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March 17, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor is famous for answering a pronouncement by leftist author Mary McCarthy that the Eucharist is a “symbol” by exclaiming, albeit in a shaky voice: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it!”

Relating this encounter in a letter, O’Connor added: “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

O’Connor’s matchless apologia comes to mind when reading Douglas Farrow’s analysis on the crisis in the Catholic Church, and not because his essay in March’s First Things is titled: “To hell with accompaniment.” (It’s found under Discernment of Situations in the online edition.)

It’s because Farrow, a professor of Christian thought at McGill University, is clear that the rapidly rising discord in the Church centers “not merely on pastoral judgment with respect to the sacraments” but the sacraments themselves, and so “must be resolved, however painful the process.”

Farrow faults Pope Francis’ enigmatic spin on “discernment of situations” in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia for triggering the current “scandal of bishop against bishop, and of bishops permitting their priests to offer the sacraments where mortal sin is being committed.”

The Church’s fracturing into regionalism under the “rubric of ‘discernment of situations’” (a phrase Pope St. John Paul II used in his 1981 Familiaris Consortio) is itself a “failure to discern both the nature of the sacraments and the situation of the Church.”

Four cardinals, as is well known, have asked Pope Francis to clarify his contention in Amoris that “discernment” for Catholics in “irregular” unions may include the “help of the sacraments.” The pope has not responded directly to those five questions or dubia.

Farrow asserts the “trauma of the two synods on the family, which led to Amoris and to the dubia, is a trauma for which Francis himself is largely responsible. … And the flaws in Amoris are of his making.”

Moreover, Francis has “permitted, if not encouraged” an “ongoing rebellion” against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upholds Catholic teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil, and Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which systematically spells out Catholic moral doctrine.

But it is in his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, that Francis makes what Farrow describes “as perhaps the single most problematic remark by a pontiff given to problematic remarks.”

That is where the Holy Father prescribes “personal accompaniment in the process of growth.”

He writes: “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).”

Canada’s Atlantic bishops’ assembly used this remark to justify taking “much the same posture” toward legalized euthanasia as their predecessors did toward Humanae Vitae in their “notorious” 1968 Winnipeg Statement, notes Farrow.

That Statement permitted “the faithful to decide freely for themselves, without any fear of sacramental discipline, whether contraception is or isn’t a grave sin.”

Similarly, in their guidelines on “Medical assistance in Dying” the Atlantic bishops declare: “As people of faith, and ministers of God’s grace, we are called to entrust everyone, whatever their decisions may be, to the mercy of God.”

They add: “To one and all we wish to say that the pastoral care of souls cannot be reduced to norms for the reception of the sacraments or the celebration of funeral rites.”

“In other words,” Farrow notes wryly, “the most important thing in discerning situations is not this principle or that, but, well, discerning situations. Which is not really very difficult, because in the final analysis there is only one situation: Whatever your decision, we will commend you to God.”

This “unprincipled accompaniment forgets divine justice in its rush to divine mercy,” he writes. “It is Winnipeg all over again. There, the bishops made themselves chaplains to the contraceptive culture; here, to the culture of death.”

In Winnipeg, however, the bishops could not claim to be practicing the “art of accompaniment.”

In Exodus, to which Francis’ “sacred ground” remark refers, Moses stands on ground made holy by the presence of God, Farrow points out.

In stark contrast, the Atlantic assembly of bishops are removing their “apostolic sandals before the autonomous man” who in asserting the decision to kill himself — or to contracept, abort, engage in adulterous or same-sex couplings — is his to make, asserts his independence from God.

“What irony there is, then, in this appeal to Exodus to justify the kind of ‘pastoral accompaniment’ that refuses to discipline sacramentally those who have chosen the path of self-assertion and self-destruction!” writes Farrow.

It is “scandalous” that an “assembly of bishops should take up this analogy, which transfers the concept of ‘sacred ground’ from God to man, and use it to deny the clear moral judgment of the Church against suicide and euthanasia.”

Pope Francis, however, seems “untroubled” by the scandal, Farrow observes. “Or perhaps, since the bishops are not only using his words but following his example, he thinks it no scandal.”

Quebec’s Cardinal Gerald Lacroix took an approach similar to the Atlantic bishops’ assembly in responding to legalized euthanasia, but the Alberta and Northwest Territories bishops released a “model guide for clergy.”

The Alberta bishops’ guidelines stress “both pastoral readiness to accompany anyone who desires accompaniment and sacramental discipline for those who purposefully persist on the path to the mortal sin of suicide.”  

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Cyril of Jerusalem contended that “disunity among the bishops over these matters” is “a sign of Antichrist and of the second advent,” writes Farrow. “It is ‘a sign proper to the Church,’ because it goes to the core of the Church.”

While his “own efforts to read the signs of the times” are “inconclusive,” it is clear “we are living in a long period of apostasy and of purification.”

And it’s also clear the Catholic Church “has been under extraordinary pressure to compromise the sacraments and, just so, to change the Gospel that is embodied in them.”

The “old gods, sex, mammon, and death, are reviving and reasserting themselves as the gods of autonomy,” he wrote.

“They are groping even for the holy sacraments, that they might defile them. In this situation, do we really need more talk about the internal forum and ‘the sacred ground of the other’?”