Halftime at the Synod

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

by Michael Sean Winters

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We are halfway through the Synod on the Family. After a week of interventions, prepared speeches delivered to the full body, now the synod fathers break into small discussion groups to burrow into the themes discussed. Very little has leaked out of the synod, and the new method of the Vatican press office leaves much to be desired. But, this report at Vatican Insider suggests what I think we all guessed: On the nettlesome issue of the divorced and remarried, the synod fathers are about evenly divided on whether or not the current pastoral praxis is required by our fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage or if a new path might not be called for. More on that later.

This morning, the Vatican released the report from the General Relator of the synod, Cardinal Erdo. It reads like a text that was thrown together pretty quickly, yet there is no mistaking the tone: The pastoral focus is clear. This is not a text we would expect from, say, the USCCB’s Sub-Committee for the Defense and Promotion of Marriage. Nor does it read like a canonical creed. Nor does it indulge the histrionic language of the culture wars. To note only one example, the words “intrinsically disordered” do not appear in the text.

The main thing that has emerged is that while the issue of divorced and remarried maybe the most nettlesome, there are many other things the synod fathers are discussing, and that discussion is remarkably pastoral in its focus. I confess I am clueless about how to handle the subject of polygamy, but the experience of polygamy certainly illustrates the pastoral limitedness of concepts of natural law in countries where polygamy is seen as natural. Whatever its usefulness in the West as an organizing principle of thought and Church teaching, natural law is only a means by which we express doctrines. It is not integral to the faith.

Last week I called attention to an article that suggested parishes must replace the extended family. Here in the West, the extended family has been in decline, yet so many of the challenges a nuclear family faces can only be met – and historically have only been meant – with a vibrant extended family life. I am not sure how many pastors are equipped to transform the life of their parishes as the author suggested. I am not sure if it would work if tried. But, I readily consent that the idea has merit. And, as a corollary, in those countries where the extended family has not broken down, the Church should advocate for political and economic structures that will support it. Why does a society pay lots of money to a financial titan who does not sweat all day but makes no payments to a grandmother who babysits, does the laundry, and cooks the meals? It is time that housework be recognized as work and compensated as such. I can think of many friends, male and female, who would prefer to make less and stay home with their children, and maybe the children of a friend at the local parish, but the possibility is not financially possible. The text released this morning indicates that the synod Fathers are attentive to these socio-cultural challenges, as well as others. Indeed, the text begins with a focus on the economic pressures families face.

Pre-marital counseling was also an issue that the synod fathers discussed and upon which there could be some encouraging consensus. For example, if the parish is to serve increasingly as an extended family, how involved is the parish in the pre-Cana counseling? In most parishes, the banns of marriage are announced in the parish bulletin but why not have a series of rites devised for a couple in the months preceding their wedding, nothing fancy, but rites of blessing at Sunday Mass, so that the couple can understand the whole parish is praying for them and, critically, the ecclesial nature of the sacrament will be highlighted. We do this for the RCIA and those who participate in those rites are always very moved. Counseling is great, but prayer is often more efficacious. And, once a couple is wed, should they not start their journey as a married couple accompanied by another couple in the parish, one that has been married for a long time, someone with whom to discuss the ups and downs of married life specifically from the perspective of faith? Friends are great and no marriage survives without them, but having a concrete method of accompaniment for newlyweds with a couple that has received a bit of training in how to mentor in the faith, this could be fruitful.

Another word that is gaining ground is “graduality,” the recognition that individuals gradually appropriate the full teaching of the Church to themselves and, in fact, none of us keeps it one hundred percent of the time. This is actually an old idea, the idea that the laws of the Church are the stars to guide you, which is a very different idea of law from our modern, contractual, understanding of law. I think that the more our pastors explain such differences, let people know not only what the Church teaches but that the Church understands no one fully arrives at that teaching this side of the eschaton, and that the duty of pastors and of fellow Catholics, of the whole Church, is to accompany each other. I cannot explain my own life without the accompaniment of some truly wonderful pastors. Yes, let us be clear about the fullness of the Church’s teaching but we must articulate it while accompanying people, or even beforehand, or else that teaching will always be understood as oppressive, extrinsic, forced.

What has been best about the synod so far – and my colleagues in Rome no doubt feel differently – is that the pre-synod campaigning seems to have stopped. Nobody is leaking to one side or the other, which is one indication that the synod fathers might not, after all, be treating this like a political campaign. It is also interesting that the half dozen cardinals and bishops the Holy Father appointed to work with the General Relator to present the synod findings, including Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl, all of them are men who can speak without shouting.

