Have Synods Become Vehicles for Legitimizing Heterodoxy?

By looking back at the past two synods on the family and their fallout, as well as the upcoming October synod for young people, it’s possible to come to a conclusive answer.

Inside the Synod Hall during the meeting of bishops and cardinals on October 14, 2015.
Inside the Synod Hall during the meeting of bishops and cardinals on October 14, 2015. (photo: Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Up until this pontificate, Synods never used to be the overwrought affairs they are today. 

In fact, they used to be a joy to cover – they brought interesting Church leaders to Rome, were usually held in good spirits, and pretty much everyone was pulling in the same direction. 

That all changed with the synods on the family, and the reason, many argue, is because of pressure from heterodox theologians to steer the debate, with some urgency, in a direction they wanted the Church to go. 

So in this brief talk, I just want to report what I’ve witnessed, and reported on, to help you see if these meetings are, in fact, legitimising heterodoxy, or rather genuine instruments aimed at bringing the Church up to date, as the Second Vatican Council memorably pledged to do.    

But before I start, what is orthodoxy? The Catholic encyclopedia defines it as signifying “right belief or purity of faith,” and that “right belief” is “not merely subjective, as resting on personal knowledge and convictions, but is in accordance with the teaching and direction of an absolute extrinsic authority. 

This authority, the definition goes on to say, “is the Church founded by Christ, and guided by the Holy Ghost. He, therefore, is orthodox, whose faith coincides with the teachings of the Catholic Church.” 

G. K. Chesterton defined orthodoxy as “not only (as is often argued) the only safe guardian of morality or order” but also the “only logical guardian of liberty, innovation and advance.”  

Heterodoxy, on the other hand, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “deviation from accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs,” although it falls short of being heresy. I prefer to see it as a sort of “going along to get along with the world,” rather than standing up for the Church’s perennial teaching and Tradition at risk of opposition and persecution. Some of you might prefer to call it simply modernism. 

So I’ll begin by briefly looking at the nature of synods, some of what happened during the synods on the family and their outcomes, and then look ahead to the upcoming Synod for young people

Originally set up as a permanent institution by Pope Paul VI in 1965 to continue the spirit of collegiality and communion present at the Second Vatican Council, every Synod of Bishops is meant to provide counsel to the Holy Father in a manner that preserves the Church’s teaching and strengthens her internal discipline. 

Canon 342 states that synods are to assist the Roman Pontiff in the “defence and development of faith and morals and in the preservation and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline.” 

Church historian Cardinal Walter Brandmüller has often stressed that today’s synods are strictly speaking not actually synods at all but only consultative and advisory assemblies. They are not to be confused with pre-conciliar Synods, or Councils, that had supreme jurisdiction over the doctrine and life of the Church and could therefore decide on doctrinal matters. Also as a canon lawyer pointed out to me, it’s not as if prior to 1965, the College of Bishops weren’t already active. They had actually been very effective for centuries in disciplinary matters and in upholding orthodoxy.  

But all these points are often overlooked, and ignorance of them has undoubtedly been exploited, using the media as a means of promoting a false perception of these modern synods has having great import. 

On the face of it, many lauded the idea of two synods on the family as a legitimate attempt by the Church to better deal with the current crisis in the family that many agree is under attack.  

But that, arguably, isn’t what happened. From the start, it seemed to many that an agenda was being pushed. We had questionnaires given out by bishops but it was unclear who exactly was consulted, and there was a danger the responses would come from poorly catechized faithful or lapsed Catholics who often want to see the Church’s teaching softened or changed, especially in areas of human sexuality. 

We had Cardinal Walter Kasper’s opening speech a few months prior to the first synod, introducing his idea for giving Holy Communion to some remarried divorcees – certainly, according to some experts, a deviation from orthodoxy. 

Then we saw other efforts to force an agenda, documented in my e-book The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? To name a few: the mid-term report that tried to introduce acceptance of same-sex relationships by announcing it first to the media before the synod fathers – something propagandists call “preemptive framing”; the subtle engineering of the final document; and the book Remaining in the Truth of Christ that was obstructed from being given to the synod fathers.    

There was the clear stacking of the deck at both synods in favor of heterodox-leaning consulters and synod fathers, and the bringing into the second synod on the family the issue of Holy Communion for remarried divorcees, despite it not receiving the required 2/3 majority during the first synod and so, in theory, it should have been rejected. 

