Upon This Creampuff
If I hadn't lost my ability to believe in the authority of the Catholic Church back in 2006, the turmoil under the Francis papacy would have done me in for sure. Here's the latest from National Catholic Register:
Fifty-five years ago, Pope St. Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae, a papal encyclical that unequivocally clarified the Church’s perennial opposition to artificially contracepted sex. Although this teaching faced resistance from several theologians and even bishops at the time, it has been reaffirmed and further developed by subsequent papal teaching, from St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae to the current version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church recently revised by Pope Francis, which describes the practice as “intrinsically evil.”
Now, a Vatican institute, ironically first created by the late, great Polish pope and saint, is pushing for a “paradigm shift” in moral theology that would include departing from established teaching on contraception, but also euthanasia and forms of artificial conception — and supporters of this “radical change” are urging Pope Francis to follow suit with an encyclical affirming this radical break from five decades of post-conciliar magisterial consensus.
The revelations are included in a recent text issued by the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL), an ecclesial think tank established by St. John Paul in 1994 to study and provide guidance “on the principal problems of biomedicine and of law, relative to the promotion and defense of life, above all in the direct relation that they have with Christian morality and the directives of the Church’s magisterium.”
PAL describes Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, and Practical Challenges, a 528-page synthesis of the proceedings of a 2021 PAL-sponsored theological seminar, as “a contribution that elaborates a Christian vision of life by expounding it from the perspective of an anthropology appropriate to the cultural mediation of faith in today’s world.”
Although the text is not yet available in English, Italian media confirms that it breaks significantly from established Church teaching on contraception. Since there are “conditions and practical circumstances that would make the choice to generate irresponsible,” a translation of the reported text reads, a married couple may decide to resort “with a wise choice” to contraceptive techniques, “obviously excluding abortive ones.”
By any judgment, this is not a different or developed expression of the same moral reality referred to in the authoritative teachings of St. Paul VI and his successors, but a necessary contradiction of the moral truth previous popes described and taught authoritatively.
Now, to be clear, none of this is necessarily going to make its way into magisterial Catholic teaching. The analysis provides evidence that influential Church progressives want Pope Francis to incorporate its moral reasoning into the Church's binding teaching, but whether or not he will do it remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this is a really big deal, and a deeply troubling one -- and not just for the obvious reason.
The "obvious reason" is that if this goes through, the Catholic Church would abandon or severely weaken its countercultural stands on matters of profound importance to the meaning of biological life. The less obvious reason is that if the Catholic Church did an about-face on such fundamental teachings, and so shortly after the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI reaffirmed and articulated even further these teachings, then the rock on which Catholic authority stands will have been turned into a creampuff.
(I can hear the usual suspects yowling, "Why do you care? You left!" The answer, as I have said a million times, is that the West was built in part by the Catholic Church. The decline of the West is tied to the decline of the Catholic Church -- and you don't have to be Catholic to recognize that. Protestantism in Europe is moribund, and though it is more vigorous in the US -- in its Evangelical wing, more vigorous than US Catholicism -- it is on a shaky foundation. For example, here's a piece in American Reformer about the startling number of young Evangelical women who are experimenting with lesbianism and bisexuality. Eight years ago, I was talking with a very important Evangelical pastor about the cultural revolution sweeping over us, and he stated with confidence that Evangelicals would hold the line against LGBT. He was wrong. But from the point of view of 2014, I can see why he made the estimation that he did.)
I met a young American man at an Orthodox parish here in Budapest, visiting the country. He told me he had briefly converted to Catholicism, but then left for Orthodoxy. Part of the reason, he told me, was discovering that actually existing parish Catholicism in America was basically Mainline Protestantism, and that the solid teachings of the Magisterium, and the powerful encyclicals of John Paul II, simply were not taken seriously at the parishes he attended. By the time he found his way to the Latin mass community, he already had doubts about papal authority that he could not resolve.
With reference to Pope Francis's war on Catholic Traditionalism, the young man said that he could not figure out why the Vatican was so bound and determined to crush this movement. He said it's the only part of Catholicism that seems spiritually alive -- yet this Pope, under whom supreme authority has been invested, is devoted to smashing it.
