How did heterodox prelates try to change doctrine at synod?

In this address delivered at the Catholic Voice conference Faith of Our Fathers, Matthew McCusker of Voice of the Family discusses three key elements of the “progressive” strategy deployed at the Ordinary Synod: arguing for changes in the Church’s language, the obscuring of moral absolutes by emphasising “positive aspects” of sinful situations and calls for “decentralisation” of doctrinal authority to episcopal conferences. He also outlines some of the chief concerns arising from the final report of the synod. The address was given in Limerick, Ireland on 21 November 2015.

Introduction to Synod

I’m here today representing Voice of the Family, a coalition of 26 pro-life and pro-family organisations, managed by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. Voice of the Family was established by SPUC in August 2014 because of our growing concerns ahead of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family that met in Rome in October last year. The lead-up to the synod had been dominated by the proposal, made most prominently by Walter Cardinal Kasper, that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be admitted to Holy Communion without amendment of life.

A Voice of the Family team was present in Rome throughout both the Extraordinary Synod in October 2014 and the Ordinary Synod in October 2015. During that time we sought to assist synod fathers in their defence of Catholic teaching on the family and to assist the wider public to understand what was taking place by offering accurate reporting and in-depth analysis.

The two synods were called to address the challenges facing the family in the modern world and the mission of the family in modern world.

Unfortunately both synods were in fact dominated by attempts to undermine or alter the teaching and discipline of the Church on a wide range of issues relating to marriage, the family and human sexuality. Both assemblies witnessed division between synod fathers who wished to uphold Catholic teaching and those who wished to undermine or alter it.

Despite the efforts of some synod fathers to raise the real challenges facing the family, very little attention was paid to these threats in the official documents of either synod.

Issues which were either entirely neglected or paid insufficient attention include: abortion, IVF, embryo experimentation, euthanasia, assisted suicide, anti-life anti-family sex education, attacks on parental rights and the increasing threat to the civil freedom of citizens of many western nations who wish to live lives faithful to the Catholic faith and the natural law.

As indicated earlier, much discussion in the media and among concerned Catholics has centred around the question of the reception of Holy Communion by the “divorced and civilly remarried”. However, this was not the only issue which the so-called “progressive” synod fathers were determined to pursue.

The discussions at the Ordinary Synod this October were conducted according to the content of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the Synod. Voice of the Family produced a detailed analysis of this document and concluded that it posed a serious threat to the integrity of Catholic doctrine.

We argued in our analysis of the document, which can be found on our website, that the key to understanding the Instrumentum Laboris, and by extension to the wider debates at the Synod, could be found in the following statement, that the principle “describing the synodal experience and indicating the task at hand” is “to read both the signs of God and human history, in a twofold yet unique faithfulness which this reading involves”.

This statement proclaims that the task of the synod is to be faithful to two different sources of authority, on the one hand “the signs of God” and on the other hand the signs of “human history”. It therefore sets up human history, the changes of human society over time, as an object of fidelity which must be obeyed alongside the fidelity due to God.

It is in accordance with this principle that we would argue that the Instrumentum Laboris, and many of the synod fathers, strove to bring the Church into conformity with the modern world.

If man must be faithful both to the “signs of God and “human history” it follows that whenever there is a clash between their mutual demands a compromise must be found. When this approach is adopted, the natural moral law is no longer regarded as immutable but rather as subject to change over the course of time.

The consequence of this is that the Instrumentum Laboris, which was the basis of the Ordinary Synod’s work, threatened the entire structure of Catholic teaching on marriage, the family and human sexuality.

