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Catholic Church returns to pluriformity of Vatican II


Session at Synod on the Family


It’s not often that Catholics get to see the processes of Church decision making made so transparent. The recent reports from the Synod on the Family have been a real eye-opener for those used to being presented with an ecclesial fait accompli, with all debate and discussion behind closed doors. Topics on which the Church has put a relatively uniform face, at least at an official level, now reveals a degree of pluriformity not heard since the days of the Second Vatican Council.

It would have been simply unimaginable for a bishop or cardinal to say something like the following during the pontificates of St John Paul II or Benedict XVI:

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners.

Yet this was published on the Vatican website as part of the interim relatio of the Synod. 

The backlash from more conservative elements has been quick. Cardinal Burke was so outraged that he publicly criticised the document. 

In relation to homosexuals he noted, 'First of all we don’t refer to people by their attraction to persons of the same-sex, calling people homosexual persons. That’s not their identity.' And on the question of homosexual unions he went on, 'It is impossible for the Church to say that homosexual relations have a positive aspect. How can we attribute a positive aspect to an unchaste act? That has to be clear.' 

Somewhat ironically he defined these relations in terms of 'an unchaste act' whereas the Synod document seemed to leave open the possibility that such acts do not define the 'identity' of the relationship, which may on other grounds have positive aspects, such as 'mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.' 

Still this is just one front that the Synod interim document has opened up for discussion. Premarital cohabitation, contraception, and the possibility of communion for those divorced and remarried have also been put onto the table for debate. This is a long way from the years when such open debate was actively discouraged and silenced. And this is not coming from a few 'liberal' theologians or 'ill-informed laity' who should know their place, but from bishops and cardinals, encouraged to speak freely by Pope Francis. 

Further each of these bishops and cardinals was appointed by either John Paul II or Benedict XVI. These were men chosen for their fidelity to the Church and its teachings, whose appointment was subject to significant scrutiny by the Vatican. If anything this establishes that trying to keep a lid on debates on sensitive topics does not stop people thinking, and given the opportunity, these men have spoken their minds, not read from a rehearsed script. 

Of course what many of these bishops are saying reflects attitudes already present within the Church. Those engaged in Catholic pre-marriage preparation programs report that the majority of couples coming to be married in the Church are already living together, and may well have children. Catholic use of contraception mirrors that of the general population, while attitudes to divorce and remarriage have shifted as so many families experience the reality of divorce somewhere in their families. Bishops in touch with their flocks know these shifts have occurred and are looking for a way forward to resolve the tensions they create. 

Some might point to the sensus fidei, a notion first explicated by John Henry Newman and given formal expression at Vatican II to argue for a shift in the Church’s teaching on all the matters under discussion. Still the sensus fidei is a slippery notion and it would be naïve for it to be reduced to an opinion poll. Even in the Church there is a tension between the empirical and the normative. 

On the other hand, there are other shifts the Church is capable of making. It is common for conservatives to say that Vatican II did not change any doctrines of the Church, as if to say, therefore nothing changed. But the Church’s identity is more than its doctrines. Without changing its doctrines, the Church radically changed its stance towards non-Catholic churches, towards other religions and towards the world at large. These changes shifted the Church’s identity not by changing its doctrines but by this shift in relationships. 

And so without changing its doctrines it simply stopped talking about non-Catholic Christians as schismatics and heretics and non-Christians as pagans and infidels. Such language we now find offensive, a faded memory of times past. Similarly some of the synod participants have called for a cessation of language now in use, such as 'intrinsically disordered' or 'living in sin.'

Undoubtedly there will be a push back as evidenced by the intervention of Cardinal Burke and other prelates. Where the final synodal process will end up is difficult to say. But in the meantime we are going through something not experienced since Vatican II, a Church willing to debate topics once felt long settled, without fear or favour. That in itself is remarkable and a reminder of the wide pluriformity of opinions present within the Church at all levels. And of course none of this would have been possible without the determination and openness of Pope Francis!


