An item in Catholic World News reassures us, just in case people get the wrong end of the stick, that the Vatican is not taking a poll to assess Catholics’ opinions on marriage questions in preparation for the 2014 Synod on the family. Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, has stated that a series of questions was “sent to bishops’ conferences throughout the world” for them to digest and reflect upon. It is not an opinion poll such as secular commentators love to invent. Fr Lombardi stressed that the questions do not indicate any doctrinal changes; they are aimed “to solicit information about pastoral practices and public attitudes”.
It’s important to emphasise this because I read a “traditionalist” blog yesterday which inferred that Pope Francis is now asking the laity to decide on the teachings of the Church. This entirely wrong-headed notion has been fuelled by the fact that Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales, has chosen to make the questions available to the laity; this gives people outside the Church ample scope to conclude that such a survey, with all its varied (and occasional heterodox) views will somehow influence the magisterial teaching of the Church.
Cardinal Peter Erdo, a leading canon lawyer, has also reiterated that the forthcoming Synod will be “based on Church doctrine and not public opinion”. On his blog Deacon Nick Donnelly comments darkly that “Cardinal Erdo will often need to repeat this inconvenient truth every time there’s a press conference. Cardinal Erdo will not be impressed by the media spinning the story that Pope Francis is conducting an opinion poll among Catholics about contraception, divorced and re-married, and gay marriage.”
I have been sent a copy of The Dark Night of the Body by Alice von Hildebrand – just the kind of book that secular pundits should acquaint themselves with before they start to write their sensational headlines about the Synod, the surveys preceding it, what “Monsignor Sotto Voce” says and everything else. Von Hildebrand, who is the widow of the late Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, a favourite author of Pope Benedict, has just celebrated her 90th birthday and Pope Francis has invested her as a Dame Grand Cross of the Pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great. She is a good friend of Cardinal Raymond Burke and described him at her birthday party, at which he was present, as “the one who loves his sheep and is constantly alerting us that the wolf never sleeps”. I am hoping that Archbishop Nichols will start alerting us to the same danger over here.
In Dame Alice’s book I came across this wonderful quotation from G K Chesterton in The Everlasting Man: “One day [he] writes he was taking a walk in the woods with a man whose “…pointed beard gave him something of the look of Pan.” At one point this companion said to him, “Do you know why the spire of that church goes up like that?” I expressed a respectable agnosticism and he answered in an offhand way, “Oh, the same as the obelisks; the Phallic Worship of antiquity.” Then I looked across at him suddenly as he lay there leering above his goat-like beard; and for the moment I thought he was not Pan but the Devil. No mortal words can express the immense, the insane incongruity and unnatural perversion of thought involved in saying such a thing…”
Generally speaking, the “wolves” of today, who go in for a bit of phallic worship of their own, want to twist the Church’s teaching on marriage into its opposite. I don’t doubt that the 2014 Synod will uphold the beauty and truth of marriage as it has always been taught. But we need to pray that it will have some inspired ideas as to how to translate the message to the many confused and lost sheep in its care.