30 June 2023

“Renewal of Language” and the Role of Discernment in the “Synodal Process”

Tito Edwards at Big Pulpit gave this article a much better title: 'Synod: Garbage In, Garbage Out'. The 'Sin-od' is an example of Orwellian Newspeak.

From Catholic World Report

By Eduardo Echeverria

Without the practice of discernment, which involves making judgments based in the Deposit of Faith and the living Tradition, the Church leaves herself open to a Trojan Horse under the guise of renewal.

Catholic writers, such as Fr. Gerald E. Murray and CWR editor Carl E. Olson, have given critical attention to the whole document of the Instrumentum Laboris (hereafter IL) for the First Session of the forthcoming Synod, titled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.” In this article, I focus on the particular claim of IL that the language of the Church needs to be renewed (no. 60). IL claims that the vision of Vatican II is the document’s point of reference (no. 12); I contest that claim in this essay.

After considering what is meant in IL by “renewing the language used by the Church in its liturgy, preaching, catechesis, sacred art, as well as in all forms of communication addressed to the Faithful and the wider public,” I will also briefly consider the vision of Vatican II on this question in light of what I shall call its “hermeneutics of orthodoxy.”

The renewal of language means renewing our understanding of the mysteries of the Faith and the richness of the Church’s tradition, with the aim of making “these riches accessible and attractive to the men and women of our time.” We need to understand what obstacles keep these teachings at a distance, and how those obstacles may be removed. Is it a general lack of information? Or the difficulty of grasping the implications of these teachings “in ordinary situations or an inability of persons to recognize themselves in what is proposed”?

IL states that resistance to the reception of the Church’s teaching could be because there is a “changed reality” requiring “further reflection on the Deposit of Faith and the living Tradition of the Church.” Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxemborg, relator of the Synod on Synodality,, has given a concrete example of what is referred to here as a “changed reality” when he recently question the Church’s teaching homosexuality. Referring to the Catechism’s statements (nos. 2357-2359), he has stated that “the part of the teaching calling homosexuality ‘intrinsically disordered’ a bit dubious.”

Cardinal Hollerich apparently concurs with the increasingly popular belief that there must be a change in doctrine about sexuality morality. What has led people to hold the false belief that the Church’s teaching is wrong? Is it negligent reasoning, ideological rationalization, wishful thinking, or a distorted worldview? Or just plain sin, sexual immorality (being in particular an offense against chastity) that led them, and apparently the Cardinal himself, to this wrong view? Thinking that homosexuality is morally right has implications for the Church’s normative sexual ethics, its grounding in the anthropology of Sacred Scripture (Gen 1:27; 2:24, cf Mark 10: 6-9), and conjugal marriage, with sexual differentiation being a fundamental prerequisite for the two, man and woman, to become one flesh.

The one example indicates that the “renewal of language” is about more than just a change in language as such; it is about the precise meaning and truth of doctrinal propositions—dogmatic conceptual hard-core propositions—expressed in the Church’s teaching about sexual morality, anthropology, and conjugal marriage.

The meaning of Catholic dogmas, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, is such that it does not change—precisely because it is true to reality. The content of the concepts informing the propositions that God is Triune, and that the Second Person of the Trinity is God Incarnate, or that conjugal marriage is the two-in-one flesh union of a man and a woman, has invariant meaning, is fixed, and hence is determinately true. Cardinal Ratzinger rightly states, “faith [fides quae creditur] establishes specifiable dogmatic reference points.” Bernard Lonergan, SJ, is right that “meaning of its nature is related to what is meant, and what is meant may or may not correspond to what is in fact so [is the case].” “If it corresponds,” Lonergan adds, “the meaning is true. If it does not correspond, the meaning is false.” Lonergan then correctly notes the implication of denying the correspondence view of truth. Reality recedes, and hence is lost, behind different perspectives, such that a realist view of truth grounded in reality is lost. But a realist holds that a proposition is true if what it says corresponds to what is in fact the case; otherwise, it is false.