Neil OrmerodNeil 
Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University and a regular contributor to international theological journals. His latest book is Re-Visioning the Church: An Experiment in Systematic-Historical Ecclesiology.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, theology, Catholic Church, doctrine, gay, homosexuality, marriage, family



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Existing comments

I don't find the language of "heretics", "schismatics", "pagans","living in sin" etc at all offensive. Neither does the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It's calling a spade a spade, and is highly pastoral in the best sense of the word - saving souls from eternal damnation. What I find offensive is the hubris of liberals who have decided on the basis of no rational argument whatsoever that our Church with its councils, saints and doctors had got things so wrong for two thousand years until we arrived at the airy uplands of Post Vatican II in which the liberals hold sway.

HH | 17 October 2014  

One Giant Step for Man, One Small Step for (Catholic) Humankind.

Jennifer Herrick | 18 October 2014  

A response from Cardinal Pell

Father John George | 18 October 2014  

You might very well feel offended if that sort of language was directed at you, HH.

Ginger Meggs | 18 October 2014  

"I don't find the language of "heretics", "schismatics", "pagans","living in sin" etc at all offensive". Good grief, where to start? Well, HH, perhaps you wouldn't find them offensive because they weren't applied to you! The people they were applied to, on the other hand, might have had their feathers ruffled. I always describe my Catholic upbringing to others as learning that Christianity was about judging, punishing and excluding. And that is exactly the language that shows how I came to that understanding. HH, please remember that words can lead to actions, and well, it hasn't been pretty.

Russell | 19 October 2014  

Neil, I fear you are being over optimistic. I'm in Tuscany, and the press reports here yesterday said that on one of the contentious issues at the synod, two tables were in favour and five against. There were some undecided. I'm very pessimistic about the openness to change of most of the bishops with whom Wojtyla and Ratzinger stacked the episcopate. And just how will collegiality work to effect the changes many of us want to see if most of the bishops are settled into a resistant position? Francesco must live with a perpetual headache.

Joe Castley | 20 October 2014  

How come my image of Jesus is one of him embracing all those who are marginalized by society and church? Stand strong Pope Francis.

Patricia Taylor | 20 October 2014  

Guys it's too late. You can keep debating till the cows come home . Terrible damage has been done to countless people just in my life time. Just say sorry and get on with the change that is needed.
I saw the indigenous play "hip Bone Sticking Out" .factual evidence ,history itself concluded that John Pat died in custody in 1983, His mother and aunt were in the audience sobbing as his story was retold. Just one family plus the whole audience sobbing with the pain of inhuman practice and the death of one man. And the continuation of injustice. So many good Catholic men and women are denied access to a loving church because of their broken marriage ,or different sexual orientation, . And the stigma or feelings of belittlement from the conservative elements of our church communities. Admit it we are making huge mistakes .Fix it now.

Celia | 20 October 2014  

Two addenda worth noting. Cardinal Burke has confirmed he has been demoted from a relatively senior position to a much lower one in the Vatican hierarchy. Second, the final document of the Synod, though watered down, was passed by two third majority, except for three paragraphs, each of which still attained more than 50% of the votes. This is quite remarkable. The whole process has been made transparent by the decision of Pope Francis to publish the whole document and the voting figures. And as he has indicated, this is only the first phase of a process to be brought to conclusion next year.

Neil Ormerod | 20 October 2014  

I am afraid HH appears to be living in an age where prejudicial and judgemental labelling of "the other side" (whether Catholic or Protestant) was the norm. This has as much a psychological as any other base. The Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants left a horrific legacy, not just of bloodshed and barbarism, but of deep, ingrained residual bitterness and hate. The straightforward Protestant version of HH's confessional prejudice is seen in Charles Kingsley's "Westward Ho" where Catholics and Jesuits are not seen in a particularly good light, in fact they are the enemies of England and Anglicanism. Catholicism is seen as barely, if, Christian. Catholic contemporaries of Kingsley's (bear in mind this is the 19th Century) would return the compliment. Sad, terribly sad. The real "problem" for Christianity in the contemporary West (that includes Italy and Australia as well as most of the other Anglophone countries) is that, in its traditional Catholic and Protestant forms, it's dying. The only churches growing are the Pentecostal and Evangelical ones. Playing ostriches and pretending we are back in the good old days of Daniel Mannix is both incredibly stupid and counterproductive.

Edward Fido | 20 October 2014  

Pope Francis is joyful, pastoral, clever and courageous; and people love him for it. His relentless insistence on dignity for all puts him in the company of Christ, and also in the firing line. Like Christ, he stays on the way. God bless him and keep him.