Many supportive of the changes brought about by the synods refute any accusation that the meetings have been used to smuggle in and “legitimize” heterodoxy. Instead, they say they are means of opening the Church up to new ways of thinking in order to better deal with the new and unique challenges regarding marriage, family and human sexuality facing many people today, and to deal with today’s challenges facing young people. The Church must get away from appearing merciless, authoritarian and out of touch, they argue, and so better evangelize and regain her credibility.  

But the question that keeps returning is, if that is the case, then why the documented underhand attempts to change the Church’s practice, and therefore, by implication, her teaching? 

True, synods have often used cajoling methods in the past, as I explain in my book, but they were always geared towards upholding orthodoxy. 

Cardinal Brandmüller perhaps put it best, when he told me in no uncertain terms back in 2015 that those behind the synod had “the aim to change the Church, to adapt it to modern thinking and public opinion.” 

He also had no doubt that ideological reasons lay behind their agenda. “They have no arguments,” he said, “no valuable arguments, against orthodox doctrine, — they don’t. Their argumentation is rather illogical and inconsistent. And as they see more, as they recognize their lack of solid arguments, they become aggressive and try to deceive.” 

That approach, it could be argued, carried over into the acrimonious debate that followed the publication of Pope Francis’ summary of synods: his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. 

Although, as many have pointed out, there is much to commend in the document in trying to enable the Church to get to grips with today’s devastation of the family in the West, critics say the strife and acrimony that has ensued over the text, namely regarding Chapter 8 of the exhortation, shows more clearly than not that efforts to impose heterodoxy were attempted. 

They point out that passages drew, and continue to draw, some strong and enduring expert resistance from large sectors of clergy and laity alike. As one key critic told me recently:

“We’re talking here of an opposition of vast numbers of practicing and committed Catholics and learned clerics and theologians who are also up against various kinds of strong and cruel pressure, or sheer persecution, risking even their jobs, as was the case of the philosophy professor Josef Seifert. Many others stay silent out of fear, but think exactly as those more courageous ones.” 

The dubia are of course the most prominent example of this kind of resistance, an attempt to have the Pope clarify various the central tenets of infallible and unchangeable Catholic moral teachings that many believe the papal document appears to call into question or contradict. 

Several expert critics have argued that if Amoris Laetitia simply intended to teach what the Catholic Church has always taught, this could have been made perfectly clear by simply restating the Church’s traditional teaching in a clear and unambiguous manner. 

One method could have been to quote from one of the many ecclesiastical documents that has already dealt with this area, not just John Paul II’s exhortation Familiaris Consortio but pre-conciliar documents. But Amoris Laetitia only makes two — what critics call “marginal” — references to Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on marriage, Casti Connubii.  It’s interesting to note, by contrast, that in Casti Connubii, Pius XI warmly and respectfully refers to Leo XIII’s encyclical on Christian Marriage promulgated 50 years earlier. Pius wrote: 

We follow the footsteps of Our predecessor, Leo XIII, of happy memory, whose Encyclical Arcanum, published fifty years ago, we hereby confirm and make Our own. And while We wish to expound more fully certain points called for by the circumstances of our times, nevertheless we declare that, far from being obsolete, it retains its full force at the present day.”

For the managers of the synod on the family, however, Familiaris Consortio was already out of date after just 30 years.  

Critics of Amoris Laetitia point to a number of areas of heterodoxy, some would say heresy, in the document — subtle attempts to change the Church’s teaching on human sexuality but also on morality in general. These were specified in a letter 45 Catholic academics sent to the Dean of the College of Cardinals in 2016 requesting the Pope repudiate a list of 8 erroneous propositions, many of which you’re probably already aware. 

As a reminder of some of these errors: the statement that “no one can be condemned forever because that’s not the logic of the Gospel”; or “[It] can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace,” or paragraph 301 which appears to suggest there are cases when God can be asking a person, in a particular situation, to do to something that is objectively wrong – a clear example, some critics say, of situational ethics, condemned by John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor – a document, by the way, never mentioned in the exhortation, despite many believing it to be highly pertinent to family and morality.

Despite these and other errors, it should also be said that other theologians and prelates believe the document can and should be read in continuity with the Church’s teaching. Pope Francis said so just this week, in a letter to British author Stephen Walford, insisting there is no rupture with past teaching. 

But he doesn’t really specify how, won’t meet the remaining dubia cardinals, won’t give interviews to media who try to uphold orthodoxy, nor meet his cardinals before cardinal-making consistories. If he’s convinced of the orthodoxy of his positions, people ask, why the reticence to defend them in public?

