Petition of Catholic Priests to the Synod of Bishops

Two petitions, signed by Catholic priests and addressed to the upcoming Synod of Bishops (Oct. 2015), are circulating online and in print. The wording of each, in the key paragraphs, is the same:

“Following the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2014 much confusion has arisen concerning Catholic moral teaching. In this situation we wish, as Catholic priests, to re-state our unwavering fidelity to the traditional doctrines regarding marriage and the true meaning of human sexuality, founded on the Word of God and taught by the Church’s Magisterium for two millennia.

We commit ourselves anew to the task of presenting this teaching in all its fullness, while reaching out with the Lord’s compassion to those struggling to respond to the demands and challenges of the Gospel in an increasingly secular society. Furthermore we affirm the importance of upholding the Church’s traditional discipline regarding the reception of the sacraments, and that doctrine and practice remain firmly and inseparably in harmony.

We urge all those who will participate in the second Synod in October 2015 to make a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed.” [Catholic Herald]

The US petition is modeled after the UK one:

“In union with our brother priests in the United Kingdom (conforming to the teachings summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1650-51), we make our own the petition they signed urging the Synod Fathers in the upcoming Synod to stand firm on the Church’s traditional understanding of marriage, human sexuality and pastoral practices….” [US Petition]

I have a few criticisms of this petition.

First, the assertion of “unwavering fidelity to the traditional doctrines regarding marriage and the true meaning of human sexuality” is not supported by the words and actions of many priests. Most priests do not speak against abortion, abortifacient contraception, and contraception from the pulpit. And most do not write against these sins on the internet or in print. Most priests rarely, if ever, preach, speak, or write against the many sexual sins that plague society today: premarital sex, masturbation, pornography, homosexuality, and unnatural sexual acts within marriage. And even on the narrow topic of divorce and remarriage, most priests never speak out against divorce and remarriage. Their “unwavering fidelity” must be a secret fidelity in their hearts, because they rarely if ever reveal it in their words and deeds.

How many of the Catholics appointed by their priests to positions of leadership and responsibility in the parish are committing various grave sins, without repentance or confession? Far too many. Contraception is widely used among lay leaders in the Church. Other sexual sins are also widespread among the laity, and not absent from the lay leadership. Why are these grave sins being ignored by our priests?

Second, the main concern of these petitions is to deny Communion to persons who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. The sections of the CCC mentioned in the US petition, n. 1650-51, are on that topic only. Yet how many of these priests tell their parishioners, from the pulpit or in a written statement in the weekly parish bulletin, not to receive Communion if they are divorced and remarried? It is rare. They don’t mind confronting the Pope and the Synod of Bishops with a public petition, but they don’t want to confront their parishioners.

Third, to deny Communion to the divorced and remarried while admitting to Communion persons who commit sins that are equal or worse is utter hypocrisy. We all know what the custom is in parishes throughout the US and UK. Nearly everyone goes to Communion; hardly anyone goes to Confession. And how many of these persons, who receive Communion without Confession, are committing grave sins: using contraception, using abortifacient contraception, using pornography, engaging in masturbation, or premarital sex, or unnatural sexual acts within marriage? These are all grave sins, just as grave if not more so than having sexual relations after divorce and remarriage (which is a type of adultery).

If these priests really did have unwavering fidelity to Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality, they would tell their parishioners to GO TO CONFESSION. They would tell them that the only moral sexual act is natural marital relations open to life. They would forbid them from receiving Communion if they were using contraception or abortifacient contraception, or if they were unrepentant from any other grave sin. Many divorced and remarried Catholics do not believe they are sinning by their second marriage. Many validly married Catholic couples do not believe they are sinning by using contraception. But the Church teaches otherwise — except from the pulpit.

Not all Catholic priests are guilty of this hypocrisy. I have heard priests give sermons against abortion, contraception, divorce and remarriage, pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, and other sins. I heard one priest say, in his sermon: “As a priest who hears confessions, I can tell you that seldom does anyone confess the sin of contraception. But I know that many of you are using contraception.” And he went on to speak against the sin of contraception as well as other sins.

Why doesn’t this petition ask the Pope and the Bishops to speak and write against abortion, abortifacient contraception, contraception, and all of the popular sexual sins — popular even among Mass-going Catholics? Why doesn’t this petition ask the Synod to lay down a new discipline: no Communion for anyone who has committed any objective mortal sin, including the above mentioned sexual sins, before making a good Confession? There can be exceptions to this type of general prohibition, for a grave reason, after an act of perfect contrition. But otherwise the rule should be consistent: repent from every grave sin, and go to Confession, before receiving Communion.

