It is clear to my mind, from everything Pope Francis has said and done so far, that the holy Pontiff has significant changes in mind for the Church. Now the most likely timing for him to promulgate those changes will be the Synod of Bishops meeting beginning October 4th of 2015. Pope Francis has been building up to the Synod of Bishops meeting in 2015 for over a year. He held an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October of 2014. It was only the third extraordinary Synod of Bishops ever held. The 2015 meeting is the 14th Ordinary General Assembly. So the use of the Extraordinary meeting to prepare for the Ordinary one indicates he is placing great import on this 2015 event.
A word of caution: In the Catholic Church, a change to discipline or a new definition of doctrine is not effective or binding until it is promulgated. For a doctrine, the teaching usually needs to be published in a document of the Pope or the Holy See. For discipline, the change needs to be implemented in Canon Law, or set forth in a published document of the Pope or the Holy See. No matter how clear it may seem that the Pope is about to teach or rule on doctrine or discipline, nothing is binding until he actually teaches or rules.
Can. 7 A law is established when it is promulgated.
The topic of the Synod of Bishops is “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World”. This subject area is so broad that Pope Francis could make a wide range of changes to discipline and issue new definitions of doctrine in many areas of theology, while easily relating these rulings and teachings to the topic at hand. The ideas of vocation, mission, family, the Church, and the world cover or relate in some way to almost every part of the Faith.
What is the Pope able to teach or rule at the Synod? The Pope is the head of the Church on earth; he is the representative of Christ. He holds the two “keys” of Saint Peter: the teaching authority and the temporal authority. These two types of authority govern doctrine and discipline, respectively. At any time, he can change his mind and decide not to issue a document, or not to change an aspect of discipline. So we cannot be certain what will happen in October of 2015. But if you follow the news on the Pope, I think you might agree with me that the Pope desires to teach new doctrines and to make substantial changes in discipline. And he seems unwilling to wait much longer.
Pope Francis is the Roman Pontiff of the Catholic Church. It is a dogmatic fact that Francis is a valid Pope. And no Pope can ever fall into apostasy, heresy, or schism, for the Church is indefectible. His teachings at the Synod might seem like new ideas or innovations to his critics. But I believe that he will teach the truth from Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, truths always found at least implicitly in Divine Revelation. No matter how “new” a teaching of any Pope might seem, it is always a teaching of Jesus Christ, based on the Sacred Deposit of Faith (Tradition and Scripture).
As for discipline, the Pope has the authority to make whatever changes he wishes. A discipline is not a teaching. And although good discipline is related to doctrine, it is absurd to try to conflate an apparent error or imprudent decision of discipline into a denial of doctrine. If you do not like a decision of the Pope on discipline, you are free to disagree. But if you then claim that a supposedly unwise discipline is equivalent to heresy, and that the Pope has fallen away from the true Faith, you are sadly mistaken. No Pope can fall into heresy. And discipline is not doctrine. But if you insist on rejecting the Pope, then it is you who has fallen away from the Faith. Each Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and you are not.
Below is a list of the doctrines and disciplines which I believe are likely to be promulgated in October of 2015. I am NOT saying that Pope Francis will issue all of these teachings and rulings at that time. In all likelihood, the teachings and rulings at the Synod will be a subset of this list. It is also likely that the Pope will offer some teachings and rulings not found on the list, things which I did not anticipate.
** Note well that these proposed possible teachings and rulings are my own speculation as to what the Pope might teach and rule in the future. In my opinion, these teachings are in complete accord with the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium, and, in my opinion, these changes to discipline are compatible with the practice of the Catholic Faith. But at this point in time, you might disagree.
On Matters of Doctrine:
1. Pope Francis might teach that the Church has the authority to ordain women to the diaconate. The Magisterium has already infallibly taught that the Church lacks the authority to ordain women as priests and bishops, but the question of ordination to the diaconate is still open.
2. Pope Francis might teach that non-Catholic Christians can be saved without converting to Catholicism.
3. Pope Francis might teach that non-Christian believers can be saved without converting to Christianity.
4. Pope Francis might teach that non-believers (atheists, agnostics) can be saved without converting to belief in God.
In my understanding of salvation theology, the above three points are already implied by past magisterial teachings. But many conservatives and traditionalists disagree; they greatly narrow the possibility of salvation outside of Catholicism and outside of Christianity. I believe they are mistaken, and I expect the Magisterium to clarify Church teaching on this subject.