I would also add that the ambiguity and the heated debate over questionable passages further point to efforts made to introduce heterodoxy. 

Paragraph 305 is seen by some as particularly serious as it gives an erroneous understanding of the natural law, stating that the natural law is not “an already established set of rules that impose themselves a priori on the moral subject; rather, it is a source of objective inspiration for the deeply personal process of making decisions.

The natural law, say critics such as Matthew McCusker of Voice of the Family, is real and objective, not merely a source of “inspiration” for a “deeply personal process of making decisions”. Another theologian I spoke to said such a paragraph leads one to suspect the mere notion of a “rule”, as if it were not true or needed. 

“Think of the pernicious implications of such a state of mind for the average faithful,” he said. “At best, this would be highly misleading and uncharitable for those souls, but it's far more serious than that, since, as some contend, it is in itself an erroneous statement over a grave subject.”

Voice of the Family and others have warned that the abolition of the concept of an immutable natural law has been at the heart of the radical agenda pursued over the last two years and that Amoris Laetitia confirmed this, if it didn't actually propel it. As one critic close to the synod pointed out to me, it leads one to ask:

“Why produce this document containing such novelties at all, if not to propel them ideologically against traditional and true teaching, creating a new state of mind, gradually oblivious to Catholic moral teaching and gradually amenable to radical change? This has been happening since ambiguity and new language became dominant during and after Vatican II.”

Then, of course, there’s the famous footnote 351 that allows, in certain cases, the help of the sacraments even for those living in an objective situation of sin but for which, as the document says, they may not be subjectively culpable – a concept at the centre of much contention, since repentance is needed and the ceasing of the sin for one to receive absolution validly and to resume a state of grace, and thus be then able to access Holy Communion. 

The Pope issued a rescript, formally supporting such a teaching as proposed in guidelines issued by bishops in Buenos Aires. A senior Vatican official I spoke to, soon after it was issued, was gravely alarmed by its lack of any mention of drawing on sacred scripture and 2000 years of apostolic tradition, as is usual for such decisions. Incidentally, the same omission was a criticism of the Pope’s recent rescript regarding the death penalty.  

It might be helpful here to compare Amoris Laetitia to the teaching of Casti Connubii

Pius XI gives a robust defense of the Church’s teaching throughout the encyclical, reinforcing the magisterium against the prevailing errors of the time. He offers a long exposition on the beauty and meaning of marriage, doesn’t hold back from calling out the culture, and makes frequent references to God, His Commandments and the Gospels.

It’s interesting to compare Amoris Laetitia’s paragraph 35 in this regard. That paragraph states: “There is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor is it helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.”

Proponents argue that this is how one must deal with today’s deeply broken society; critics on the other hand see this as just another attempt to legitimise heterodoxy. It amounts to a “refusal to teach,” they say, and seems to be an “abdication of authority.”

Certainly, paragraph 3 of Casti Connubii, takes quite a different approach. Pius XI refers to the Petrine Office as casting a “paternal eye” on the world as if “from a watch-tower.” He writes: “In Our office as Christ's Vicar upon earth and Supreme Shepherd and Teacher We consider it Our duty to raise Our voice to keep the flock committed to Our care from poisoned pastures and, as far as in us lies, to preserve it from harm.” 

He was especially referring to how men have forgotten the divine work of redemption and so rely on “false principles of a new and utterly perverse morality,” trampling the great sanctity of Christian marriage “underfoot.”  

To highlight another contrast: In paragraph 52 of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes: “We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage.” The teaching against any same-sex relations, however, is simply not stated or reiterated and some have pointed how same-sex unions are nonetheless classified as “family situations” even if they cannot be equated with marriage.  

In Casti Connubii, the issue of same-sex relationships doesn’t, of course, arise, but there’s no doubt about its orthodoxy when it comes to non-marital, illicit unions. Paragraph 34 states that either it is a “true marriage, in which case it carries with it that enduring bond which by divine right is inherent in every true marriage; or it is thought to be contracted without that perpetual bond, and in that case there is no marriage, but an illicit union opposed of its very nature to the divine law, which therefore cannot be entered into or maintained.”