The petition says: “we affirm the importance of upholding the Church’s traditional discipline regarding the reception of the sacraments….” But what this petition is really proposing is the comfortable and sinful status quo. Most Communion-receiving Catholics have committed numerous objective mortal sins since their last Confession, and most do not even acknowledge that these acts are grave sins. The petition seeks to continue to exclude from Communion — rightly so — those who are guilty of adultery due to divorce and remarriage. But the petition and its signatories say absolutely nothing about persons committing sexual sins that are just as grave. And the phrasing “traditional discipline” indicates that they are proposing no change to that status quo. They are tacitly approving of the reception of Communion by persons who commit all manner of grave sins, except divorce and remarriage.

Fourth, the petition makes a false claim, that discipline and doctrine are inseparable: “doctrine and practice remain firmly and inseparably in harmony.” Yes, there should be a certain harmony between doctrine and discipline (practice). However, it is a dogmatic truth that the two are separable. For the Council of Florence infallibly taught that Christ dispensed (did away with) all of the Old Testament disciplines. Yet the ten commandments and all of the teachings of the Old Testament on faith and morals were unaffected by this stunning change in discipline. Furthermore, the disciplines of the Old Testament were established by Divine Revelation. No set of disciplines could be more firmly established, and yet all were taken away.

When Christ was asked about the woman caught in adultery, he faced a situation involving discipline — the Mosaic death penalty for adultery — and doctrine — the Ten Commandments condemn adultery as a grave sin. And what was His response? He completely and permanently nullified the discipline, while retaining the doctrine unchanged. So it is a ridiculous false claim to say that doctrine and discipline are inseparable.

Fifth, the petition asks the Pope and the Bishops: “to make a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed.” Again, this is a hypocrisy. The priests who signed this petition have the ability to teach from the pulpit. They might also teach in print or on the internet. Yet very few priests make any kind of “clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching” on matters of abortion, abortifacient contraception, contraception, and the full range of grave sexual sins plaguing the members of the Church today.

If there is any confusion on Church teaching, it is largely because the priests and lay leaders of the Church have failed to teach what the Church already teaches: that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. And there is no shortage of priests and lay leaders whose theology on this topic is a mere rationalization for sin. They permit abortifacient contraception by Catholic married couples while the couple remains sexually active; then they justify the resultant deaths of innocent prenatals. They claim that married couples may commit all manner of gravely immoral sexual acts. They fail to rebuke Catholic spouses who use contraception, and unmarried Catholics who are sexually active.

My preference for discipline on reception of Communion is that all Catholics be required to go to Confession at least once every 3 or 4 months, in order to receive Communion. And anyone guilty of any objective mortal sin should not receive Communion until they have repented and confessed that sin. Married couples may not use contraception for any reason. Women may not take abortifacient contraception for a medical purpose, unless they refrain from all sexual activity while taking that medication. Married couples many not use unnatural sexual acts as “foreplay”, regardless of intention or circumstances. And anyone committing any grave sexual sin of any kind should not receive Communion until they have repented and confessed.

I firmly acknowledge the authority of the Pope and the Bishops to decide the discipline for reception of Communion according to their own judgment. And I think that perhaps God wills a looser discipline for the present time, in preparation for the tribulation, so that as many sinners as possible might be brought to repentance by the Sacraments and the Mass. How long will this looser discipline prevail? Only for a short time, about one to three years. For the valid and holy successor to the valid and holy Pope Francis will be very conservative.

What will happen when Pope Francis and the Bishops issue decisions on doctrine and discipline at the Synod this October? I believe that most traditionalists and many conservatives will falsely accuse Pope Francis of heresy and depart from the one true Church in a massive worldwide schism. Most Catholics will not depart, but the number who join in the schism will be a large minority. Ironically, by falsely accusing Pope Francis of heresy over a dispute about who may receive Communion, they themselves become guilty of the sin of formal schism, which carries the penalty of automatic excommunication.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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6 Responses to Petition of Catholic Priests to the Synod of Bishops

  1. Fr Paul Acton says:

    Mr Conte,
    The US priest’s petition, rightly focuses on what can be publicly known, namely, the very public sin of adultery when one attempts to (re)marry after a divorce, but without an annulment.

    Your accusations of hypocrisy are thereby weakened since the other sins you mention, concerning which you complain that these 600+ priests are silent, are not committed in the external forum. You fail to make the distinction between what is known by all publicly and what is not. Perhaps your critique would be more consistent if you had faulted these priests for not challenging politicians who sin in the public domain by participating in the sin of abortion, etc… but then, you don’t know that they are silent on this matter.

    Indeed, your accusations of hypocrisy are weakened by the fact that you don’t know these priests or the content of their homilies, and the generalizations you use are insufficient to make a strong, concrete application of your critique to any of them. Perhaps these 600+ priests are more faithful that you imagine?

    Furthermore, in anticipation of the Synod this October, the US priest’s petition rightly focuses on publicly upholding the indissolubility of marriage against the very public attempts by certain German cardinals (Kasper and Marx, et al) and others, to undermine the Church’s longstanding pastoral practice of not admitting public adulterers to holy communion. To do so would immediately and of necessity undermine not only the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but also of the necessity of worthy reception of our Blessed Lord in holy communion (lest by eating and drinking His Body and Blood in a state of mortal sin we bring and even greater judgment to ourselves).

