How far can the Church go and still be the Church?
In his address to the Bishops at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis identified and briefly described several temptations that the Church faces in her “journey” ahead for confronting the “many difficulties and innumerable [pastoral] challenges that families must confront; to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families.”
At the heart of his address are several temptations. How should we think about these temptations? I would like to answer this question by drawing on an image used by the Evangelical Protestant, Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) in a little book he wrote ("The Church Before the Watching World") some years back about “absolute limits beyond which a Christian cannot go and still stand in the historic stream of Christianity."
Schaeffer urges us to use the image of “a circle within which there is freedom to move.” The circle should be such that we will know when “we come to a place of danger.” In other words, he explains, “the edge of the circle” should be seen “as an absolute limit past which we ‘fall of the edge of the cliff’ and are no longer Christians at this particular point in our thinking.” Indeed, Schaeffer concludes, “Nothing, it seems to me, could be more valuable than to recognize some of the places where the ultimate borderline rests."
Now, I think Schaeffer’s image here is relevant in understanding the temptations Francis identifies and briefly describes because, or so it seems to me, he is trying to help us recognize “the places where the ultimate borderline rests.” Although he doesn’t spell out in detail what those absolute limits are, he does refer to them. For instance, “the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et spes, 48).”
Indeed, at the close of the address Francis describes in some detail with the help of predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI the nature, responsibility and limits of the papacy, emphasizing the servant form of this ministry.
“The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant — the ‘servant of the servants of God’; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being — by the will of Christ Himself — the ‘supreme pastor and Teacher of all the faithful’ (Can. 749) and despite enjoying ‘supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church’ (cf. Cann. 331-334).” Here the pope is, arguably, assuring the whole Church that his “teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum, §10).
Now, we might think that only those the pope calls “progressive and liberals” will fall off the edge of the cliff, but, no, Francis suggests that those whom he calls “traditionalists and [. . .] intellectuals” may do so as well. How so?
Traditionalists and Intellectuals
Consider the first temptation to “hostile inflexibility.” This temptation is not about holding on to the fundamental truths of the Catholic Faith, such as the pope identifies in his brief description of the Sacrament of Marriage. Of course the truths expressed in John Paul II’s 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio are still universally valid. The temptation is, rather, about thinking that there is only one way to express or formulate in sentences those fundamental truths, and hence if one varies from those particular traditional formulations, he is ruled out as lacking in orthodoxy. I think we need to understand that Pope Francis is a man of Vatican II on this matter. He is following Pope John XXIII (who is following Vatican I, Dei filius, and the 5th century monk Vincent of Lérins, Commonitórium primum, 23) on this matter by presupposing that no one single formulation can exhaust the truths of the faith and hence he is implicitly drawing on a distinction between truth and its formulations that John made in a famous statement at the beginning of Vatican II: “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another.” In short, truth is unchangeable, development of dogma is not a development of truth, but a development in the Church’s understanding of the truth.