There were many controversial pronouncements made at the Synod on the Family, but it was the “what-would-Jesus-do” comment made by Cardinal Wuerl afterward that really got my attention.

In an Oct. 25 interview with Religion News Service, the cardinal was asked about the final document’s lack of specific recommendations regarding how bishops and priests should change their pastoral care of certain people, such as active homosexuals and divorced Catholics, for example, by allowing them to receive Communion.

Cardinal Wuerl answered,

“The frame of reference now is no longer the Code of Canon Law. The frame of reference is now going to be, ‘What does the gospel really say here?’ But I think the Holy Father has a whole range of opportunities before him. I think we just have to wait and see what he chooses.”

I don’t think I was the only reader of the cardinal’s response who found it classically Protestant.

Wuerl’s answer could be fairly unpacked this way: Catholics should not first look to the Code of Canon Law on guidance on how to regard homosexuality, homosexual acts, the sacrament of marriage, divorce, or annulment. Rather, Catholics should first consider the Gospels to figure out what to think about these now controversial moral matters, as well as the sacrament of marriage.

I could describe my reaction to this in two ways, first, as being baffled, like Alice in Wonderland, or, second, of being betrayed. I spent ten years reading and praying my way into the Catholic Church before being received at age 34.  Central to that journey was the affirmation that the Church drew its teaching from both Scripture and Tradition, rather than the sola scriptura espoused by the Reformers.

Tradition itself, I learned, grew organically out of Scripture, the revealed Word of God, providing the faithful with a reliable guide to answer the question posed by Cardinal Wuerl, “What does the gospel really say here?”

I had been raised Presbyterian, became a Southern Baptist in college, and attended Princeton Theological Seminary before becoming a Baptist minister in Atlanta. My journey was not merely intellectual but was provoked, in part, by experiences in a Christian denomination that sought to draw its teaching from the immediacy of Biblical encounter, with a minimal amount of mediation sought from either theology or philosophy. Biblical interpretation and Biblical theology were encouraged, but systematic theology, philosophical theology, or even apologetics were viewed as veering away from the Word.*

I had already read various comments during the Synod about Catholics putting too much emphasis on doctrine. During a press conference after the second day, Archbishop Durocher answered a question about possible changes to the reception of the Eucharist by divorced Catholics by saying,

“Let’s be honest. Is that a question of doctrine or is that a question of discipline? I think that’s probably going to be one of the questions that will be debated in the small groups. . . . If you want doctrine, go read Denzinger.”

“Denzinger” refers to the The Sources of Catholic Dogma first published in 1854 by Heinrich Joseph Dominicus Denzinger (1819-1883), continuously updated ever since, becoming the accepted research guide to the development of Catholic doctrine. Archbishop Durocher’s comment was clearly dismissive and was taken as such.

I assume this is not what Pope Francis himself meant when he said at the opening session that the Church should not be a “museum of memories.” It’s impossible, at least in my mind, to viewing Tradition as something arising from the past into the present and moving towards the future. If fixed doctrine means a concept that has not changed over many centuries — “We believe in one God” — then it has something of a “museum” quality about it.

But, if Cardinal Wuerl has accurately represented the substance of the Synod’s discussions and direction the Holy Father is taking the Church then this question arises in my mind: Are we heading towards a Catholic Church without Hell?

This may seem a large leap, and perhaps it is, but consider the following points. Up for discussion at the Synod were two kinds of mortal sin, homosexual acts and the taking of Communion while being married outside the Church.

Mortal sins, of course, are those “grave matters” committed with full knowledge, both of the sin and of the gravity of the offense, and committed with deliberate and complete consent, enough for it to have been a personal decision to commit the sin (#1859 Catechism of the Catholic Church). If a mortal sin is not forgiven, the Church teaches a person will be condemned to Hell after death (#1033 CCC).

Being barred from receiving the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin (#1457 CCC) is a prefigurement of the Hell that awaits the unrepentant, unforgiven mortal sinner.

Orthodox Catholics often say that fundamental Church doctrine cannot be changed, even by a pontiff.  Thus, they would argue, whatever the huffing and puffing of the recent Synod, and whatever Pope Francis may write as a consequence, homosexual acts and marrying outside the Church will remain mortal sins, as least according to Denziger, the Catechism, and the Code of Canon Law!

Yet, after the Synod, there was also the widespread comment that pastoral care had already de facto removed homosexual acts and marriage outside the Church from classification as mortal sin. (I’m sure this is an exaggeration but assume it applies to many dioceses around the world, especially in Europe.)

As I see it, the present situation is this:

–There are Church “regions” where what the Church officially teaches as mortal sin is not treated as mortal sin in the name of “pastoral care.”

–In those regions, the belief of being separated from God by mortal sin, and facing the threat of Hell, is being replaced de facto by the view of an All-Loving God Whose Love cannot be confined to doctrinal strictures, such as the “intrinsic evil” of homosexual acts. The Cardinals from these regions were those who attempted to use the Synod to codify their practices.

–The cardinals from the Church’s other regions, especially Africa, defended the Church’s teaching and practice, while agreeing that pastoral care should never be withheld from anyone, regardless of the gravity of sin.

–As a result of what I’ve described, the Catholic Church is facing the possibility of a schism. The movement towards schism has been in the making for quite a long time, but the election of Pope Francis allowed the long-held frenzied hatred for John Paul II and Benedict XVI among bishops and Cardinals to find an institutional outlet.

The possible schism itself can be described in the distinction drawn by Cardinal Wuerl between consulting the Code of Canon Law and the Gospels. In other words, some regions of the Church may simply admit they’ve decided to jettison certain uncomfortable portions of Catholic doctrine and become Protestant.

Other regions may not announce any formal break with the Roman Church but pursue and recommend pastoral practices that ignore moral teaching of the Church, especially regarding sex and marriage. This will very likely also include the ordination of women and removing the ban against contraception.  (After all, we know that if Jesus lived in the 21st century he would have recognized the injustice of excluding women from the priesthood and view over-population as the primary source of global warming!)

Are we heading towards a Catholic Church without Hell? The true Catholic Church will always teach there is a Hell, because not to do so would be to strip the human person of the imago Dei, the free will impressed into his nature by God at creation. But the ersatz church, which is on the rise in Europe and some parts of the Americas, will find that Hell no longer matters to persons whose moral acts cannot separate them from the love of God.

Evangelical Protestants, of course, still believe in Hell. Thus, it’s important to point out that the Protestant gesture heard in Wuerl’s comment did not posit any specific content, but was a distancing from strict adherence to the “rule books” such as the Code of Canon Law and, presumably, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As I said, a schism in the Catholic Church can be avoided, but if not confronted head-on the present situation will eventually cause the Church to splinter. It’s a decisive moment for the people of God who must exert their proper leadership by making their voices heard.

I believe in the good intentions of Pope Francis but fear that he has unwittingly let the Protestant genie out of the bottle, and only with our help, and guided by the Holy Spirit, can the slippery rascal be put back in.

*My conversion memoir, An American Conversion: One’s Man’s Search for Truth and Beauty in a Time of Crisis, was published in 2003.