And Pius XI prophetically warns of those who strive for a “middle course”, i.e, one which believes that something “should be conceded in our times as regards certain precepts of the divine and natural law.” Such people, he says, are more or less wittingly “emissaries of the great enemy who is ever seeking to sow cockle among the wheat.” This, of course, was also the teaching of Pope St. Pius X who warned that middle courses are in fact a cherished weapon of modernism.

Frequently Pius XI repeats that doctrine of marriage and the indissolubility of marriage were not “instituted or restored by man but by God” and quotes four times Matthew Chapter 19 verse 6: "What God hath joined together let no man put asunder." 

And in paragraph 85, Pius XI presciently points out how, and I quote, “advocates of the neo-paganism of today… day by day, more and more vehemently… continue by legislation to attack the indissolubility of the marriage bond.” Although Amoris Laetitia frequently upholds the importance of the marriage bond, there is no reference to how it is under attack, and then capitulates by allowing some remarried divorcees access to the Sacraments — a step which critics say makes a mockery of the marriage bond and of the Sacraments. 

One last point to note on this is that whereas Amoris Laetitia largely quotes from bishops’ conferences, 20th intellectuals favored by Pope Francis, post conciliar popes, and a few — what some Dominicans say are misused — references to St. Thomas Aquinas, Casti Connubii draws heavily on St. Augustine, Holy Scripture, the Gospels, Leo XIII, and references to St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas, St. Robert Bellarmine, and the Council of Trent. It also quotes the apostolic constitution of Innocent X, 1653, against Jansenism, condemning the assertion put forth in Amoris Laetitia that “some of God's commandments cannot be observed by just men with the strength they have in the present state, even if they wish and strive to observe them; nor do they have the grace that would make their observance possible.”

Let’s move on now to this October’s synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment. 

The working document which came out earlier this year is revealing in that, although it contains many laudable references to real challenges facing today’s young faithful, it has also caused alarm by what it also includes. Could the laudable references also be a ploy to cover a gradual drift towards legitimizing heterodoxy? Let’s have a look.

The document recognizes young people’s need for good role models, accompaniment and authentic discernment in seeking a vocation, confronting the cultural challenges of globalization, the importance of the family in formation and the universal call to holiness. 

It also emphasizes the need for catechesis, the practice of charity and for young Catholics not only to have a better understanding of the Church’s social doctrine but also to be active in politics. It further recognizes the detrimental effects of an absence of fatherhood, especially in the West, which can affect spiritual paternity. 

But it also refers to those young people who wish to move away from traditions because such traditions are “stuck in the past” or “out of 'fashion'”, while at the same time singling out other young people who “seek their identity by taking root in familiar traditions and striving to be faithful to the education they have received.” 

Also interestingly, perhaps reflective of today’s hyper-sexualised society rather than heterodoxy per se, the document is laden with references to sexuality (25 mentions in total, compared to Jesus who is referenced 17 times). 

In controversial passages which point to the synod being agenda-driven, it proposes that “many” young people believe “the question of sexuality must be discussed more openly and without prejudice.” It also uses the loaded acronym “LGBT” used by the homosexual movement — instead of what the Church has hitherto used (those “suffering same-sex attraction”) and appears to place heterosexual and homosexual couples on the same level while omitting to reassert the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” 

And although it mentions young Catholics who wish to uphold and deepen the Church’s teachings “despite their unpopularity,” the instrumentum laboris also highlights other young people who want Church leaders “to deal concretely with controversial issues such as homosexuality and gender issues,” which it says “young people already discuss freely and without taboos.” 

Nowhere is the Church’s teaching on these matters reinforced to counterbalance an overly free and all-round acceptance of disordered sexual practices, homosexual or otherwise. Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, said the reason the Church is engaging with members of the LGBT community is because “we are open. We don't want to be closed in on ourselves.”

In the Church, “there are many areas, there is freedom for people to express themselves — on the right, left, center, north and south — this is all possible,” he said, adding that “this is why we are willing to listen to people with different opinions.” 

He also said the term LGBT was used because it was “mentioned in the pre-synodal document” that came out of a pre-synodal meeting with young people in March, although  Diane Montagna of LifeSiteNews discovered that the LGBT term in fact wasn’t used in the pre-synodal document. (Some have also noted several disturbing pictures associated with the event, such as a girl wrapped in a rainbow flag, the emblem of the homosexual movement, published on the synod’s website).

The homosexual New Ways Ministry said the use of the acronym was an “intriguing” and important development that signified an “evolution” in the Vatican’s approach to LGBT issues. 