It did this:

  • by undermining the doctrine of Humanae Vitae by proposing a false understanding of the relationship between conscience and the moral law (paragraph 137)
  • by discussing artificial methods of reproduction without giving any judgment on the morality of such methods or making any reference to the enormous loss of human life that they entail (paragraph 34)
  • by preparing the way for the admission of the “divorced and remarried” to Holy Communion without amendment of life (paragraphs 120-125)
  • by reducing the indissolubility of marriage to the level of an “ideal” (paragraph 42)
  • by suggesting that cohabitation has “positive aspects” and can, to some extent, be considered a legitimate form of union (paragraphs 57, 61, 63, 99, 102)
  • by preparing the ground for the acceptance of same-sex unions by acknowledging the need to define “the specific character of such unions in society” (paragraph 8)
  • by adopting modern secular notions of “gender equality” and acquiescing in the need for “a rethinking of the duties of the spouses” thus contributing to the dissolution of traditional family structures (paragraph 30)
  • and, finally, by denying the full rights of parents as the primary educators of their children (paragraph 86).

This document was, as I have said, the basis for discussion at the Ordinary Synod. And it was precisely this approach that was evident as a significant number of cardinals and bishops worked strenuously towards the goal of bringing Catholic teaching into conformity with the principles prevalent in the modern secular west. There was however strong resistance offered by other synod fathers, especially those from Africa and Eastern Europe, who were determined to defend the unchanging teachings of the Church.

The heterodox party were therefore forced to adopt a variety strategies directed towards changing church teaching while giving the impression that doctrine would remain untouched. I would like to discuss three of the most important and dangerous of these strategies beginning with the emphasis on the need to alter the language that the Church uses to express her teachings.

  1. Changing the language

This argument was based on the assertion that the language that is currently used by the Church is no longer understood by the majority of people, either because it is too technical, or because it sounds “too judgemental”. It must therefore be replaced with a language that is “relevant”, “pastoral” and, above all “merciful.”

A prominent voice throughout the synod for those advocating a radical change in the church’s language was Fr Thomas Rosica, the English-speaking press spokesman for the Holy See.

On the first day of the synod, during a press briefing, Fr Rosica made the following passionate call:

“There must be an end to exclusionary language”, he said. “The Jubilee of Mercy also requires a new form of language, both public and private. [It] requires a language of mercy. … The language of inclusion must be our language, always considering pastoral and canonical possibilities and solutions.”

Obviously there is a great deal that could be said about this passage, not least as regards the use of ideological language such “exclusion” and “inclusion” but I want to concentrate on the claim that the Church requires “a new form of language.”

In particular I want to draw attention to two examples of terms that prominent synod fathers felt should no longer be used by the Church. These are “intrinsically disordered”, most specifically with reference to homosexuality, and “indissolubility.”

These were terms deemed unsuitable for our current age and in need of being replaced by “pastoral” and “merciful” language without changing her underlying teachings.

But is this in fact the case?

The purpose of language, after all, is to convey meaning. It is necessary for words to express a clear meaning if they are to be understood by the listener or reader and this is particularly important for the Church, which has the duty of transmitting intact the deposit of faith “delivered once to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) In order to transmit the content of that divine revelation unchanged she must make use clear and precise terminology, which retain a stable meaning.

I would argue that the suggested changes to language would indeed lead to a change in the Church’s teaching, and, that that is in fact the very thing the synod fathers who propose these changes desire.

“Instrinsically disordered”

Of the phrase “intrinsically disordered” Archbishop Mark Coleridge, of Brisbane, Australia, said:

“When we say that this or that act is “intrinsically disordered” or evil, we are taken to be saying that the person who commits the act is “intrinsically disordered” or evil. Because sexuality is no longer seen as being a matter of what a person does; it’s seen now as what a person is… So we can no longer condemn the sin but not the sinner.”

Now one might question whether Archbishop Coleridge’s account of how sexuality was seen, or now is seen, is accurate but his approach is nonetheless clear. I’ll repeat the key line:

“Because sexuality is no longer seen as being a matter of what a person does; it’s seen now as what a person is… So we can no longer condemn the sin but not the sinner.”

In other words, because the secular world has changed its view about sexuality the Church must change her language in order to conform to modern trends. So, because many people identify themselves as homosexual and consider that to be normal and natural identity, therefore the Church must, according to Coleridge, accept that by no longer referring to homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered”.

So what is happening here is not fundamentally about making the Church’s language sound more “pastoral”, but rather about conforming the Church’s teaching to modern ideas.


