A torrent of words has spilled over the information dam of the just-concluded synod on the family. Nowhere, however, do we find explicitly reported the factor that threads through its documents as electricity does through a power line. I refer to that sacramental element of ordinary life and ordinary time, the critical baseline for the reception of belief: human experience.
"Experience" derives from the Latin experiri -- "to put to the test," something that we do every time we compare what others, including supposed "authorities," tell us is happening to us or in us as we run the gauntlet of every day's embraces and blows, some great and some slight, that rain down on us as we make passage through our own portion of ordinary time.
Our human experience, like the World War II Ultra code-breaking machine, catches the heavy traffic of messages about what we really do and what is done to us every day. Our experience sifts the true interpretations of what others do to us, and we to them, breaking the misleading code in which authoritarian forces press them on us as moral absolutes.
Most of the synod fathers realized that they could not issue a document that men and women would accept unless its words were true to everyday human experience -- unless, we might say, they were sacramental, reflecting back the truth of our humanity to us. The power in many of the synodal statements as well as in most of the pope's actions and statements issues not from their getting good grades in abstract theological theses, but from what we might term their confessor's grasp of gritty human experience.
Recalling the meaning of the word "experience," the pope and the synodal bishops invited lay Catholics to test the way the church teaches about our lives against the truths they have learned as they passed through the valley of the shadows of existence.
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The latter included Ron and Mavis Pirola, an Australian couple whose question is shared by many Catholics. The Pirolas told the Synod of Bishops of parents who welcomed the male partner of a gay son to Christmas dinner with their grandchildren. Here is an expression of real rather than abstract human experience, of what one Catholic couple feels is the Christian way to deal with their own family.
Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart expressed the reaction of many of the bishops present by urging a rethinking of the way the church communicates about homosexuality. He referred to the catechism's categorizing homosexual people as "disordered" and of homosexual acts being "intrinsically evil." Hart responded as a good pastor would: "You say that to a parent who has a gay son or daughter and they just cannot understand that this child whom they love and who they have nurtured -- might have chosen a thing that they don't approve of -- but is to be totally rejected because of that." He says "teaching and practice must go hand in hand, but we can do so with mercy and love and help people to realize that whatever may be the challenges that [occur] in their life, they are respected and loved by the Church."
Not so fast, cried Cardinal Raymond Burke, the controversial conservative who is on the verge of being removed from the powerful post of prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and sent to Malta as, so to speak, head cheerleader for the Knights of Malta. The new Maltese falcon's talons, however, were unsheathed in an interview with LifeSite News in which he asserted, "If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are -- reason teaches us that and also our faith -- then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living [in] a disordered relationship with another person?"
Grandparents who do this could mislead their grandchildren and do them a disservice "by seeming to condone gravely sinful acts on the part of a family member."
Besides offering his fellow cardinals a model of how to get transferred to Malta, Cardinal Burke, who loves to drape himself in the trailing yards of crimson silk of the old church's cappa magna, claims to be fighting for the integrity of church teaching in a world that irritates him by now being more sympathetic to homosexuals than to the vanished glory of the cappa magna.
Burke provides a sad example of a churchman who doesn't get or simply overrides the theological wisdom of human experience. By insisting that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered," he aligns himself with other church leaders who have no clinical or theological basis for making such a judgment. Indeed, he employs a philosophical category that does not fit the human dignity of homosexual men and women.
We can be thankful to Cardinal Burke for providing us with the contrast needed to see the understanding of human personality that may be the hallmark of Francis' papacy as well as of the synod on the family. The crimson-wrapped Burke is headed for exile on an island, the fate of a faux Napoleon who, thanks to the Peter Principle, has reached the level that matches his ignorance about and fear of homosexuals. He vindicates the sensible judgments tested by human experience while revealing how out of sync he is with the church he claims to defend.
So human experience rather than the fuming of Cardinal Burke is the energy of the pastoral synod and the papacy of Francis. It does seem fitting that in the Dashiell Hammett novel The Maltese Falcon, made into a memorable movie, the heavy-breathing seekers of the supposedly enormously valuable Maltese falcon scrape away at it only to discover that it is made of lead.
[Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago.]
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