    • Ron Conte says:

      You say, rightly, that no one should receive Communion in a state of mortal sin. And then you restrict the judgment of who may receive to the external forum, ignoring the many grave sins committed by Catholics who regularly receive Communion without Confession. What you propose is Pharisaism: clean only the outside of the cup.

      If those 600+ priests were more faithful, they would have proposed that anyone guilty of any mortal sin, including the all-too-common sins I list in my post, should not receive Communion. Instead, they ignore these many grave sins, and propose, in effect, that persons committing these sins continue to receive.

      They also wrongly assume that the Pope and the Bishops are about to go astray, by a decision on discipline, rather than doctrine. Jesus did not undermine the longstanding teaching against adultery, when He nullified the Mosaic death penalty for adultery. And the Pope does not undermine any doctrine if he mercifully permits a broader reception of Communion, as long as the individual is not conscious of actual mortal sin.

      In fact, the Church has long permitted Orthodox Christians to receive Communion (in certain circumstances), despite being unrepentant from the objectively grave sins of heresy and schism in the external forum (your main concern). Why do these petitions make no mention of this grave sin? Or of any other grave sins at all, whether public or private? My preference is for a strict and narrow ruling on who may receive. But I will not accuse the Pope, Cardinals, and Bishops of going astray if their judgment differs from mine.

  2. Fr Paul Acton says:

    Mr Conte,
    Unfortunately, you have chosen to question the faithfulness of priests you don’t know based on what they haven’t said.

    “If those 600+ priests were more faithful, they would have proposed that anyone guilty of any mortal sin, including the all-too-common sins I list in my post, should not receive Communion.”

    You fault them for what you deem to be a great lacuna in their petition to the Pope as if these other mortal sins were left out intentionally. The notion you put forward that they are, ‘in effect’ proposing that people in other related mortal sins should continue to present themselves for Communion is a notion based on the extremely weak argument from silence – on what is not said.

    Then, going further along this road to nowhere, because of what was not said in the petition, you assume that they never address these related mortal sins in other forums (like homilies) and are therefore hypocrites, because they dare to respond to this issue without including your ‘list’. I am sure that it may have occurred to you that this petition is a narrowly focused response to a specific topic, namely, Communion for the divorced and remarried, which was raised first, not by them, but by Cardinal Kasper. The petition limits itself, as it should, to the specific issue at hand.

    You assume, wrongly, that I, along with those 600+ priests, never preach on these moral issues and mortal sins. This rash generalization is unbecoming of sound argument… and I tried to point this out to you, respectfully – and certainly without name-calling. I didn’t get much respect in return. Be that as it may, do you suppose that having warned regular parishioners of these things, and the spiritual danger of receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin that some do not still get in line and present themselves to me thus on Sunday mornings? Or that they may have been to another confessor? or that there are visitors, etc.? Yet, you call me a hypocrite as a priest because I do not presume to know the private mortal sins of those who present themselves publicly for Communion. You fault me as a pharisee for restricting my judgment at the time of Communion to the external forum as if I have no concern for the inner washing of the souls of the faithful.

    I suggest to you, Mr Conte, that you do not know me that well, nor the priests who have signed this petition. You would do well not to read-in what is not there, nor to judge as hypocrites those who for all you know may be quite faithful after all.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Prove it. Write a comment here telling Catholics that they should not receive Communion if they have been using contraception or have committed any immoral sexual acts, unless they first repent and confess.

  3. Mr Conte,
    I concur and fully affirm that Catholics should not receive Communion if they have been using contraception or have committed any immoral sexual acts, unless they first repent and confess.

    I wasn’t going to engage in this exchange any further today, but what you demand is simple. So, as you rather bluntly demanded, I have asserted (and that very easily) that I am willing to accept and publicly proclaim the Church’s clear teaching on the above named issues. This is your ‘living room’ so to speak and I am your guest, so I respect your right to do so, though it is unfortunate that it has come to this, that you felt the need to issue such a challenge to a priest… but then, this is the internet and, like I said in a previous comment, you do not know me.

    I honestly wish you well, Mr Conte. I do not consider myself your adversary, though I have been treated like one. I have been reading your blog for years and have often found your posts helpful and informative. In what I hope was true charity, I tried to respectfully challenge the way you laid out your argument on a very important topic. However, in doing so I broke my own rule of not commenting on blogs. I am reminded now why I should have kept to my rule.

  4. Ron Conte says:

    I withdraw my criticism of you, Fr. Paul, which I previous stated. Yes, this issue is so important that I should speak bluntly and sharply. But I will amend my previous comments (by editing them). thanks.

Comments are closed.