An FAQ for All Christians on Divorce, Pope Francis and the Bishops Questioning Him
The pope's new teaching on divorce has bishops bitterly split.
Q: What is this controversy among Catholics and Pope Francis about?
A: It concerns the appearance that Pope Francis is trying to change a perennial Catholic doctrine.
Q: Why would he do that?
A: You’d have to ask him. I was the English language editor of his first book, but I couldn’t make head or tails of what he was saying. Francis makes no pretense of being a systematic thinker. So it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s simply speaking (and writing) imprecisely, or is using imprecision as a cover for doctrinal change.
Q: You’ve got cardinals asking the pope to clarify his teaching, with other bishops condemning them as schismatics and heretics simply because they have asked for clarification. Fundamental teachings on things like marriage are being treated completely differently from one city to another. (For instance, your Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia is doing one thing, while the German bishops are doing the opposite.) It sounds like you are on the brink of a civil war.
A: Yes, we might be. The Roman Catholic Church is facing its greatest crisis of authority since the Protestant Reformation, which started exactly 500 years ago. The faithful are deeply divided, profoundly confused and looking for guidance.
Catholic Bishops are Fighting Over the Future of Marriage
Q: So what’s it about? What’s really at stake?
A: Those questions need two different answers.
The current fight between Pope Francis and the conservative bishops is about whether people who entered a sacramental Catholic marriage, then got divorced and started sleeping with somebody else — for instance, someone who stood up with them in front of a justice of the peace for a civil “marriage” — are committing the serious sin of adultery. If so, can they receive Holy Communion anyway — though the Church has always forbidden that as what St. Paul called “eating and drinking death” (1 Cor., 11:29)?
But this battle is part of a larger war over something even deeper and graver: the abandonment of traditional Christian morality up and down the line in the name of “compassion.” Will the Catholic Church stay on the same straight and narrow that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were following? Or will it traipse along behind the Episcopal and other mainline Protestant churches, remaking the Gospel to suit the editors of the New York Times?
This battle is really a pretext for something even deeper and graver: the abandonment of traditional Christian morality up and down the line in the name of “compassion.” Will the Catholic Church stay on the same straight and narrow that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were following? Or will it traipse along behind the Episcopal and other mainline Protestant churches?
Q: I don’t see how that follows. There are plenty of conservative evangelical churches that don’t take your stance on marriage and Communion, but they’re solid on homosexuality, abortion, and other issues where the culture is pushing apostasy.
A: Unlike most Protestant churches, we Catholics see marriage as a sacrament that can’t be dissolved, every bit as much as baptism. That’s how we read what Jesus said on the subject. And it’s how we’ve always read it, since the early Church. Anyone who divorces for any reason and marries again commits adultery, and hence should not receive Holy Communion unless he repents and commits himself to celibacy in the new relationship — a teaching reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II. But he was only explaining and applying what the Council of Trent had already taught in an infallible, dogmatic statement.
For us, that holds the same weight as the teachings about the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicaea. For a pope to overturn a teaching of a council like that attacks the core principle of Catholic teaching — continuity and faithfulness to what was passed down from the apostles. That principle is as important to us as the inerrancy of Scripture is to serious Protestants. Imagine if the leadership of your church were thinking of rejecting inerrancy.
Q: I’d just find a new church.
A: We don’t really have the option to vote with our feet and still be Catholic. But continue the comparison. Churches that give up on inerrancy, don’t they pretty quickly cave in on all the other issues where the culture is putting Christians under pressure? As I wrote in 2014:
If the pope permits divorced couples who now live in extramarital relationships to receive Holy Communion without repenting and promising celibacy, he will be sanctioning one of two things: adultery or polygamy. … Liberals will smell this “reform” as blood in the water and hunger for more: homosexual marriage, women bishops, and the rest of the progressive death-wish-list.
Q: What about annulments? Haven’t you been handing those out like business cards at a sales convention?
A: The Church has always allowed for “annulments” of unions that turned out not to be valid marriages — for instance, where one of the spouses was either insane or coerced. Now, those annulments were widely abused in recent decades, especially in America and especially by the Kennedys. Popes John Paul and Benedict tried to crack down on that. (Pope Francis reversed their reforms.) In our official teaching, the Church has always held firm to the apostolic principle that marriage is for life. In effect, though he denies it, that’s what Pope Francis is challenging.
Erasing the Legacies of John Paul II & Benedict XVI
Q: How’d you get to this pretty pass? I thought that John Paul and Benedict had cleaned house.
A: The Church has blown up ugly in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s mysterious decision to resign in 2013, and his replacement by Pope Francis — whose election was sought by a cabal of elderly left-wing bishops who had never really approved of John Paul II or Benedict. A leader of that group was Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, one of the worst culprits in the cover-up of clerical sex abuse. Danneels had also congratulated the Belgian government for legalizing same-sex “marriage,” and urged that country’s king to sign a bill legalizing abortion.