The second term I would like to look at is “indissolubility”. The Catholic Church teaches, as we know, that there is no authority on earth that has the power to dissolve a ratified and consummated sacramental marriage. Such a marriage only ends with the death of the one of the spouses. This is what it means to say that marriage is “indissoluble”.

A number of synod fathers however believe that the term should no longer be. Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago thinks it’s “too juridical” and “too hard” for many to understand. It conveys not “the indissolubility of a wedding band, but handcuffs.” He suggested “life-long fidelity” as an alternative. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin agreed “Most families would not feel that they live indissolubility” he said “they live fidelity and closeness and care.”

A third synod father, Vincent Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, also contrasted the two terms, saying that “indissolubility” could be seen as “unattractive and objective” while “faithfulness” was a “down to earth” term. He emphasised the importance of using language that people can understand.

So we have synod fathers suggesting a replacement of a term in order, they say, to further clarity.

However, of course the opposite in fact occurs because “indissolubility” and “faithfulness” certainly do not have the same meaning.

The indissolubility of the marital bond lasts until one of the spouses dies, whereas faithfulness to the marital bond may or may not be present. The marriage remains indissoluble irrespective of whether the spouses are faithful to other during the time of their marriage.

So the term “indissoluble” simply cannot be replaced by the term “faithfulness”. And if it was, it would suggest that a marriage would only last as long as the two parties are faithful to each other. This is in fact one of the positions held by some Eastern Orthodox theologians to justify the practice of tolerating second marriages.

So it simply isn’t true that replacing “indissolubility” with “faithfulness” would make it easier for Catholics to understand what the Church teaches, it would actually lead to a change of doctrine.

That the changes in language proposed would lead to a break with the Church’s Tradition was frankly admitted by Bishop Lucas Van Looy of Ghent, Belgium, when he told a Vatican press briefing that: “It could be the start of a new Church” he said and “the end of a Church that casts judgement over every situation.

  1. Denial of moral absolutes

The second element of the “progressive” strategy that I wish to discuss, which is closely related to the calls for a change in language, is the attempt to effectively abolish the notion that some actions are intrinsically evil, and this is done, by stressing the positive aspects of objectively sinful acts.

For example, the Instrumentum Laboris stressed the so-called “positive aspects” of cohabitation in its various forms, without giving a clear presentation of the sinful nature of sexual acts outside of marriage, and the resultant harm caused to individuals and to society.

In fact the document went so far as to imply, in paragraph 102, that civil marriage and simple cohabitation can be described as “an enduring bond, stable and open to life” and that sacramental marriage is “a possible good which ought to be proclaimed as a gift to enrich and strengthen married life”. The implication clearly being that civil marriages, not recognised as valid by the Church, and even cohabitation, are a form of married life.

This was also implied in paragraph 99 which spoke about valuing the positive aspects of cohabitation, until such a time as the “fullness of union in the Sacrament might be achieved”, as if there was already some degree of legitimate union in a sexual relationship outside of marriage.

So what really occurs when “the positive aspects” of sinful unions are praised is that the intrinsic evil of the sinful acts that they involve are obscured or even denied.

However many synod fathers were determined to pursue this approach at the Ordinary Synod. One cardinal, Vincent Nichols of Westminster, went so far as to publicly criticise synod fathers who took the opposite view. In an interview with America magazine he said that there were bishops who found it “very difficult to acknowledge in any way at all that we could point to the evidence and the seeds of goodness in a situation which they wanted to categorize simply as immoral”. He continued by accusing such bishops of being motivated “by fear and anxiety”.

The denial of moral absolutes which underpins such views can be seen in the intervention of Cardinal Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, and a member of Pope Francis’ inner council of nine cardinals, who said: “Can people truly have the feeling to be part of us when they are regarded as living in the state of grave sin?”

He continued:

“It is also questionable whether sexual acts in a second civil marriage can be judged independently of the circumstances in life. Can we without exception judge sexual acts in a second civil marriage as adultery?”

The answer to Cardinal Marx’s question can be found in the unchanging teaching of the Church, expressed here by Pope John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, which teaches that:

“Reason attests that there are objects of the human act… which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed ‘intrinsically evil’: they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances.”

