In the face of concerns that after the Synod on the Family pastoral innovations could be introduced that are inconsistent with Church doctrine and thereby foster disunity in the Church, it’s worth recalling a speech Cardinal Raymond Burke made in Rome shortly before the current synod got underway.

Speaking at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome Sept. 30, the patron of the Knights of Malta underlined not only the Church’s two millennia teaching on marriage, but also reminded those present of the true purpose of synods in preserving doctrine and discipline.

Synods, he stressed, have “no authority to change doctrine and discipline”, adding that their nature is stated clearly in canon 342 of the Code of Canon Law, which he went on to quote:

“The Synod of Bishops is a group of Bishops selected from different parts of the world, who meet together at specified times to promote the close relationship between the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops. These Bishops, by their counsel, assist the Roman Pontiff in the defense and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline. They also consider questions concerning the mission of the Church in the world.”

The Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Burke added, is therefore “not convened by the Roman Pontiff to suggest changes in the doctrine and discipline of the Church, but rather to assist the Roman Pontiff in safeguarding and promotion of sound doctrine concerning faith and morals, and in strengthening the discipline for which the truths of faith are experienced in practice.”

Furthermore, he said it is “important to remember” that the canon itself is taken from Blessed Paul VI’s 1965 Motu Proprio Apostolica sollicitudo, issued at the end of the Second Vatican Council.

He said the decree and the rules that they put into practice state clearly that the Synod “exists to foster communion in the Church, giving the Roman Pontiff a particular institution [Synod of Bishops] so he can receive the help of the episcopate scattered around the world in his Petrine service”.

Also referring to the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Burke stressed the Synod of Bishops is a “privileged instrument” serving the “very delicate” relationship between the Pope and bishops. He stressed that, even though there is no time to do so now, “it’s important to study in depth” the original purpose of the Synod of Bishops, “to avoid harmful distortions to the universal Church.”

Going to the peripheries, as the Holy Father often asks, also means reaching the “high standard of ordinary Christian living,” according to the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, Cardinal Burke said. The synod, therefore, has the task of “suggesting ways for the Church to be more faithful to the truth about marriage and the family, contained in “the Gospel and the living Tradition.”

The Church and the Synod, Cardinal Burke went on, must therefore “give special attention to the sanctity of marriage, fidelity, indissolubility and procreativity of the matrimonial union,” he said.

Christian family life in today's culture is “necessarily a sign of contradiction,” he added.  “The Synod must be the occasion for the universal Church to give inspiration and strength to Catholic couples for their testimony to the truth of Christ, which our culture so desperately needs.”

He therefore stressed that the meeting “must be a help to the Christian families in being, according to the ancient description, the domestic Church, the first place where the Catholic faith is taught, celebrated and lived.”

The faithful, living in difficult marriages, he said, “should enjoy the special attention of the Church which, in imitation of the Saviour, proclaims to them the truth of Christ and brings to them the grace of Christ to live faithfully and generously the vocation to marriage to the end.”

The cardinal also discussed canonical problems related to streamlining annulments, as well as reiterating his serious concerns about Cardinal Walter Kasper’s thesis on readmitting civilly remarried divorcees to Holy Communion.

He concluded: “We live in a time in which the marriage is under really fierce attack, trying to tarnish and sully the sublime beauty of the married state that God wanted from the beginning, from creation.”

Divorce, he said, “has become very common”, as has the wish to remove from the conjugal union its “procreative essence”.

The culture, he added, “has gone even further in its affront to God and His law, claiming to give the name of marriage to sexual relations between persons of the same sex. 

"Even in the Church,” he continued, “there are those obscure the truth of the indissolubility of marriage.

“There are also those who deny that married persons receive the special grace to live heroically faithful love, lasting and procreative, while the Lord himself assured us that God gives to married couples the grace to live their daily life, the mystery of their union According to the Gospel truth.”

In the current situation, Cardinal Burke said, the Church's witness to the splendor of the truth of marriage must be “clear and courageous.”

Stressing the need for respect for the legal aspect of marriage, Cardinal Burke said it is “impossible that the Church safeguards and promotes married life without observing justice” otherwise “to speak of love” has no meaning, “which is the essence of marriage, what St. Paul called a great mystery because it is a participation in the love of Christ, the Bridegroom, for the Church, His Bride.”