The Fault Lines at the Synod

This story appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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As reports emerge from the Synod of Bishops on the family, we are able to discern some of the key fault lines in the discussion. “For our knowledge is imperfect,” wrote St. Paul in his ode to love in First Corinthians, and that is true of what those of us outside the synod hall know, but just as that acknowledgement did not keep Paul from completing his letter, so too must we try and make sense of what we know so far.

On Friday, I identified what is clearly the largest fault line, between those who believe that the Church has not adequately brought our doctrinal teaching about mercy to bear on our understanding of, and pastoral practice towards, the family and marriage, certainly not to the degree that our understanding and pastoral practice have been shaped by the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and those who seem startled by the idea that anyone would think there is much to discuss. Cardinal Donald Wuerl published the text of his intervention on Friday which clearly shows his support for the Holy Father’s approach, recognizing the need to balance doctrines in our pastoral practice and not just say it is all about mercy or all about indissolubility, but must be about both. I am told his intervention was well received in the hall and am delighted he is on the drafting committee for the final synod document.

Our friends at First Things have been paying attention to fault lines too. In this article, the unnamed author -- possibly George Weigel but not entirely sure -- details many more fault lines than I see, but that is not the main problem with that article. No, the main problem is that the article is entirely tendentious, painting those who support the Holy Father’s call for a more pastoral approach in the worst possible light and those who resist any change whatsoever as the only orthodox prelates at the synod.

In addition to the clamant need to focus on the role of mercy as part of the kerygma and in our pastoral practice, the largest fault line in the synod seems to me to be between those who grasp and support Pope Francis’ call for a Church of encounter, dialogue and inclusion, and those think the Church and her pastors enter into dialogue with all the answers, that inclusion can only be on their terms, and that the culture of encounter must be shaped by these facts.

I am not entirely without sympathy for those who find Pope Francis’ pontificate a cause of whiplash. They came to maturity with one set of rules, one set of goals, and now along comes Francis with a different understanding of the place of rules, and a keen desire to move the goalposts. They are being challenged, as are we all, by this wonderful pope, but they did not sign up for challenge, they signed up for certainty. And, the people they know best, clergy and laity, have a similar sense that nothing can or should be done that would undercut their certainty, especially on issues like marriage and family which are already in such a great state of flux in our culture. They share the dismay of the First Things’ writer who observed, “Another, related fault line touches on the question of the definition of marriage—an obviously contentious question throughout the world, however bizarre that contestation might have seemed at the 1980 Synod on the Family (which led to St. John Paul II’s epic apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio [The Community of the Family]).” Bizarre? When fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, can we really say that Familiaris Consortio was an effective tonic and that there is nothing more to be said?

Bishops are being called to generate a culture of encounter. But, what is the shape of that encounter? Some prelates note that Jesus Christ called people to conversion, he did not just hang out with people for the sake of hanging out with them. True enough. Indeed, we heard one of the most powerful stories of encounter in the Scripture yesterday, when Jesus encounters the rich young man. The Church’s pastors, like Jesus in the Gospel, are called to love that man, but, again like Jesus, they should not be afraid to challenge him. But, Jesus knew the hearts of those with whom he came into contact, knew their hearts better than they did themselves. Can the same be said of the Church’s pastors? Would a pastor who has actually come to know a gay parishioner not realize how offensive the phrase “instrinsically disordered” is? Would a pastor who has spent time with a couple in a second marriage dismiss that union as “adultery”?

Dialogue clearly arouses suspicions in the minds of the opposition to Pope Francis. The First Things’ article asks, “There is much talk at the Synod about ‘dialogue’ with culture, and in fact no one opposes that. The question is, to what end is that dialogue conducted?” In some sense, of course, all Christians enter into a dialogue – into all of life’s activities – with a view towards converting the world, but in another sense, the Christian who is true to the Gospel knows that we enter into dialogue for its own sake because the face of another person bears the image and likeness of God, that God is already active in the life of our interlocutor, and that perhaps that person has something to teach us too. It is not only the world that constantly needs conversion, but ourselves too. Of course, Jesus Christ is the answer to the questions of every human life, but He is His own answer, and we should never think we have confined Him inside our categories or our conclusions.