Cardinal Marx’s statement is just one of many examples of leading prelates openly rejecting Catholic doctrine; it is no surprise therefore that Archbishop Peta, of Astana in Kazakhstan, felt moved to tell the synod that he could smell the “infernal smoke” in the interventions of many the synod fathers.

  1. The call for “decentralisation”

Cardinal Marx provides a good introduction to the third aspect of “progressive” strategy that I would like to discuss. Back in February of this year Cardinal Marx said, with reference to the Church in Germany, that:

“We are not a subsidiary of Rome. Every episcopal conference is responsible for pastoral care in its own cultural context, and must preach the Gospel in its own original way. We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we must shape the pastoral care of marriage and the family.”

Such calls for decentralisation of doctrinal authority to bishops’ conferences were heard frequently throughout the synod. Jeremias Schröder, a German Abbot who was attending the Synod on behalf of the Union of Superiors General, told a Vatican press conference that:

“Many of the speeches in the general discussions mentioned the possibility of dealing with questions on the basis of a given cultural context. I would say there were about twenty or so speeches and only two or three were against, claiming that for the sake of the Church’s unity handing over powers would have fatal consequences. … I, for example am German and it seems to me that the remarried divorces issue is very strongly and widely felt in Germany and much less so elsewhere. This is an area where there could be space for original pastoral ideas, also as far as the understanding of homosexuality goes, an issue that really varies from culture to culture. National Episcopal Conferences could be allowed to search for pastoral solutions that are in tune with their specific cultural context.”

This same abbot is also quoted in a German newspaper as saying:

“We do not need for every problem a uniform, whole-church solution which was compiled in Rome. The church must maybe come to an agreement about the fact that in different world regions and societies another contact with the complicated subject Family is allowed.”

In other words different parts of the Church can adopt different approaches to moral issues.

The move towards decentralisation of doctrinal authority was given impetus by Pope Francis a major address delivered on 17th October 2015, when he said that he: “felt the need to proceed in a healthy ‘decentralization’” of power to the “Episcopal Conferences”.

This echoed a call he had already made, in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that bishops’ conferences should be given “genuine doctrinal authority”.

Such calls are troubling given that those prelates, such as Cardinal Marx, who are most ardently asking for such devolution of authority are precisely those who wish to use it to pursue paths incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church, such as admitting the “divorced and civilly remarried” to Holy Communion with amendment of life.

Indeed, an image of what a decentralised Church might look like was provided by Archbishop Cupich of Chicago who held an impromptu press conference in Rome where he spoke not only of admitting the “divorced and civilly remarried” to Holy Communion but also those actively living the homosexual lifestyle.

If such a route was followed we would see a practice denounced as a grave sin in one part of the world being viewed as perfectly acceptable in another.

Such an approach is of course completely incompatible with an orthodox understanding of the nature of the Catholic Church, that Church which is defined by St Robert Bellarmine as “a body of men united together by the profession of the same Christian Faith, and by participation in the same sacraments, under the governance of lawful pastors, more especially of the Roman Pontiff, the sole vicar of Christ on earth.”

The Church simply cannot teach different doctrines on matters of faith and morals in different parts of the world and remain the Catholic Church.

  1. The rights of parents as primary educators

The Ordinary Synod closed on 24th October with the release of a final report. This report, remarkably, has still not been released in any language other than Italian. However we have had various extracts translated and there is much about which we should be extremely concerned. Paragraphs 84-86 provide a number of openings to Holy Communion by the “divorced and civilly remarried”. Other paragraphs, such paragraph 71 on cohabitation, adopt the erroneous emphasis on “positive aspects” on sinful unions that we considered earlier.

However to close my talk today I want to draw attention to paragraph 58 which deals with sex education. The paragraph states: “The family, while maintaining its primary space in education (cf. Gravissimum Educationis, 3), cannot be the only place for teaching sexuality.”

To understand why this passage is such a serious threat to parental rights we need to examine two things: first, the threat currently being posed to parents and children by governments and international organisations and, secondly, the Church’s traditional response to such threats.