If only this toning down of the politics would take root outside the synod hall! This weekend I received to unsolicited emails from people I do not know, both of which focused on my short post last week calling attention to comments made by Cardinal Raymond Burke to LifeSiteNews and EWTN. Both emails were disturbing in different ways.

The first email read:

Raymond Cardinal Burke’s recent comments that “gay people who engage in ‘wrong, evil’ and ‘intrinsically disordered’ relationships” must be kept away from their family demonstrates the tone deaf nature of the Francis affect. While Pope Francis I’s question “Who am I to judge?” sounds good, albeit life-giving, it is those gay seminarians and gay priests, even lesbian nuns who must take this opportunity during the Synod on the Family to come out of the closet. These very ministers of God, laborers for Jesus’ vineyard, must confront celibate men like Cardinal Burke, who run the Magisterium, celibate men who for years and years have used their voices to fragment and fracture Christian families and stigmatize LGBTQ people. It is because of such toxic, anti-social and venomous language that some 200,000 LGBTQ youth live on the streets and in the shelters of America… When will gay seminarians, priests, brothers and lesbians nuns come out of the closet? Until they do men like Burke continue to answer Pope Francis' question.  The affect is not good, it is rather structural sinful. (The ellipsis deletes a portion of the email that might have revealed the identity of the author.)

As a general rule, I am not much of a fan of the verb “must” – it sounds like a manifesto. But, there are times when it is obligatory to say of a group to which one belongs, “we must” as in, “Our Church must confront the clergy sex abuse” or “Our nation must exhaust diplomatic initiatives before turning to war.” But, there is something more than a little presumptuous about telling other people they must do something, especially when that something is coming out of the closet, which is about as personal a decision as a person can make. This is more than presumptuous. The totalitarian itch is discernible in these words. And, is it not time for everybody to recognize that while the personal has a bearing on the political, and the political has a bearing on the personal, a healthy respect for the difference between the two would make for a more happy society.

The other email came from a defender of Cardinal Burke. It read as follows:

Please read the following quote from the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH (para. 2357):

"Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of great depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts intrinsically disordered'. They are contrary to the natural law."

This Catechism was approved for use for every Catholic by the Successor of Peter, St. John Paul II, as a sure norm of Church teaching. The current author of this work is Pope Francis, the current Successor of Peter. Who would think that a Cardinal of the Catholic Church would reiterate a truth from the Church's sure norm for teaching the faithful?

If the Catechism is on your shelf Mr. Winters, then you have a decision to make.

If you choose to criticize its tone, which you claim to be "mean-spirited," then please direct your opinions to the Lord Himself--the source of Life and Truth. He has entrusted His Truth to His Body, the Church, of whom Pope Francis and Cardinal Burke are significant members, reiterating its beautiful truths. Let the Lord Himself answer you, if you have the patience and humility to listen. I pray that you do.

What do you have to say about Christ judging the Pharisees as "Hypocrites!"? Was that mean-spirited also? Will you criticize Him? I presume you wouldn't. Please pray Mr. Winters, that the beautiful Truth of Christ will never be watered down and turned to mush.

Pray, pray, pray Mr. Winters.

I am praying for you. Pay attention.

I am always grateful for the prayers of others, although I admit I am a little tired of people promising to pray for me when that promise contains so much condescension. Yes, the “intrinsically disordered” language appears in the catechism. And, I would be content to live with that language provided those you use it always, each time, acknowledge that this language enters the Catholic canon at Trent and there was applied to the sin of concupiscence. And, I would further insist that every time this acknowledgement is made, it was pointed out that St. Augustine taught us that even the conjugal act open to the procreation of children was not free from the sin of concupiscence. In short, we are all intrinsically disordered or, as Pope Francis likes to say, we are all sinners. Fine. Next point.

As the Synod Fathers move into small groups, I hope they will keep a quote of St. Catherine of Siena in mind: “All the way to heaven is heaven and all the way to hell is hell.” In assessing the Church’s pastoral care of the family in the context of evangelization, the question must be asked: Does our pastoral practice help the believer and his or her family feel like they are on the way to heaven? Do we make the goal of heaven seem like it can only be achieved by walking through hell? Are we accompanying families with the love of Jesus, or just with the canon laws of our Church, and especially those families which are broken and wounded? From the text released by Cardinal Erdo, the Synod Fathers are indeed focusing as pastors on the problems they confront. Let’s hope the commentariat will do the same. All of us, not just the bishops in Rome this week, need to ask if we make the Church a home for the families of our day.   





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