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Pastoral Office of bishops, Christus Dominus, and the words of the rite of episcopal consecration, state that bishops are to teach, sanctify and govern their flocks. Some ask: Where does it mention dialogue? I would submit that Pope Francis is calling the bishops of our time to recognize that dialogue is a part of all three of those tasks. Without dialogue, teaching becomes a monologue, and increasingly, few listen. Without dialogue, no pastor will discern the ways the Spirit is already at work sanctifying people’s lives. Without dialogue, government becomes autocracy. The refusal to engage in dialogue, to diminish its value is probably not an indication of pride, although it can be. It is always an indication of sloth.

In the eyes of the opposition, the New Evangelization was a PR technique, about better packaging of Church doctrines, but in Pope Francis’ vision of “a Church in mission,” (and I think in John Paul II’s and Benedict’s understanding too) the New Evangelization was always about the encounter with Jesus, about seeing God as much in those we encounter as in the doctrinal formulations of the Church and, like Jesus, trusting in the Spirit to lead us on, even when we can’t see where we are going. I fear that the opposition to Pope Francis thinks that the Word did not become flesh; The Word became a syllogism, and they have mastered all the riddles of salvation. The opposition not only fails to grasp the significance of what Pope Francis is calling for, they miss the deepest meanings of what Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI called for when they advocated a New Evangelization.  

Finally, I sympathize, a tad, with the opposition on the issue of inclusion. I have had mild arthritis since I was a teenager, and it has not gotten any better in my fifties. Those who resist the idea that the Church should be more inclusive have been in a defensive crouch for a long time. They look out upon the world and see a hostile culture, bad Catholics, and prelates who do not sufficiently bend the knee at every footnote of a John Paul II encyclical. They fret about secularization, which is worth fretting about, but with little awareness of its historical complexity and a notable reluctance to challenge the principal agent of secularization, the consumer culture. Some have even bought into the narrative that the only future for the Church is as a smaller, purer Church, an always dubious sectarian posture.

This fear of an inclusive Church was on full display in the latest intervention by Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput. “It’s very hard to include those who do not wish to be included, or insist on being included on their own terms,” he states. Is this true? For example, I suppose there are some gay activists to whom this concern might apply, but it doesn’t ring true for most of the gay Catholics I know. +Chaput also indicates he is worried about sowing “confusion.” This is what worries me. Does he not realize that for many, many people, there is confusion enough because life is confusing? Does he, as a pastor, share an ounce of empathy for the confusion people feel in their lives, for example, the challenges faced by parents of gay children? The synod is not a meeting of the International Theological Commission, it is a meeting of pastors, but for those resisting Pope Francis, there is no difference between the task of the catechist and the task of the pastor. No one is in favor of confusion per se. As someone once noted, confusion is from the devil. But, +Chaput and his party simply demonstrate again and again that they are completely out of touch with the lived reality of the people to whom they have been sent as pastors. They are not “in mission.” They are on defense, protecting the elect from the challenges of ambiguity.   

Even though my knees have trouble on some days when I have to change positions suddenly, I get up and move on. If the opposition would get out of their defensive crouch for a bit, they might see more than the gloom and doom they regularly decry. They might see families doing their best, marriages that are strong even if they have never attended a seminar on Natural Family Planning, gay and lesbian Catholics who love their Church and struggle mightily to live out the Gospel in the best ways they can. They might discover the Good News is not restricted to middle class concerns about sexual propriety, that it is not intended only for the elect and the pristine. They might even learn that the people they exclude with their clumsy concerns to avoid confusion have something to teach them about the Good News. Instead, they sit in the front pew and pray, “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men.”  

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