For perhaps the first time in their history, American Catholics face the kind of existential conflict that destroyed mainline Protestant churches and threatens evangelical and Pentecostal ones — as one picture powerfully illustrates.

The Rev. Joseph Devlin, a pastor in suburban Philadelphia, tweeted a picture of a book in his trash can. The Foreword for the book, The Synodal Process is a Pandora’s Box, was written by Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis. Burke, who questions Francis’ theological positions, warned about an upcoming international synod that proposes fundamental changes to historic teaching.

American Catholics find themselves in the crossfire between those, like Devlin, who support Pope Francis come what may and those, like Burke, who question the fundamental direction Francis is leading the church.

Stones Instead of Bread

Burke’s camp includes Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who issued a pastoral letter Aug. 22 on the synod, which plans to address the sacramental status of remarried and divorced Catholics, gender ideology and ecumenism, at least. Like many of his fellow bishops, Strickland faces pressure to be more “welcoming” to LGBTQ activism, as The Stream often reported.

“The evil and false message that has entered the church … is that Jesus is only one among many, and that it is not necessary for his message to be shared with all humanity,” Strickland wrote. “This idea must be shunned and refuted at every turn.”

Strickland then briefly presented the historic teaching on now-controversial topics, before declaring that “the surest footing we can find is to remain firmly upon the perennial teachings of the faith,” he wrote.

Francis had only contempt for his conservative American critics while meeting with Portuguese Jesuits on Aug. 5. Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine edited by the Vatican, printed his remarks Aug. 28.

“There is a very strong reactionary attitude,” Francis said.

It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally. I would like to remind those people that indietrismo (being backward-looking) is useless and we need to understand that there is an appropriate evolution in the understanding of matters of faith and morals as long as we follow the three criteria that Vincent of Lérins already indicated in the fifth century.

In other words, doctrine also progresses, expands and consolidates with time and becomes firmer, but is always progressing. Change develops from the roots upward, growing in accord with these three criteria.

The term “faith and morals” holds particular significance for Catholics, who believe papal teaching on such subjects is infallible. So Francis uses Vincent’s criteria to justify his theological novelty. But what are those criteria, do they actually apply and what can all Christians learn from how this conflict plays out?

Birds Don’t Grow into Fish

Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th century British convert, popularized and refined Vincent’s criteria for doctrinal development, in his famous An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. Newman offered seven specific criteria for judging whether a doctrine was being organically developed and refined, or thwarted and perverted.

Newman pointed out the obvious: “Young birds do not grow into fishes, nor does the child degenerate into the brute (animal), wild or domestic … .” Newman warned that “a development, to be faithful, must retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.”

Theologian and Newman expert Rev. Juan R. Velez in 2014 criticized papal proposals to offer Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. That would contradict historic teaching, and open the door for those in same-sex “marriages” to demand the Church’s approval, which liberal bishops in Europe appear willing to give. Burke and three other Vatican cardinals formally asked Francis to explain his rationale. They have yet to receive an answer after seven years. Since then, two of the cardinals have died.

“The proposed doctrine seems to assimilate the Christian practice of mercy and forgiveness, but it contradicts others such as justice,” Velez wrote in Catholic World Report. Another of Newman’s tests asks whether an innovation in doctrine “is likely to be a true development, not a corruption.”  

Double and Bloody Minded

The problem is the pope’s subtle yet direct contradiction of Catholic teaching. When it comes to such subjects as gender ideology and abortion, Francis plays a double game. On the one hand, he offers lip service to historic teaching. But on the other, he appoints and supports Catholics who publicly disown that teaching.

Take gender ideology. As The Stream has often reported, Francis called gender theory “ideological colonization.” But personnel is policy, and Franci appoints such men as the Rev. James Martin and Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich to important positions. Martin, a papal communications advisor, not only uses social media to promote gender ideology, including sexual transition for children. He even criticized biblical condemnations of homosexuality on Twitter.

Hollerich, appointed to Francis’ closest circle of advisors in March, went further. He publicly rejected Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

Or take abortion. As The Stream often reported, Francis equated having an abortion to “hiring a hitman,” yet embraces and supports American and European politicians who support legalized abortion. Among them are Joe Biden and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who identify as Catholics.

In 2021, as head of the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria discouraged American bishops from applying canon law and withholding communion from such politicians.

The next year, the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, said on Italian television that the Vatican had no interest in opposing a 45-year-old law allowing abortion. Paglia even called the law “a pillar of our social life.”

The Serpent in the Vatican Gardens

In promoting his theological agenda, Francis lets others take the lead — and the immediate risks — while he silently supports them. Once conditions reach a tipping point, Francis can embrace the changes as a natural evolution. He demonstrated this exact behavior in 2018 concerning capital punishment.

For centuries, the Catholic Church accepted and defended the death penalty; the Papal States even used it. But in 1995, Pope John Paul II used his encyclical Evangelium Vitae to argue that capital punishment was fundamentally unnecessary. The head of CDF at the time — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI — changed the catechism to reflect that view.

As a result, the Vatican developed a basically abolitionist stance toward the death penalty. In 2018, Francis solidified that stance by calling capital punishment “inadmissible,” or fundamentally immoral. Once again, authorities changed the catechism. But the Rev. John Hardon, a Jesuit scholar, argued in 1975:

Nowhere in the New Testament is capital punishment outlawed. On the contrary, the New Testament not only recognizes the right of the State to exercise authority in the name of God but enjoins obedience to the State in applying the laws of God to its citizens.

Hardon’s critique decades before its time not only exposes Francis’ careless handling of theology for his own purposes, with Vincent of Lerins as an excuse. It reveals the utter contempt Francis and his allies have for divine revelation, especially Scripture, as do many “woke” Protestants.

Ironically, in citing Vincent, Francis actually contradicts him. As the fifth-century monk wrote:

What, if some novel contagion seeks to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his (a Catholic’s) care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.

Or, as Malachi put it: “I am the LORD. I do not change.”

 

Joseph D’Hippolito has written commentaries for such outlets as the Jerusalem Post, the American Thinker and Front Page Magazine. He works as a free-lance writer.

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