Fiona Dyball | 20 October 2014  

Pope Paul VI spoke of “the smoke of Satan” having entered the Church and Pope Francis speaks of the Devil “often disguised as an angel” who “slyly speaks his word to us.” We should pray that the Pope has the wisdom to discern the Devil’s always plausible sounding arguments and seductive appeal.

Ross Howard | 20 October 2014  

So Mr Fido resorts to gratuitously labelling HH as "judgmental" and "prejudicial"[potential for "deep, ingrained residual bitterness and hate."]

Name | 20 October 2014  

A few years ago Fr Bill Grimm MM wrote a very insightful little article in UCANews on the authentic criterion by which Vat II should be interpreted. Grimm pointed out that by Council's end, 2800 bishops had debated, compromised and authored and approved its documents. They were largely prepared to leave many of these documents ambiguous compromises. They knew what the intentions of the Council were and they had the authority to implement them on the return to their dioceses. Grimm points out too that the overwhelming majority of these bishops were educated according to the classic seminary ratio instituted by Borromeo and later by Pius X. They, with the exception of those of Oriental rites, had celebrated the Mass and Sacraments in no other language than Latin. Yet, in the years after Vat II, these bishops set in place what they definitely knew to be the wish, will and intent of the Second Vatican Council including the Mass of Paul VI. They were not bound by the letter(s) of their own documents which have been amply cherry picked ever since 1965 to 'prove' opposing views. It seems clear enough now that Pope Francis is reaffirming and validating the Magisterium of the 2800 bishops of Vatican II which had been re-interpreted almost into oblivion between 1978 and 2012.

David Timbs | 20 October 2014  

Who am I? Who are we to refuse Christ to anyone? He came for all people. It is that simple.

Katy | 20 October 2014  

I've noticed people commenting no longer engage with the content of the original article but allow the debate to be hijacked by some who purport to be Roman Catholic but many would argue in the tribal rather than Christian sense.

AURELIUS | 20 October 2014  

In october 2013 I made a submission to the questionaire. The fundamental question in relation to families I asked was "what are you going to do to help my children and grandchildren" If you do not address that question is the rest academic. JL

John Leenders | 20 October 2014  

My image is of Jesus who embraced all bar those who would do violence to others. Like Patricia, I laud our Pope's efforts. I stand justly before God when I receive communion and I don't need the endorsements or condemnations of the modern day Pharisees to do so. Perhaps some aspects of 2000 year old 'wisdom' is, in fact, well-rationalized argument that has done nothing more than box the ecclesial intelligencia into a well thought out corner. And in the process have shut out decent, loving people Jesus would happily have chatted to at the well.

Murray A C | 20 October 2014  

'These changes shifted the Church’s identity not by changing its doctrines but by this shift in relationships'. Yes. Some commentators have added a 'but' to the Pope's call for mercy by citing the need for 'justice' - presumably justice as punishment. Yet isn't justice more to do with the promotion of right relationships than with punishment? I hope the next twelve months will give the bishops time to reflect on justice and mercy, not justice opposed to mercy. Perhaps that's the way to re-establish right relationships between people, and between people and God. (And, of course, within the Church)!

Name | 20 October 2014  

GM & Russell: Dr Ormerod says that "we" find this language offensive. I'm presuming Dr Ormerod is a Catholic and speaking as such, not as a non-believer, when he says "we". Naturally non-Catholics may find the language offensive! I would were I one! But why should that matter to a Catholic? Heck, non-Catholics find just about all the pointy bits about the Church offensive! But read the gospels: was Jesus concerned about not being offensive? Well if He was, he failed miserably, considering how He ended up. Of course, a Catholic shouldn’t go round gratuitously insulting people – that’s itself a sin. But if one is a serious Catholic, there are very important distinctions to make (which is why they're in the Catechism - published sometime after the Wars of Religion, E.F.), and when discussing ultimate concerns with others it pays to be candid about these rather than truckle. How does one talk inoffensively about mortal sin and hell? From the Catholic viewpoint, heresy, schism, living in sin and so on are about eternal happiness or misery, for God's sake. We’re not talking about whether (excuse me) her bum looks good in that dress. You can argue that Catholics have got it all wrong about reality and man’s ultimate destiny. Fair enough. You can’t argue that, if they are right about those things, they shouldn’t be using the strongest of language to convey their concerns.