I wonder what that young man thinks of news today from Chicago: that Cardinal Blase Cupich is shutting down the Latin mass-celebrating Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest as of August 1. The news is set to be formally announced tomorrow, but it has leaked. Just like that, they will be kicked out of their Chicago headquarters, forbidden to say the Traditional mass there -- which, given that the celebration of the Latin mass was their raison d'etre, means they are being kicked out.
If only they were a gay-rights organization, they might be in good standing, despite violating Catholic teaching. Cardinal Cupich has been a pro-LGBT progressive, even allowing a gay male couple to preach from the pulpit at a Catholic parish there on Father's Day. But his tolerance stops at Catholic Traditionalism.
Get daily emails in your inbox
I sometimes run across Catholics sympathetic to Orthodoxy who look forward to the prospect of reuniting the two churches. It is hard to convey to them how radically unlikely that is, especially after the Francis pontificate. Why? A lot of it has to do with instability within the Church of Rome. One of the most striking things to a Catholic who comes into Orthodoxy is how stable everything is. It is certainly not that Orthodoxy is free of problems! Some of those problems stem from bishops being detached. But you can for the most part not have to worry about your bishop doing anything wild or radical, because that's just not how it works. The woke head of the Greek Orthodox church in the US has caused a ginormous stir in world Orthodoxy by baptizing the children of a gay male couple, in what is being read (and proclaimed by one of the couple) as an indirect attempt to legitimize same-sex marriage within Orthodoxy. What was so shocking about that is not only that the Archbishop did it, but that he would do this kind of radical thing, heedless of the tradition, and how it would appear to other hierarchs. The rarity of this kind of thing in Orthodoxy, and the protest that it has predictably raised, testifies to the stability of the Orthodox tradition.
Let me be clear: I'm not arguing here for the superiority of Orthodoxy to Catholicism. As I said, we Orthodox have a lot of our own problems (you will have seen the hot ecclesial mess that has arisen over Russia's war on Ukraine). But we don't have this kind of problem, in large part because we don't have a Pope, or any figure invested with the kind of power that the Roman pontiff possesses. We haven't even been able to muster an ecumenical council for a thousand years or so. Many Orthodox think that's a bug, but some of us think it's a feature! In my lifetime, we have seen the dynamic conservatism of John Paul II, pushed through in part with the help of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became JP2's successor -- and now the radical reversal, by Pope Francis, of much of what JP2 and Benedict XVI stood for. From a conservative point of view, the best thing that could happen would be for Francis to be succeeded by a restorationist conservative, but even in that case, immense damage would already have been done. The Catholic world would know that all it takes to reverse papal teaching and practice is a pope willing to do so. Popes would be seen like presidents and prime ministers -- not as keepers of sacred tradition, but as policy managers who lead an institution that can go in a different direction every time administrations change.
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI never, or perhaps rarely, closed down liberal Catholic institutions that were totally at odds with their vision of the Church. Why not? Maybe they judged it would be too damaging to unity. A future conservative pope, if there is one, having seen Francis in action, may not make that same mistake. The instability will not soon be calmed. Looked at from a wholly secular perspective, the damage to the Catholic Church's brand by this papacy and its minions like Cardinal Cupich appears substantial. If Pope Francis ends up writing the report on the Pontifical Academy for Life somehow into authoritative Catholic teaching, then what NCR, referring to the document's de facto overturning of Humanae Vitae, calls "a necessary contradiction of the moral truth previous popes described and taught authoritatively" will be devastating. True, the fact that the overwhelming majority of American Catholics use contraception means that most people will not care all that much, the fact that Catholic doctrine can change so radically, in such a short period of time, will fundamentally challenge the Catholic Church's claim to be the bedrock of unchanging truth. How could it not? How can a small institute of the Catholic Church that uses a mass that had been normal in the Church for centuries, and that had been universally approved by the previous pope, now find itself out of business for saying that mass -- and the Church claims to be a rock of doctrinal stability? You tell me if you see a way, because I surely cannot.