Shortly after this column is posted, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, or “Amazon Synod” as it is often called, will begin on October 6.
On September 4, the headline of a Catholic News Agency article was “[Cardinal Raymond] Burke and [Cardinal Walter] Brandmuller say Amazon synod challenges deposit of faith.” On September 12, the headline of a National Catholic Register article was “Cardinal Burke, and Bishop [Athanasius] Schneider Announce Crusade of Prayer and Fasting” with the subheading “Citing ‘serious theological errors and heresies’ in the Amazon Synod’s working document, they call on the faithful to pray and fast over a 40 day period to prevent such errors being approved.” These are only two examples of the controversy raging over a synod that has not yet begun. There is controversy not only because of the synod’s preparatory working document (or Instrumentum Laboris, or IL) issued June 17, but also because the synod has members known for their questionable theology and proposals.
The purpose of this column is to review important Catholic doctrines so that we can understand what is at stake in the Amazon Synod and become more open to God’s communication with each one of us.
Let’s start with the doctrine of the Deposit of Faith. “The apostles entrusted the ‘Sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 84). So the Deposit of Faith is what God has revealed in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition taken together.
The word revelation comes from the Latin word velum, which means “veil” or “curtain,” so revelation means (in any context) “un-veiling, un-covering, or pulling the curtain back.” God’s Revelation is His unveiling/uncovering/showing/communicating Who He is and what He wants. “By revealing Himself, God wishes to make [humans] capable of responding to Him, and of knowing Him, and of loving Him far beyond their own natural capacity” (CCC, 52). Real Divine Revelation can only come from the one true God.
“God has revealed Himself fully by sending His own Son . . . The Son is His Father’s definitive Word; so there will be no further Revelation after [Jesus]” (CCC, 73). Jesus Christ is the definitive communication of God. The best way to know God is to know Jesus Christ. After Jesus’ time on earth, Jesus most directly reveals Himself in the Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church He founded. “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (CCC, 97).
Sacred Scripture is also known as the Bible, the Word of God, the Word of the Lord, or simply Scripture. It is the only book written by God. “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Sacred] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 81). Sacred Tradition is made up of the sacred words and actions that were handed on outside of Sacred Scripture—the words and actions of Jesus (both before and after the Resurrection) experienced by the Twelve Apostles and also the words and actions of the Twelve Apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit after the Ascension. Sacred Tradition ended when the last Apostle died.
One example of Sacred Tradition is observing the Lord’s Day on Sunday. Christians consider Sunday to be the Lord’s Day only because the Twelve Apostles did. Before the Resurrection, the Apostles, and Jesus Himself observed the Lord’s Day, or Sabbath, on the last day of the week in the Jewish calendar, which in English is Saturday, as Jews still do in our time. The Apostles made the Jewish first day of the week, which in English is Sunday, the Lord’s Day because it was on that day that Jesus rose from the dead. Nowhere in the Bible is there authority to change the Lord’s Day from Saturday to Sunday.
“[Sacred] Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time” (CCC, 83). Examples of Church traditions are abstaining from meat on Fridays and saying the Mass in Latin. Church traditions can and do change because God has not revealed them. They are responses to His Revelation. Sacred Tradition never changes because God and His Will never change.
“Both Tradition and Scripture must be accepted with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence” (CCC, 82). “Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ” (CCC, 80). God reveals Himself equally in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Because God never contradicts or disagrees with Himself, Revelation in Sacred Scripture and Revelation in Sacred Tradition never contradict each other.
“By His Revelation, the invisible God, from the fullness of His love, addresses men as His friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into His own company. The adequate response to this invitation is faith. By faith, man completely submits his intellect and will to God. With his whole being, man gives his assent to God the Revealer” (CCC, 142-143). Faith is accepting Divine Revelation. Someone has true Faith ONLY by accepting actual Revelation from the one true God. For example, the ancient belief in Zeus was NOT true Faith because Revelation could not come from Zeus, because Zeus never existed. Revelation and Faith go hand in hand. Without Revelation, there is no Faith.
