Policy vs. Doctrine

The 2014 Synod has come to a close and more has been made of it in the media than most synods in recent history.

Going into the synod, we knew that since the topic related to all things regarding the family, controversial issues surrounding divorce, homosexuality, and communion would all be brought up.  Our news media enjoy hitting these hot button topics to drum up controversy. 

And drummed up it was when the synod released their “Relatio post disceptationem,” which means “report after the debate.”  In a very narrow section it brought up some points made by some of the cardinals at the synod.  They suggested that under they use a principle called “The Law of Gradualness,” divorced and remarried couples should be allowed to receive communion and also that there should be greater acceptance of homosexuality in the Church community.

A few things before I move on to the main point of this article:  

1. The “Relatio” was not an official pronunciation but was instead a report of the different arguments made.  When I run debates in my debate club at school, I encourage students to think out and entertain every position brought to them, even if they disagree.  The fact that these suggestions were made does not mean that they are part of Church teaching.

2. There were many other issues behind the scenes that caused controversy.  As Jeff Miller writes, it was like watching a soap opera “As the Synod Turns.”

3. In the end, there was not major, earth-shaking policy change.

I is on this third point that I would like to remain.  

What if a change did occur?  What if people living adulterous marriages (as described by Christ) would be allowed to receive communion?  What if those “living in sin” would be allowed to receive the sacraments?  Wouldn’t that violate Catholic doctrine?

The short answer is no.

Now, please do not misunderstand.  I am not saying that it would be good or wise to adopt those controversial suggestions of some of the synod members.  But we need to make a distinction here between Church doctrine and Church policy.

The doctrines of the Church are truths handed down and taught by the Magesterium in faith and morals.  Because these doctrines are, by their nature, truths they are also by this nature unchanging. 

Yes, we can deepen our understanding of a doctrine and we can develop more depth in the doctrine.  For example, the doctrine that the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood have always been a part of the Church.  But it wasn’t until the 13th century that Thomas Aquinas used the language of Aristotle to explain how it occurs with terms like “transubstantiation.”  

The policies of the Church are different.  They are the methods by which the Church believes it can best teach and minister the message of Jesus.  These policies, because they are man-made implementations, are subject to change.  For example, it is doctrine that Catholics are required to go to the Lord’s Day Mass.  But it is policy that we fast for one hour before communion.  Many years ago, the fast extended until midnight the night before.  But this policy was later deemed unwise and it was shortened.

Policies can be good but they can also be bad.  One of the most obvious in history is the selling of indulgences.  This was a horrible practice that was reviled by many at the time, most notably, Martin Luther.  But it is important that we do not make the mistake Luther did.  He attacked both the policy and the doctrine at work.

Luther said that the selling of indulgences was an abuse.  And he was right.  It was bad policy.  But he also said that purgatory did not exist.  He was wrong.  His statement was heresy.  The belief in purgatory and indulgences are doctrines of the Church.  Because they are doctrines, they cannot change.  But the policies used at the time surrounding those doctrines were unwise and harmful.

So let us return to the controversy of the synod.  Let us say that the policy was adopted where divorced and remarried couples (without annulment) could receive the Eucharist.  

This would be incredibly problematic in terms of policy. But in and of itself, Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage would remain intact.   It would send so many mixed messages that it would make teaching the truth incredibly difficult. 

In fact, as a friend of mine pointed out, this policy would put the Church at odds with Christ’s own teaching on divorce and remarriage.    The policy would abuse the teaching, as selling indulgences was an abusive Church policy against the teachings of Christ.  In the same way, the selling of indulgences gave the wrong idea that you could somehow buy your way into salvation, allowing those in illicit marriages to receive communion would give people the idea that these marriages are licit.  

The “Relatio” also suggested policies of more openness to homosexuals.  If that means that we should treat all of God’s children with overwhelming love and respect, then there is no problem here.  But if the policy is to not speak out against homosexual actions as sinful, then it would be a bad policy.  Again, the doctrine would remain intact (i.e. sex between two people of the same sex is wrong) but the policy would be bad (i.e. do not bring up this teaching).  

I can tell you that if either policy would be enacted, I would be in vocal opposition.  And there is nothing wrong with arguing in the Church over policy.  Saint Catherine of Sienna argued the Church’s policy of having the pope reside in Avignon, France until Gregory XI finally relented.  Today, some bishops have a policy of allowing pro-abortion Catholic politicians to receive communion.  There are many who believe this is bad policy because it causes great confusion.  And they might be right.

In every age, the Church is in constant need of renewal.  But it is still the Church Christ founded.  If the Church engages in bad policy, we should not act like Martin Luther and abandon it.  But out of love we should strive to bring Her back to greater conformity with Her doctrines.

Copyright 2014, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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