Realism is not incompatible with the claim that doctrinal development is possible, namely, historically conditioned formulations of the truth of dogmas is open to further thought and elucidation, with every assertion being open to possible correction, modification, and complementary formulations. This is because, although we can know something truly, those formulations don’t exhaust divine truth. While the judgment is not changeable, the formulation—conceptually and linguistically—may change. But the linguistic formulation or expression can vary, as long as they mediate the same judgment. Thus, further reflection on the Deposit of Faith and the living Tradition of the Church must affirm the Church’s orthodoxy, and the corresponding hermeneutics of orthodoxy.

According to the theologian and priest David Tracy, no traditional Catholic himself, “Fidelity to orthodox judgment intrinsic to the particular meaning expressed in propositions is what counts, not the language itself.” Again, “The judgments endure but always need new cultural and therefore linguistic formulations.” And again, “A purely classicist understanding of language believes that a static unchanging, unchangeable, normative language is alone capable of expressing (semper idem) the community’s ortho-dox beliefs”1

This brings us to Vatican II (1962-1965), John XXIII’s opening address, Gaudet mater ecclesiae, Vatican I (1869-1870), and the thought of the fifth-century monk, St. Vincent of Lérins.  Importantly, John XXIII depends on Vincent as well as the First Vatican Council by implicitly distinguishing between propositional truths of faith and their formulations in reflecting on the sense in which a doctrine, already confirmed and defined, is more fully known and deeply understood:

For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the fashion in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.

The subordinate clause, which I have cited in its Latin original, is part of a larger passage from Dei Filius, the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Faith and Reason (1869-70). And this formula in Dei Filius is itself taken from the Commonitorium of Vincent of Lérins:

Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment [in eodem scilicet dogmateeodem sensu eademque sententia].

Without this Lérinian hermeneutics of orthodoxy2, the approach taken by IL leaves the Church defenseless against historicism—which denies the enduring validity of truth, opening it up to a neo-modernism3

in which the truth of dogma is understood in purely functional terms. Dogma, then, bears no determinative relation to truth itself because the truth-status of doctrinal formulations have no proper referencing function to reality itself.

Last week, Cardinal Hollerich assured synodal listeners that the IL does “not speak about the Church’s teaching — that is not our task and not our mission — we just welcome everybody who wants to walk with us.” This is in keeping with the overall approach of the documents of the Synod on Synodality, which claim the synodal process is not about changing Church teaching, but about being a welcoming church rather than a judgmental one.

However, the idea of not being judgmental involves an equivocation. Yes, a man’s eternal standing is not in our hands; it is in God’s. Still, missing in this perspective is that we can warn someone, as St. Paul consistently does throughout his New Testament Letters, that a man’s unrighteous actions are such that they may prevent him from entering the Kingdom of God, particularly when they are not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness (1 Cor 6:9-11). Thus, we are called to make judgments about the choices that men make in light of this Pauline perspective. The idea that a synodal church is one of listening and dialogue (nos. 22, 24) includes the sensus fidei fideliumThis is the active capacity of the faith of the Christian believer to engage in spiritual discernment, which involves judgment.

What is discernment’s grounding in the New Testament? For example, “And this I pray, that your love [in Christ] may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent.” (Phil 1:10-11). Among the gifts of the Holy Spirit, one is given the gift of “prophecy, to another discernment of spirits” (1 Cor 12:10); “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age [spiritually mature], that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb 5:14); “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24); “By all means use your judgment, and hold on to whatever is good. Steer clear of evil in any form.” (1 Thess 5:21-22). Lastly, in the Old Testament, we read, “the discerning heart seeks knowledge.” (Prov 15:14).

Clearly, the drift of these passages suggests that the biblical sense of discernment or judgment means exercising a proper discrimination in light of the normative sources of the faith, the revelation contained in the Holy Scriptures and in the living apostolic Tradition, to understand where we are in the flow of the culture, with all its challenges and opportunities. Without the practice of discernment, which involves making judgments, the Church leaves herself open to a Trojan Horse under the guise of renewal.


1(“A Hermeneutics of Orthodoxy,” Concilium 2014/2).

2See Eduardo Echeverria, “Saint Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine,” in The Faith Once For All Delivered: Doctrinal Authority in Catholic Theology (Emmaus Academic, 2023), 171-198).

3 See Pius X, Lamentabili (July 3, 1907) and John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Sept 14, 1998)

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