Q: Wow, Danneels sounds like some marginal figure …
A: He was, until his favorite candidate became the pope. In 2015, despite his squalid track record, Danneels was invited by Pope Francis to emerge from retirement and take part in a worldwide synod of bishops discussing moral teaching. At the first Synod in 2014, his fellow progressives from wealthy, empty churches in Western Europe had pushed for radical changes in Church teaching, including de facto acceptance of divorce and remarriage, and an embrace of homosexual identity as a gift from God.
Q: Did the bishops accept that?
A: No, they voted all of it down. Bishops from Africa, Poland, and other faithful regions stood firm. But Pope Francis insisted that these radical proposals be published as part of the Synod’s final statement. In the 2015 synod — where Danneels was an honored speaker — the bishops again rejected any change in Church teaching. So Pope Francis overruled them, and published Amoris Laetitia, which unilaterally imposed (via one ambiguous footnote) what appears to be a fundamental change in the Church’s practice concerning the sacraments of marriage and the eucharist.
Jesus Said to You One Thing, But I Say unto You…
Q: What did that document say?
Amoris Laetitia, according to a letter which Pope Francis sent to the bishops of Argentina and to statements by papal allies and spokesmen, appears to make room for people who are sexually active in an adulterous second “marriage” to receive Holy Communion. That change, if implemented throughout the Church, by strict necessity implies a change of doctrine — as surely as if a pope started ordaining women.
Q: So this is what conservative bishops are upset about? The threat to marriage?
A: Yes, and the attack on something much more fundamental: the promise we believe that Jesus made to St. Peter, that the Holy Spirit would stop any pope or any council from bastardizing dogmas of the faith. Not that God inspires popes and councils with new revelations, or even keeps them from being corrupt or simply stupid. Just that He would veto any new, heretical teaching. That is all infallibility means. (See my 2011 explanatory video below.)
Q: Did you get that promise wrong?
A: Excellent question. Four prominent, doctrinally conservative cardinals felt that it was their duty to, in effect, publicly question the orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia. The cardinals respectfully invited Pope Francis to clarify the document — essentially begging him to correct it and render its teaching compatible with the New Testament, as Catholics have always read it.
Q: Did he do that?
A: No. In fact, he skipped a private meeting with those and other cardinals, then addressed them all in public, slamming Christians who engage in “polarization and animosity.” The leader of Catholic bishops in Greece went further, denouncing these four cardinals as schismatics and heretics, themselves ineligible to receive Communion. Francis’ defenders, including recently appointed progressive Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, have insisted that Pope Francis’ document invoked his full authority, and is protected by God from error.
Q: Is anyone sticking up for the four cardinals?
A: Three bishops as of today, including Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia. [NOTE: Abp. Chaput’s office has contacted us, and says that he takes no stand on the cardinals’ statement.] Many surely sympathize with them. Defending the four cardinals, the aptly named Bishop Athanasius Schneider compared the situation in the Catholic Church today to the Arian crisis, when Pope Liberius came down on the side of heretics who diluted authentic Christian doctrine on the full, co-equal divinity of Jesus — even excommunicating St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who was later vindicated and named a Father of the Church.
Q: So you all are back to the fourth century now?
A: We’re worse off, actually. Back then, under political pressure, Liberius accepted an ambiguous doctrinal statement and unjustly punished a faithful bishop. Today we face a pope who might invoke his supreme authority to overturn a Church teaching that was already taught infallibly, and practiced for almost 2,000 years — to suit the sensibilities of secular, modern post-Christians. This divorce and remarriage question is just the thin end of the wedge, as you can tell from the rest of the radical demands that liberal bishops made in 2014, which Pope Francis published. If the Church caves on this, the floodgates open.
Q: So what does this mean for the authority of your church?
A: If Pope Francis does not reverse course and reconcile his teaching on divorce and remarriage with perennial church teaching, but instead makes a new teaching binding on all Catholics, then he will be teaching heresy — full stop, and imposing it on the whole Church. If infallibility doesn’t stop that, I don’t see what use it is.
Q: Can’t you just declare him a heretic and depose him?
A: No, we cannot. Vatican I in 1870 taught that popes can teach infallibly, and that they cannot be judged by anyone or ever removed from office.
Q: But God can’t contradict Himself either. He can’t let you teach one thing at the Council of Trent, then the opposite today.
A: No, He can’t.
Q: How can the doctrine of papal infallibility survive this?
A: Fans of logic will note that it can’t. If Pope Francis continues on the course he has chosen, he will prove, empirically, that this teaching was never true in the first place.
Q: What will that mean for the First Vatican Council?
A: That council, and every other council the Catholic Church has held since the great Schism with the Orthodox in 1054, will be called into question. The Orthodox theory, that it was Rome which went off the rails back then, will start looking pretty persuasive. Last time I checked, making the case for that was not the Roman pontiff’s job.