Friday, October 10, 2014

More Thoughts on (Mis)Interpreting the Synod


Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine (“Small error in the beginning; large [error] will be in the end”)

—St. Thomas Aquinas



A few days have passed since the preliminary synod has begun. I’ve been reading different things on Facebook, Catholic Blogs and news sites (secular and religious). And of course, there is the usual antics of individual Catholics making their comments on all of these places. There has been some good reporting from the Vatican Information Service and Zenit. I have unfortunately seen the other side: Too much commentary based on too little knowledge. This combination has shaken many of the faithful.

The Problem

Some are people who have misinterpreted the intention of the synod (to see how to better pass on the Church teaching and minister to those who have managed to place themselves outside of them) and falsely hope to see the Church changing her teaching on issues of sexual morality. Others are Catholics who fear the Church will change her teaching and teach error.

These false hopes and fears seem to stem from the fact that too many people are relying on what they think they know. When people hold their assumptions as true, and then encounter information which seems to reinforce these assumptions, they tend to think their fears or hopes are proven true. A person need not have a malicious intention for this to happen. It’s just what happens when a person wrongly assume they know something.

I think a lot of this happens to come from a vicious circle. The media sees Pope Francis as a liberal, and everything he says or does that may sound liberal in the ears of the listener (whether they approve of liberalism or loathe it) confirms the hopes or fears. They write about it from their perspective. People read these articles and have their hopes or fears reinforced by them. Pretty soon, it’s taken as a fact and the Pope is going to save or destroy the Church—but nobody ever asks whether their view is actually true. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, 

Once this view is held as fact (and it isn’t fact), it becomes easy to use the assumption as the basis of predicting all sorts of ridiculous things. The synod is one of these things. If a person sees Pope Francis as a liberal, they assume the synod will change the rules from Not-X to X, and think it is a good thing or bad thing depending on their political slant. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine (“Small error in the beginning; large [error] will be in the end”).

Now, yes, there are people in the Church who do choose to act and think from a political perspective. I don’t believe the Pope is one but, even if some do, we should not fear that the Church will embrace error . . . if we truly believe the Church is what she claims to be. Let’s look at this.

Why I don’t Fear the Synod

Christ made some promises to His Church, and these promises have rational implications whether one accepts them or not. They also have rational implications for people who don’t consider the ramifications of their views.

The first promise is:

18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20  Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. (Matt 16:18-19)

The second promise is:

8  Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt:18:18)

The third promise is:

18  Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

The fourth promise is:

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:22-23)

They’re pretty powerful promises. They establish that Jesus Christ has established a Church, and given it His authority to teach, binding and loosing. He is shown to be with His Church always—there is no trying to place Jesus in opposition to His Church. Trying to do so is to effectively deny that His promises have any weight: If the Church can teach error, then either Jesus Christ failed to keep His promises (blasphemous) or the Church simply misinterpreted what Christ intended to say (which means it does not matter what the Church teaches at the synod, because she has no authority to teach at all).

Now of course, to be a faithful Catholic, we cannot accept that Christ’s promises were false, and we cannot accept that the Church misinterpreted them. So we have to accept them.

The implications of accepting these promises are important. If Jesus gave His authority to teach to His Apostles and promised the gates of the netherworld (literally ᾅδου—the place of departed spirits) would not prevail against it. But they would die (see 1 Corinthians 15:22). So for Christ’s promise to be kept, it would have to be applied to the legitimate successors of the Apostles—the Pope and the bishops in communion with him until “the end of the age."

The next implication is that for things bound/loosed on Earth to be bound in Heaven means one of two things:

  1. Either God will bind/loose error in Heaven, or . . . 
  2. God will protect His Church from teaching error in binding and loosing.

But because nothing impure can enter Heaven (Rev 21:27), we cannot accept the first option. So we can trust in the second.

Now, recognizing this, we can know that the Church cannot teach error when binding or loosing on matters pertaining to our salvation. The Church is sent to teach and baptize, bringing all nations to Christ. She can’t do His mission if she can lead them astray. Binding teaching is not just in matters which are ex cathedra (formally declared to be taught infallibly). Pope Pius XII made this clear in Humani Generis:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.

This also applies to matters where the Church, under the authority of the Pope intends to teach what we must do. Now, think of it. If the Church can decree in a synod, “It is permissible for divorced and (invalidly) remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist,” and that decree went against God’s will, that would be a teaching contradicting a matter pertaining to salvation (see 1 Cor. 11:27). A matter which we cannot accept as Catholics.

So, that’s why I am not afraid of the results of the synod. There are people inside and outside of the Church who may have false ideas about what the Church can do. Some of them may be at this synod. We don’t know. But even if there are, they will not prevail against the Church. Not because of the holiness or intelligence of those attending . . . but because Jesus promised us this.

If we would be the faithful Catholics we would claim to be, let’s keep faith in Christ, even if we are fearful of the reports across the world.

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