These doctrines from the Catechism express what some theologians call “Supernatural Revelation,” which is God’s Revelation of Himself through religious or supernatural things, such as Scripture or doctrine. We also find Supernatural Revelation in the Seven Sacraments and in miracles.
God also reveals Himself through the objective good, truth, and beauty of non-religious things. “God, Who creates and conserves all things by His Word, provides men with constant evidence of Himself in created realities” (CCC, 54). Just as a mirror or water reflects a face by providing an image of that face, anything that is objectively good, true, or beautiful reflects God, Who is Perfect/Absolute Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. As the Book of Wisdom says, “For from the greatness and beauty of created things their Original Author, by analogy, is seen” (13:5). As we say at Mass, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.” Some theologians call this “Natural Revelation.”
The temptation that comes with Natural Revelation is those non-religious things can become false gods or substitutes for God. Instead of bringing us closer to the one true God, non-religious things can take us farther from Him. Instead of being a window through which we see God, non-religious things can become walls between us and God, at which our vision stops and behind which we do not see the one true God. As Cardinal Gerhard Mueller has written in his analysis of the synod’s working document, “The cosmos, however, is not to be adored like God, but only the Creator Himself. We do not fall on our knees before the enormous power of nature . . .”
So Revelation is not self-explanatory. It has meanings that are not always obvious. Revelation needs to be interpreted. “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God . . . has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. . . . This means that the task of interpretation [of Revelation] has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (CCC, 85). Only the bishops under the leadership of the pope (called the “Magisterium”) have the God-given authority to interpret His Revelation because Jesus chose the Twelve Apostles to be the leaders of His Church, He chose St. Peter to be the leader of the Twelve Apostles, the bishops are the successors of the Twelve Apostles, and the pope is the successor of St. Peter. (Also see CCC, 857-862, 880-891.)
As I pointed out in a previous column, the decisions of synods have no authority over an individual bishop unless the pope adds his authority to it. Even if Pope Francis were to add his authority to the Amazon Synod, that alone would not make the synod infallible. Furthermore, neither the pope nor a bishop has the authority to contradict doctrine. “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it” (CCC, 85). As Vatican I stated more forcefully, “[T]he Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His Revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the Revelation or Deposit of Faith transmitted by the Apostles (emphasis added).”
God made us know Him and have a relationship with Him. So God reveals Himself to us. Revelation is God’s communication not only of Who He is and how He interacts with us but also of how He wants us to interact with Him. Faith is acceptance not only of knowing God as He wants to be known but also of interacting with Him as He wants to be interacted with.
Revelation and Faith meet in doctrine, which is a teaching by the Magisterium that makes either Revelation or Faith clearer and that is objectively true for all times and places. Every quote of the Catechism in this column is a doctrine. To be Catholic is to be faithful to Catholic doctrine. If a person or a synod is not faithful to a particular doctrine, that person or synod cannot accurately claim to be Catholic on the issue covered by that doctrine.
The Catechism describes the Catholic Faith as having Four Pillars, which are the four primary ways of knowing and interacting with God. The Four Pillars are creed (doctrine about God and supernatural things), morality, worship, and prayer. The actions of morality, worship, and prayer are interacting with God as He wants to be interacted with as long as they are in harmony with Catholic doctrine.
A heretic is one who presents as Catholic doctrine that which is not really Catholic doctrine. A material heretic commits heresy without intending to do so. A formal heretic stubbornly presents as Catholic doctrine what he knows to be a contradiction of Catholic doctrine. (See CCC, 2089.)
In general, the concerns many have about the Amazon Synod are that it will promote heresy, such as presenting Natural Revelation as equal to or even superior to the Deposit of Faith, and that it will make proposals which contradict or undermine doctrine.
Pope Francis has said, “Since the faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole” (Lumen Fidei, 48). Each of us needs to be true to these words of Pope Francis. The Amazon Synod needs to be true to these words. Pope Francis needs to be true to these words. If anyone in the Hierarchy undermines any doctrine, he is ultimately undermining those doctrines which give him his own authority.