closer to God over time. Thus, Cardinal Péter Erdő in his opening address to the synod spoke of looking at civil marriages and cohabitation not as totally evil but as realities that can have positive aspects to them.

"When these relationships are obviously stable in a publicly recognized legal bond," he said, when "they are characterized by deep affection, display a parental responsibility towards their offspring and an ability to withstand trials," then "they can be seen as a seed to be nurtured on the path towards celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage." 

Such an approach would not require a priest to tell a cohabitating couple to stop living together before they get married in the church. It might also help parents embrace their cohabitating children. 

We are still early in the synodal process, so it is much too early to predict how things will develop, but Francis has encouraged open discussion, which is essential to the development of pastoral theology and doctrine.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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