The document also states “international research shows that many young people face inequality and discrimination because of their gender, social class, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, geographical location, disability or ethnicity.”

Observers have noted that much of the input for the working document has come from multiple choice questionnaires given directly to young people, and which were skewed to create a desired response that would pave the way to a departure from Church principles on marriage and the family. 

The working document will serve to generate debate and talking points at the synod which the synod fathers will be free to accept or reject, but the concern is that an agenda and path towards heterodoxy regarding the Church’s teaching on human sexuality has already been set. 

Some believe this is simply the culmination of an agenda that’s been pushed since before Francis’ election: to legitimize not so much heterodoxy as homosexual relationships within the Church. 

Julia Meloni, writing recently on the upcoming synod in Crisis Magazine, pointed to the ghost of Cardinal Carlo Martini whose blueprint for today’s modern Church can be seen in many of the actions of this pontificate. Martini endorsed same-sex civil unions before his death, had always dissented from Humanae vitae, and also wanted to use young “prophets” to revolutionize the Church. He said it would “never occur” to him to “judge” homosexual couples.

A key figure behind the synods has been Archbishop Bruno Forte, a follower of the late cardinal, who wrote the infamous mid-term report at the synod on the family. But for this synod, Jesuit Fr. Giacomo Costa,  Vice President of the Martini Foundation, was handpicked by the Pope to help lead the synod as a special secretary and was a leading figure behind the instrumentum laboris.  Meloni points out that Fr. Costa’s writings have promoted same-sex couples’ struggle for “social and civil rights.” 

To add to these developments, last month the Pope chose four cardinals as present delegates. It was noticed that strangely all of them came from the periphery (Iraq, Burma, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea) and know little about challenges facing youth, which are arguably greatest in the West. Some think they were chosen because they are more likely to easily accept whatever agenda is finally pushed through, but on the other hand, the Church in the global south is often more conservative, so it’s hard to say. 

What does appear to be clear is that efforts seem to be in place to prevent traditional voices having any sort of a key influence, something critics of the synod say is likely to compromise and thwart the very spirit of so-called synodality.

It’s not all a bleak picture. Many of the young people who took part in the pre-synodal meetings were grateful for the experience: for the chance to dialogue with Church leaders and to be felt listened to. 

But as with the synods on the family, what is evident to even an impartial observer, is that many figures behind the meeting are in favour of an agenda, whether conscious of it or not. 

And that agenda appears to be to make the Church move with the times rather than move the times — to paraphrase Chesterton.  Or as a former Vatican official more darkly said to me: “To accept the poison of the times rather than to salt them, thus leaving souls easy prey to practices that rot the soul and compromise their eternal salvation.”

We also have the Synod on the Amazon to come in 2019 which looks set to tinker with priestly celibacy, and some continue to be concerned that the youth synod will be used to change Humanae Vitae on its 50th anniversary. 

From what I’ve discussed, I therefore think it’s safe to argue that synods under this pontificate have been attempts to introduce heterodoxy. When you put it together with comments from Church leaders such as Cardinal Pietro Parolin who said it represents a paradigm shift, it seems very clear. 

What remains unclear, given the rancor, hostility and opposition that has come from these synods, is whether the introduction of such heterodoxy has been legitimized. 

In the light of truth and faith, heterodoxy can never be truly legitimized, but it can be perceived to be approved in the eyes of the general public, helped in large part by the mainstream media which is rarely, if ever, respectful of Catholic orthodoxy. 

That may be all the leaders of this push towards heterodoxy need and want, and on that score at least, they look to be succeeding. 

But I’d like to end on a hopeful note by quoting Timothy Tindal-Robertson, president of the World Apostolate of Fatima of England and Wales who asked that I pass on this message to you which I’ve shortened slightly: 

“We know,” he said, that “Our Lady will save the Church through the triumph of her Immaculate Heart, as she promised in the July apparition. What we do not know is how bad things will get up to the moment of her intervention,” because of the continued failure to live the message of Fatima and failure of bishops to promote it. 

He therefore advises doing what Our Lady instructed: reciting the daily Rosary, praying, doing penance and offering up one’s trials, suffering and sacrifices, and trying to comply with her request for the 5 First Saturdays devotion in reparation for the blasphemies and ingratitude with which her Immaculate Heart is pierced.

If followed, he says, Mary’s message “cannot fail to deliver and raise up the Church, strengthen people’s faith and overcome current evils.” 

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Conference of Catholic Families in Dublin, Aug. 23, 2018