So, first we must understand that there is a strong determination on the part of the world’s most powerful politicians, including both national governments and international organisations such as the United Nations, to obstruct the exercise of the right of parents to be the primary educators of their children.

Despite the fact that Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” powerful bodies such as the UN’s Compliance Committee for the Convention on the Rights of the Child are putting pressure on developing nations, particularly African nations, to give children from 12 years old access to contraception and abortion, without the knowledge of their parents.

In addition UNESCO and the World Health Organisation are promoting anti-life and pornographic sex education programmes which seek to eliminate the role of parents as the primary educators and protectors of their children.

Parents of families in western nations are also denied the right to control sex education in their children’s schools, including in Catholic schools. In England and Wales, for example, children have access to contraception and abortion without the knowledge of their parents, including in Catholic schools with the authority of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. In addition, teachers in British primary schools are being trained by “Stonewall”, a militant homosexual “rights” group which has a policy that children must be taught that they might grow up to marry a person of the same sex. Training by Stonewall for teachers is taking place in Catholic primary schools with the co-operation of the local Catholic bishop.

So how has the Church previously dealt with this threat?

Pope John Paul II repeated the constant teaching of the church when he said, in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, that, and I quote:

“Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centres chosen and controlled by them.”

Compare and contrast the two statements:

The synod says: “The family… cannot be the only place for teaching sexuality.”

But John Paul II taught that it is entirely the parent’s responsibility to decide if they involve institutions outside the family and furthermore that if they choose to so those institutions must be controlled by the parents and their children must remain “under their attentive guidance.”

Pope Leo XIII taught the same doctrine in his encyclical Sapientiae Christianae:

“By nature parents have a right to the training of their children, but with this added duty that the education and instruction of the child be in accord with the end for which by God’s blessing it was begotten. Therefore it is the duty of parents to make every effort to prevent any invasion of their rights in this matter, and to make absolutely sure that the education of their children remain under their own control in keeping with their Christian duty.”

In his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri Pope Pius XI was able to state:

“History bears witness how, particularly in modern times, the State has violated and does violate rights conferred by God on the family. At the same time it shows magnificently how the Church has ever protected and defended these rights, a fact proved by the special confidence which parents have in Catholic schools.”

Regrettably Pius XI would not be able to say those words today, because the trust placed by Catholic parents in Catholic schools has been systematically violated.

Last week the Pontifical Academy for Sciences held a workshop which it was announced would be discussing how to deploy children as “agents of change” in the cause of sustainable development. The workshop was addressed by leading architects of the international population control movement, including Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Jeffrey Sachs is an ardent proponent of population control, calling in particular for the birth rate in Africa to be drastically reduced through government programmes aimed at increased use of contraception. In his 2008 book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet he also set out the supposedly positive effects that legalising abortion has on population levels

The briefing document for this workshop claims that children are at risk from their “parents” and “official agencies, basing themselves on religious principles” which hold views deemed anti-scientific.

It is also necessary, the briefing argues, for Catholic schools to “absorb the UN sustainable Development Goals” – the same sustainable development goals that call for universal access to “reproductive health”, that is, universal access to abortion and contraception.

In this connection it is extremely disturbing to note that the encyclical letter Laudato Si discusses education in environmentalism in paragraphs 209-215, without making any reference to parents.

In this context the approval of paragraph 58 of the final report of the synod by 94% of the synod father indicates a very serious failure by the hierarchy of the Church to recognise the severity of the threat currently facing parents.

I would like to end with a quotation from another pope, Pius XII, who in 1946 was already discerning the crisis that we face today, and the question that he asked is one that we must all ask ourselves today. He said:

“There is a good deal of talk, but without the necessary clarity of concept, about a ‘new theology’, which must be in constant transformation, following the example of all other things in the world, which are in a constant state of flux and movement, without ever reaching their term. If we were to accept such an opinion what would become of the unchangeable dogmas of the Catholic Faith; and what would become of the unity and stability of that Faith?”

Today more than ever we must remain faithful to unchanging teachings of the Catholic Church.