Little Impact on Marital Teachings

The Roman Catholic Synod on the Family has recently ended and most people are focused upon the impact which it would have upon the Roman Catholic practice and teaching on marriage. For myself personally, I do not see the significance of the Synod in its effect upon Roman Catholic marriage and communion. I shall justify this claim first before moving on to what I think is the more important impact of the Synod. For the sake of brevity, when I refer to the “divorced” Roman Catholics, it is simply short for “divorced and remarried” Roman Catholics so that I don’t have to keep typing “divorced and remarried”.

The main reason why I think the Synod is more or less irrelevant as far as the issue of the communion of the divorced is concerned is simply due to the reforms in canon law which Pope Francis introduced. Here are the most significant changes as presented by this article:

The biggest innovation of the reform backed by Francis is however the procedure called “shorter.”

Very short, actually. According to the new canons it can begin and end in the span of just 45 days, with the local bishop as the sole and ultimate judge.

Recourse to the abbreviated procedure is allowed “in cases in which the alleged nullity of the marriage is supported by particularly evident arguments.”

But there’s more. Recourse to this kind of procedure is not only allowed but encouraged, seeing the superabundant illustration of supporting circumstances furnished by article 14 § 1 of the “Procedural rules” attached to the motu proprio.

The article says:

“Among the circumstances that can allow the handling of the marital nullity case by means of the shorter procedure […] there are for example:
– that lack of faith which can generate the simulation of consent or the error that determines the will,
– the brevity of conjugal cohabitation,
– abortion procured to prevent procreation,
– stubborn persistence in an extramarital relationship at the time of the wedding or immediately afterward,
– the malicious concealment of sterility or of a grave contagious disease, or of children born from a previous relationship, or of incarceration;
– the grounds of the marriage being entirely extraneous to conjugal life or consistent with the unexpected pregnancy of the woman,
– physical violence inflicted to extort consent,
– lack of the use of reason corroborated by medical documents, etc.”

The list is stunning in its disjointed variety. It includes circumstances, like physical violence inflicted to extort consent, that are actual grounds for the nullity of a marriage. But it includes others, like the brevity of conjugal cohabitation, that cannot in any way support a decree of invalidity. And it includes yet another, the lack of faith, that although difficult to evaluate is ever more frequently evoked as the new universal master key for nullity. And yet these circumstances are all listed on an equal footing, together with a final “etc.” that induces one to add other examples at will.

But in addition to being heterogeneous, the list appears to be misleading. In and of itself it lists circumstances that would simply allow one to access the “shorter” procedure. But it is very easy to interpret it as a list of cases that allow one to obtain the recognition of nullity. Many couples have experienced one of the circumstances illustrated – for example, pregnancy before the wedding – and it is therefore natural that the conviction should arise in them that, upon request, their marriage can be dissolved, seeing also the pressure that the Church exercises in suggesting – precisely in the presence of those circumstances – recourse to the procedure of nullity, and moreover to the quick one.

In short, if to this one adds that in every diocese there will have to be a preliminary service of consultation to put on this track those who are seen as fit for it, once a “shorter” procedure thus constituted is underway a decree of nullity will be practically guaranteed. Which according to the common understanding is a divorce

The long and short of it is that Pope Francis has already sneaked in divorce under the guise of “annulments” in the Roman Church. The more vital point however is granting the bishop the right to approve “annulments”. To get a sense of the significance of this consider also another marital practice which requires episcopal approval: Roman Catholics marrying non-Christians. Technically one is supposed to receive episcopal approval before a Roman Catholic is allowed to marry a non-Christian, however today this approval has simply become a matter of course. Imagine now annulment declarations which are subject only to the bishop’s approval, soon enough Roman Catholic “annulments” would become as common as Roman Catholics marrying non-Christians.

Given these radical changes to the practice of marriages and “annulments”, the Synod on the Family is merely a publicity event, a press conference after the fact to decide how to disguise, or dress up, the changes after the fact. As such, I do not see the Synod as having much of a practical impact upon the practice of marriage and annulments in the Roman Church.

The Battle of Narratives

The importance of the Synod however consists not so much upon marriage and annulments itself but in the destablising of Roman Catholic consciousness as the conservative and traditional Roman Catholics’s conception of the Roman Catholic Church becomes increasingly idealised and abstract.

To understand this point we would need to grasp the main problem of the Synod: its inherent ambiguity. The problem is that the Synod does not outright censure or approve of communion for the divorced. It leaves it very much an open question which could be read either way. (To get a much more in depth analysis on the difficulties of reading the Synod one should read this article.) One of the key problems is the reference to the concept of the “internal forum” whereby the divorced faithful could determine, after examining their own conscience, whether they should take communion. The “internal forum” path to allowing the divorced to take communion was discussed during the Synod, but while the final document includes the concept, it doesn’t actually explicitly say that the internal forum can be used to allow the divorced to take communion. It just ambiguously says that the divorced person, in consultation with his or her priest and their internal forum, can determine what sort of participation in their Church is compatible with the “demands of truth and charity in the Gospel”.

So what we have here is an ambiguous document which could be read either way. The conservatives can say that the document does not explicitly authorise the divorced and remarried to take communion, the liberals can say that the “internal forum” path has been opened. The problem is that without an explicit canon preventing the divorced from taking communion, the conservatives will have no hope of preventing this from becoming a widespread practice. In short, communion for the divorced and remarried has been practically enabled.

