There’s an unfortunate tendency among Catholics and Protestants alike to relish the misfortunes of the other. When some evangelical megachurch pastor ham-fistedly embraces the LGBT agenda, Catholics will quip that it was inevitable thanks to the Reformation. When Pope Francis appears to undermine orthodox Christian teaching in a garbled answer to some interviewer’s question, Protestants will snark about the “commie pope.”
Just last week, for example, a short (and admittedly disturbing) video clip of Pope Francis surrounded by scantily-clad circus performers made the rounds on social media, triggering predictable Protestant jeers like, “Never too late to join the Reformation!”
But something is afoot in Rome right now that should worry Protestants as much as Catholics. The Vatican’s “Synod on Synodality,” which begins today, at first glance appears to be an exercise in self-referential academese, like having a conference about conferences.
But the synod isn’t just a bunch of bishops deliberating over ecclesial governance. The real purpose and ambition of the synod is to change the Catholic Church — something that should concern Christians everywhere, Catholics and Protestants alike (more on that in a minute). As Michael Brendan Dougherty notes, the entire point of the synod is “for a large group of bishops to debate each other about survey material they guided some small number of lay Catholics through in their home diocese, and whether this pile of papers gives sufficient cover for the pope to begin chucking certain moral and dogmatic teachings of the church overboard in favor of newer understandings.”
At this point, it’s clear that this is exactly what Pope Francis is trying to do. How will he do it? By hiding behind the fig leaf of “development of doctrine” and “pastoral charity.” Take, for example, his startling remarks about marriage and the possibility of priests blessing homosexual unions, issued privately in July but made public just last week. The comments confirm what observers of Pope Francis have long known: He is intentionally vague about matters that should be clear-cut, and this vagueness sows confusion. Why would he want to sow confusion? To open up room for change. Indeed, one way to interpret the pope’s muddled remarks about blessing homosexual unions is that he’s opening the door to radical change in Catholic practice without technically changing Catholic doctrine (something the pope, in any case, cannot do).
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