Non possumus

La Chiesa maestra non inventa la sua dottrina; ella è teste, è custode, è interprete, è tramite; e, per quanto riguarda le verità proprie del messaggio cristiano, essa si può dire conservatrice, intransigente; ed a chi la sollecita di rendere più facile, più relativa ai gusti della mutevole mentalità dei tempi la sua fede, risponde con gli Apostoli: Non possumus, non possiamo.

“The teaching Church does not invent her doctrine; she is a witness, a guardian, an interpreter, a mediator; and as to the truths pertaining to the Christian message, she could be called conservative, intransigent; to the one who asks her to make the faith easier, more adapted to the changing mentality of the times, she responds with the Apostles: Non possumus, we cannot.”

Non possumus: the expression goes back to the earliest days of the Church. It is what our first martyrs said, when the Roman authorities asked them to deny Christ, in order to save their skins. In their own minds, the Romans were being reasonable, the Christians blinkered and doctrinaire. “How can you say you cannot do what anyone can do?” Just spit on Christ briefly, and be on your way. But again the Christians would say: Non possumus.

To the death: Non possumus.


This magnificent quotation is from Blessed Paul VI, his general audience for Wednesday, 19th January 1972. The translation is my own little exercise. Gentle reader should be told, however, that like many of the bishops gathered last week in Rome, I do not speak Italian. I was trying to get a taste of their experience. They were presented with a long document, in Italian only, and told to show it to no one. They would have overnight to find any flaws.

Google translations are treacherous, as I’ve learnt the hard way. But given a dictionary, an Italian grammar, a few other reference books, and a month or so, I think I could get a good hold on a document the length of the final Relatio Synodi. The Fathers had a few hours.

Those who could read Italian would have noticed that more than a thousand amendments, proposed in the various linguistic committees over the previous three weeks, had been ignored; and that the content of the original Instrumentum Laboris had been largely reimposed, including paragraphs which had failed to get sufficient support for passage at last year’s preparatory Synod. In other words, the Fathers had been wasting their breath and jetlag for three weeks. And now, after whatever overnight fixes, the final document would be coming up for a vote on Saturday, paragraph by paragraph.

Bishops both Italian and non-Italian had one more chance to look at the text, now slightly revised but still exclusively in cumbersome Italian. So far as I can see, from translations since available, each one of the paragraphs contains multiple complex and arguable propositions. Any one of them might be hiding, and on past experience might well be hiding, clever legalistic tricks, designed by the liberal draughting committee to spring open doors that for twenty centuries the Church has kept methodically locked and bolted. For this has been the usual method of the “reformers,” since Vatican II: planting deceitfully ambiguous language in Church documents, or half-truths that can provide escape hatches later on.

(It is a tradition that goes back to the Serpent in the Garden.)

And those who spotted them could themselves expect to be impugned for “legalism,” and “paranoia” — for obsessing on the letter over the spirit of the law — a criticism the Holy Father is constantly repeating. And this when, in fact, their Church had always previously required them to observe not “either/or,” but both the letter and the spirit. What were they to do?

I could understand the temptation to drink a bottle of wine, then simply vote Yes, ninety-four times.

Or if it were me, two bottles, and then No, ninety-four times.

Three days after that vote, I was still trying to decide whom to trust, to get a correct understanding of it. On this fourth day, I have given up. I have concluded that the document is as was intended. It is like a banana republic constitution, that makes little clear, leaving everything significant open to “discernment” — i.e. lawless tyranny.

There are some eminent and well-connected pundits; they say different and sometimes contradictory things. None of these could be present in the hall, when the questions were thrashed out, to no purpose; let alone in the back chambers, where the official text was actually composed. The account of Roberto de Mattei is the boldest, providing some facts not reported elsewhere. (It is here.) As an old journalistic hack, I take note when facts are stated boldly: the reporter is either right, or he is wrong. If wrong, he can be corrected. This is not possible when what we have is only interpretations, synthesized from other interpretations. One cannot correct bafflegab.

If de Mattei is correct, another coup was attempted, much like last year’s. The draughting committee, itself in a great rush, and dominated by very liberal papal appointees, whose basic honesty was already in question, tried again to impress their predetermined template.

Friday morning, in the hall, and in the presence of the pope, dozens of the Fathers rose to speak. The Holy Father was made to understand that the document as written would not pass. As the day progressed to night — and the possibility of a catastrophic conclusion to the Synod became clearer — select curial “conservatives” were allowed to overwrite parts of some of the most controversial, “liberal” paragraphs. This had the effect of reducing attempted heresy to murk, that might mean anything. It suited the Kasperites almost as well as what they had originally draughted; they were gloating afterwards.