5. Pope Francis might teach that the non-infallible teachings of the Church can err to a limited extent, though never to such an extent as to lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.
6. Pope Francis might teach that some faithful dissent from non-infallible teachings is possible, to a limited extent.
The above two points are not new; there are a few magisterial documents supporting these ideas. However, a strong statement from the Magisterium on this subject would be controversial.
7. Pope Francis will likely reiterate the Church’s teaching that the use of contraception is always gravely immoral.
8. Pope Francis will likely reiterate the Church’s teaching that direct abortion is always gravely immoral.
9. Pope Francis might clarify Church teaching on Natural Family Planning, and propose a new push to teach Catholic couples about NFP.
A Synod on the subject of the Family cannot ignore the topics of abortion and contraception. Pope Francis is liberal but orthodox. He is not going to change the teaching of the Church on morality, as some liberals hope that he might.
10. I hope that Pope Francis will take this opportunity to reiterate the Church’s teaching against simony, including (by extension) the charging of fees, under various excuses, for baptism preparation, the baptism ceremony, and especially weddings.
11. Pope Francis might respond to those critics who are already intimating that they might accuse him of heresy. His likely response would be to teach that no Pope can ever fall into apostasy, heresy, or schism.
12. Pope Francis might choose to exercise Papal Infallibility to teach some new definition of doctrine, on one or more of the above points, or on some other point that I have not anticipated.
Some commentators expect liberal Popes, Cardinals, and Bishops to be less “dogmatic” and more “pastoral”. But I believe that liberal Church leaders are no less likely to exercise their proper authority. And I notice that Pope Francis has exercised his authority as Pope to make various changes in discipline, including reforms to the Vatican curia. He will not shy away from issuing authoritative teachings and rulings.
On Matters of Discipline:
1. Pope Francis might permit divorced and remarried Catholics might be permitted to receive Communion on a good conscience basis.
2. Pope Francis might open up new paths for divorced Catholics to obtain annulments, bypassing the Marriage Tribunals in many cases. For example, after a preliminary examination of the case, he could permit only the signatures of the couple and the parish pastor on a document to declare an annulment.
3. Pope Francis might rule that various “marginalized” Catholics to be permitted to receive Communion on a good conscience basis, perhaps including: divorced and remarried Catholics (absent an annulment), gay “married” Catholics, cohabitating Catholics, and other persons guilty of objective mortal sin. The basis for this ruling would be the distinction between objective mortal sin and actual mortal sin.
4. Canon 915 presently reads: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.” This canon is likely to be changed or nullified by the Pope at the Synod. It is not compatible with his view on who should be permitted to receive Communion.
5. Pope Francis might permit flexibility in liturgical form. Priests might be permitted to make minor changes ad hoc to the form of the Mass, without permission from anyone. He might also place restrictions on the Latin form of the Mass.
6. Pope Francis might grant broad permission for married men to become priests in the Latin Rite. (There have long been some married priests in the Latin Rite, so this is a change of discipline, not doctrine.)
7. Pope Francis might permit or require dioceses and parishes to baptize and educate the children of gay couples and other persons not living in full accord with Catholic moral teachings. He might forbid Catholic schools from refusing to hire or admit as students such persons.
8. Pope Francis might grant a broad forgiveness from various Church penalties, ranging from interdicts to excommunications.
9. If Pope Francis teaches that women can be ordained to the diaconate, he will also make the necessary accompanying changes to discipline and Canon law. If he so teaches, he will also plan to begin ordaining women deacons in the near future. (I think this will begin in January of 2016.)
10. Pope Francis might change the rules and laws of the Church for priests and others accused of child abuse. I would expect these changes to be aimed at greater protection for children, with harsher treatment of accused perpetrators and the opening of Church records to law enforcement and the courts.
11. Pope Francis might decide to appoint some women Cardinals, who would be non-ordained (lay persons) at first, and perhaps latter ordained to the diaconate.
12. I expect more than a few changes to Canon Law may accompany the promulgation of changes to discipline at the Synod.
And now a Question:
If the Pope teaches or rules in accord with some of the above points, how will you react? Which points are of greatest concern to you, and which do you find entirely unacceptable?
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