What are we left with then? What we have here is simply a battle of narratives. We shall simply have two competing accounts of what “the Church teaches” or “what is Roman Catholic practice”, neither of which is determinative. As communion for the divorced and remarried becomes a practical reality, and short of another official document clarifying the Synod’s meaning or a new set of canon laws, the conservative’s narrative of the constitution of their church becomes divorced from the actual lived practice of Roman Catholics Church. They can say that the Roman Catholic Church teaches such and such, but the basis of their claims has no ground upon concrete institutional reality. There is neither canonical nor institutional nor even clerical backing for their claims. All they have is a narrative reconstruction of what is the “true” Roman Catholic Church and her teaching, but unfortunately nothing else.

Living by Ex Cathedra Alone

Given the problems which the Synod is posing for the conservative Roman Catholic narrative, their easiest recourse is to simply concede that the Synod is not ex cathedra or Magisterial Roman Catholic teaching. As such, one can claim that the Synod is simply not binding.

This solution is however too convenient and would lead to numerous problems. Haphazard and arbitrary use of the concept of ex cathedra or Magisterial to exclude documents and councils which one does not like can backfire very badly. As I’ve argued before (here and here), the problem with the concept of ex cathedra or Magisterial teaching is that there is no fixed theory or doctrine for determining which councils or documents are so. Different Roman Catholics have different theories as to which documents are ex cathedra and which are not, ranging from there only being three infallible dogmas to “creeping infallibility” that most documents are Magisterial. If one arbitrarily employs the concept of ex cathedra or Magisterial teachings to exclude the Synod on the Family, then the liberals can very well use the same concept to exclude teachings about the indissolubility of marriage or allowing the divorced to commune, claiming that those are not “infallible” or “Magisterial” teachings.

Once the institutional apparatus of the Roman Catholic Church is no longer an unambiguous source of Roman Catholic truths, the burden for articulating the “true” faith and rightly identifying the “true” Magisterial pronouncements would necessarily be shifted towards various particular Roman Catholic persons and factions. When the foundation of the faith shifts from an objective external reality to a open ended and plastic narrative maintained by constant subjective articulation and narration, the faith becomes once removed from reality and artificial, seemingly maintained only by an act of will without any objective external support.

Such a faith is no longer something which comes “naturally” and lived immediately, the faith is mediated through a closely guarded narrative artefact which needs to be constantly “properly” explained in order to preserve the faith. One will inevitably spend at lot more time articulating how one believes rather than what one believes. To use the cliché about the Zen master and the moon, one’s focus will be upon the finger rather than the moon. Such a faith will be necessarily interrogative, vigilant. Every belief must be checked against the narrative, every practice made to cohere with it, and before one can believe in anything one must make sure that it is truly Magisterial rather than just plain true.

Can man live by ex cathedra pronouncements alone? I doubt it. To confine oneself to a highly artificial narrative or system is to cut oneself from the immediacy of the faith and the fullness of the Christian life. It is always the case that the actual living faith will exceed both artificially constructed narratives as well as attempts to control it by canonical boundaries.

Conclusion: The Rift between the “True” Believers and the Rest

The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholic Church life will go on, warts and all. Probably only about 10-20% of Roman Catholics care about what Roman Catholicism “really” is. The rest will pray to their saints, fornicate, use contraceptives, miss Mass occasionally, lie, cheat, go for Confession in Lent, read Chesterton, lend money to their poor friends, look after their relative’s children, get “annulments”, etc, without being too worried about what truly constitutes Roman Catholicism. Sometimes there is really more to life than religion.

The effect of the Synod however will be an ever more militant “true” believer sect within the Roman Catholic Church, alone upholding the “true” Roman Catholic faith. It is one thing to merely have a liberal faction within the Church, but now they seems to have brought down any institutional opposition to them and the “elite” true believer must pick up the slack. However in any organisation of sufficient size, such a “committed” true believer sect will always be a minority, especially when they have to exhaust so much energy protecting and hedging their narrative. Before the Synod the “true” believers can unambiguously offload the task of defining “true” Roman Catholicism to the institutional apparatus, now they can no longer do so and need to do it themselves. The “true” Roman Catholic Church becomes ever more invisible, ever more difficult to define and locate. Is it the case that the Church is now no longer a safe ark of salvation but instead a sinking ship which needs the efforts of the “remnant” to stay afloat?

Is such a faith which needs to constantly police its boundaries and reconstruct its contours worth practising? Can they reconcile the paradox of being part of a Church which supposedly provides a guarantee of Christian truth and practice but which is upheld only by their own narration? I guess we can only tell with time.


The subsequent letter on the Synod by Pope Francis Amoris Laetitia, has created a veritable firestorm within the Roman Church as to whether or not he has opened the door to communion for the divorced. As debates over the meaning of the letter rage, the dispute has been compounded by a directive by the bishops of Argentina to the clergy, seemingly opening the way further, and with Pope Francis’s letter confirming it in these words “The document is very good and completely explains the meaning of chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia. There are no other interpretations.”

As I have noted before, what has happened now is that there is an almost obsessive focus within conservative Roman Catholic circles to maintain their narrative against the primary facts seemingly going against it. If Pope Francis truly has a desire to reform the church in a much more liberal direction, his strategy seems to be to simply win the war by sheer attrition by wearing down the conservatives needing to spin every single one of his ambiguous directives. And it does seem to be working for the conservative wing is already becoming tired of explaining every single one of his words.

One thought on “Shall Romanists Live by Ex Cathedra Alone? Implications of the Synod on the Family”
  1. […] [Addendum: This issue has been brought into sharp focus with the recent controversies within the Roman Church as to the proper reading of Amoris Laetitia and whether or not it sanctions communion for the divorce and remarried. A Roman Catholic has helpfully outlined four “interpretations” of that document here. For my critical analysis of the Synod of the Family and its ecclesiastical implications for the Roman Church, see here.) […]

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