But now both sides could declare victory — one to have opened, and the other to have stopped up the holes — leaving the pope with the free hand he had from the start, to act unilaterally, in due course (as he did recently with his “fast-track” nullity process, creating a de facto “Catholic” arrangement for quick and easy divorce).

And so it came to be, that in the hall, Saturday, the Fathers voted Yes to the paragraphs, ninety-four times.

And then the pope spoke to them, in what was widely reported to be a bad mood. The Synod was meant to advise him, freely, and yet he had gone to the trouble of stacking it with forty-five of his own, overwhelmingly liberal nominees, to guide that advice towards what he wanted to hear. The most controversial paragraph, No. 85, dealing with the divorced and remarried, required as all the others, 177 votes. Even with the stacking, and after the last-minute sludge had been inserted, it barely passed with 178. He made quite a few remarks, calling into question the motives of those who had resisted his spirit of innovation: very low blows against his most distinguished cardinals. He then received the customary standing ovation.

The document as a whole is written in post-modern gobbledegook: a compound of sociological bosh with ecclesiological cliché. It is the opposite of inspiring. At a time when the Church is desperately in need of a great trumpet blast in defence of the full Catholic conception of the family, it confines itself mostly to “relationships,” weaseling through the ground for invisible prey. In my opinion it is trash.

If there is good news, I find it in the fifty or more Fathers of the Synod who seem still to comprehend the statement of Pope Paul with which this essay began; and which has been indeed the view of the Church, since the Apostles. It is morally, intellectually, and spiritually wrong, to tamper with Christ’s own doctrine; to look “jesuitically” for ways to get around or through the teaching of twenty centuries, which is Christ’s teaching. Yet all the faithful Fathers can do is resist, from a delicate position. They can oppose the shameful works of the many ill-formed liberals now spreading rapidly through the hierarchy of the Church, and acting deviously to advance an agenda that is “post-Catholic,” based on a modern and false account of “mercy.” But they must stop short of observing that their pope is appointing them.


Or to put this another way, I am hopeful. For it is only when an evil becomes perfectly visible, that it tends to be addressed. And that is just when, on past experience, the Holy Spirit intervenes — God, the Holy Spirit; not some verbal pretence — to prevent utter ruin and damnation.

In the course of digging out that vaguely remembered quote, I came across another translation. This was on a website that cannot be sufficiently praised. It is called, The Denziger-Bergoglio (and may be found, here). It is the effort of a few learned, anonymous priests, first in Spanish and now in English, to retrieve the actual Magisterium of Holy Church.

The tactic is to take various innovatory statements from Pope Francis and, using “Denziger” and other standard reference works for search, juxtapose them with authoritative statements of Church teaching through the centuries. In this way the scale of the breach with Catholic tradition is revealed. I recommend the site to every gentle reader. With all references capably linked to sources, it is an opportunity for all of us to more thoroughly catechize ourselves. At a time when Catholic Truth is under attack, not “from the peripheries,” but from Central, it gives us something useful we can do.

For paradoxically, the very recklessness and foolishness with which we are confronted, creates this opportunity. In the face of the challenge, Catholic teaching must be recovered and revived. Our task is to learn first ourselves, and then teach; to find what the true teaching is, and proclaim it; to bring it back into action, in our lives.

This is an exciting prospect, after fifty years of moral lassitude “in the spirit of Vatican II.” For as we soon discover, we still have within our reach, the most profound instruction that this world can ever know; and it remains the very means to our salvation.

At a time of encroaching darkness, let us know the Truth, that the Truth shall make us free.


POSTSCRIPTUM. … I was not there, of course, but I have received, overnight, a couple of corrections to the above account from people who were. They challenge the (otherwise admired) Roberto de Mattei’s account of the Synod’s conclusion, one as “frothing,” the other as “fantasy,” and both as “fiction.” In particular, I am told that many of the “modi” were incorporated in the final text, voluntarily by its writers, and that non-Italian-speaking bishops knew the arrangements in advance and got plenty of help in translation from the Synod staff. They do not dispute that, “We’re still facing a mess, but it’s not because of the imaginary process he described.”

Other correspondents suggest that, from the number of toys thrown out of their prams, since the Synod, at least some of the liberals’ plans must have been frustrated.