When Pope Francis called for a synod to address the pressing issues of marriage and family life, many responded by speculating that the moment had finally arrived for the Catholic Church to change its official doctrines on sex and marriage. Voices from within the Church and from without took to the internet to foster anticipation for this change, evoking memories of the buildup to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in 1968, with some suggesting that the synod offers the Church the chance to “get it right this time.”
Of course, the call for a change to the official Catholic doctrines on sex and marriage is nothing new. It has been a recurring murmur within the Church, especially among so-called revisionist Catholic theologians, for the past fifty years. A central component of the revisionist position has been the apparent disconnect between the doctrines and the real lives of contemporary men and women. Under the notion of historicity, the revisionist position further contends that the official teachings of the Church have become outdated and out of place in the modern world, failing to meet the real needs of men and women in the modern sexual sphere. The proposed doctrinal changes, so the claim goes, would bring harmony between doctrine and reality, with the teachings on sex and marriage finally conforming to the living of sex and marriage, thus allowing the teachings to speak to the needs of real men and women.
While this mentality of change is nothing new, the anticipation of change has gained new energy as Pope Francis has been fashioned by the media as some sort of new pope for a new Church, who will—perhaps—teach new doctrines. As misguided as this sort of thinking may be, the question of doctrinal change has been serious enough to lead members of the hierarchy and even the pre-synod documents to clarify that no doctrinal change should be expected from the synod. Instead, the synod has been presented officially as an opportunity to continue and renew the work of the recent Magisterium, especially Pope Saint John Paul II, in proclaiming God’s plan for man and woman and marriage. As a result, the synod fathers have explicitly set before themselves the task of finding a “credible manner” of “proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family” in response to the social and spiritual crisis “so evident in today’s world.”