HH | 20 October 2014  

Aurelius, I purport to be Roman Catholic. I am divorced, remarried, taught in Catholic schools for 30+ years, go to daily Mass, have a Grad Dip in RE, have a gay grand-daughter, take Eucharist to the sick, started and run our church library, lector, Eucharistic Minister,, SVDP volunteer...shall I continue?

Patricia Taylor | 20 October 2014  

Re the all embracing Christ try non expurgated gospels: Matthew 25:41 "Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels"

Father John George | 20 October 2014  

If discussions at high levels bring us closer to knowing the person and intention of Jesus, then so be it. If, however, the living faith of a people in Christ will be branded by inappropriate rhetoric and errant certitude based on dubious exegesis and 'tradition', then the faithful will continue to seek their God beyond the Church. Now there's a thought!

Murray A C | 20 October 2014  

Every life is holy and part of One God's creation.. that is how I learnt about justice and Love as a child in Catholic schools.I would suggest that these issues we face about divorce,contraception and homosexuality are about every human being experiencing the sacred,having and experiencing dignity and declaring truth> honesty >authenticity. It should not be a sin to prevent conception in a loving relationship. What does the church say about the looming and already present environmental and humanitarian disasters from over-population? A marriage is not a marriage when one partner is abused or restricted from growing as a whole person.Women are no longer seen as seen as chattels as decreed for thousands of years. Common law must reflect society, and The Church annuls marriages. Some human relationships are not able to be sustained forever. Same sex relationships have a part in our society, as human beings are created with many gifts,talents,abilities, variations, all must be recognised as God's creation,with universal inheritance of the sacred.

Catherine | 21 October 2014  

i don't want by any means to trivialise The Synod on the Family by using a sporting analogy. If we can divide the bishops into those in favour of change (greater emphasis on pastoral theology) and those opposed to change (greater emphasis on moral theology) the Synod was like a preliminary cricket game before an actual Test. E.g. Australia XI v Pakistan A. It is a real game of cricket by two very good teams but certain players and tactics are being tested (note small t) before deciding which players to pick and what tactics to adopt at the real Test. Next year's Synod will be the real Test.

Uncle Pat | 21 October 2014  

Always a pleasure to read Neil. Hooray for Francis I say.

Don Reid | 22 October 2014  

Perhaps I should change my name to DODO, as it seems my thinking is to be considered dead in our modern Christianity. Which tenet must I live by? Live and let live, or Going therefor, teach all nations. Am I confused, are they compatible? Am I confused in saying that homosexuality (that oh, so sacred cow of today), is sexual DISORIENTATION, not orientation. And so much for " the rights of the child". And the woman at the well went and sinned no more.

Laurie May | 25 October 2014  

Father George, if hell and damnation is the only message you can glean from the life of Christ, then maybe that gospel passage is directed at you for a reason.

AURELIUS | 28 October 2014  

This has been my fears about what would happen in this Synod. Nothing concrete would come out of it except discussions due to the diversity of beliefs held about the family. Where is the love of thy neighbors as theyself? Nada.

Cesar P. DeGracia | 28 October 2014  

HH says that he finds offensive the hubris of liberals who have decided ... that our Church with its councils, saints and doctors had got things so wrong for two thousand years. Don't forget Galileo and The Inquisition HH.

Will | 03 November 2014  

What have we come to? Christians being beheaded on a daily basis in Iraq, with barely a whimper from the Pope. But of course, there has been tremendous energy put into trying to manipulate Bishops to admit sodomy into the Church as in some way a legitimate form of living, when clearly it is condemned by God. Similarly we have an open attack on Traditional Catholics holding fast to the Faith of Our Fathers. We also have a Vatican spokeperson in the form of Fr Rosica, suing a blogger. We have a so called 'priest' on twitter telling a Prince of the Church, Cardinal Burke to STFU. We have the Holy Father receive a blessing from a heretic English 'bishop'. And all of this goes on as Christians are being beheaded in the Middle East. Congratulations to the Vatican entourage and their 'openness'.

Summa | 07 March 2015  

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