More Thoughts on The Synod

Three weeks ago, I ran a series of columns on the forthcoming Synod on the Family. Then, I was out of the country for a week. Last week, I was able to have conversations with friends who had corrections and comments about that series and, as well, there have been some developments in the story. Today, I would like to take up the issue again.

First, in discussing the ways our culture, with its materialism and consumerism, adversely affect family life, I should have paid more attention to the very obvious fact that for many poor people, getting through the day is an almost crushing burden. Trying to raise a family in such circumstances is a very real challenge. We saw this in the summer with the children forced to flee the violence in Central America and come to the United States unaccompanied by their parents. So, while my arguments that our consumer culture inclines people to believe that relationships, like toys, can be thrown away, is true, I failed to adequately note this more basic way our current socio-economic systems create real harm in the lives of families.

Second, a very thoughtful priest disagreed with my call for disentangling the Church’s Sacrament of matrimony from the secular state’s license of marriage. He thought I was implying that the Church should not raise her voice when the civil law is not rooted in the moral law. Let me clarify. I certainly believe, both in principle and, almost always, in practice, that the Church should pronounce herself on the moral significance of civil legislation, whether that legislation has to do with marriage or with government assistance to the poor or the sanctity of human life. Pope Benedict’s speech to the Bundestag is still worth reading and pondering. My problem with the bishops’ last decade and one half of pronouncements on civil legislation regarding gays and lesbians is that we paid lip service to the human dignity of gays and lesbians, but did not really grapple with the fullness of the Church’s teaching. I believe, as the Church teaches, that marriage is a Sacrament between a man and a woman, characterized by their promises of fidelity, permanence and an openness to the procreation of children. I believe our civil laws should reflect that belief. But, why did the bishops have to oppose civil unions? Why have they not endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? Why was same sex marriage, and not no fault divorce laws, characterized as a “civilizational threat”? If the bishops are to be credible in their defense of traditional marriage, they need to acknowledge these prior failures to recognize the dignity of gay men and women in a meaningful way. In the event, the train has left the station on civil unions. Fifteen years ago, it was plausible, and it was not embraced because the bishops, like many conservative commentators, adopted a slippery slope analysis. They should not have done so but they did. No generation of bishops should be tied down by the mistakes of their predecessors, but those mistakes must be acknowledged.

Third, a pastor friend of mine told me about an interesting incident that, I believe, sheds light on the Church’s ability to deal more fruitfully with the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics. Within the territorial limits of his parish, there is a lovely chapel. A couple got married there and the officiating priest was an old family friend from out of town. He assumed they had cleared everything with the pastor. They did not realize there was anything to clear. When the pastor learned of the marriage, he realized that because this couple had not followed canonical form, their marriage was invalid, not illicit, but invalid. The pastor had to fill out some forms and send them to the bishop who regularized the marriage. The process is called sanatio in radice – healing at the root. It is a canonical process but not a juridical one; It is administrative. The word “administrative” conjures up an image of a bureaucracy, but look at the root, to minister to. If an administrative process can ex post facto heal at the root a marriage that was invalid, why can an administrative process, conducted by the pastor and the bishop, not do likewise for the divorced and remarried? And, I should point out that it still does not make sense to me that a Protestant couple, getting married at that same chapel without permission of the Catholic priest would have a valid marriage while a Catholic couple would not. The Protestant couple did not believe marriage is a sacrament, but they do believe baptism is a sacrament, and it is, as I understand it, a person’s baptism that makes the requirement of proper form necessary for sacramental validity of their marriage.

So, those are my clarifications. But, since I penned my curtain raisers, the discussions about the forthcoming synod has witnessed some regrettable developments. Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., is bringing out a new book, with chapters from five cardinals, attacking the suggestions made by Cardinal Walter Kasper at last February’s consistory. In an interview at the Catholic News Agency, I was not surprised that Fr. Fessio pushed back against the suggestion that this book was really an attack on the pope. I am even sympathetic with the idea that the book is exactly what Cardinal Kasper asked for, a frank discussion of the issues. But, I was surprised as the nastiness with which Fr. Fessio described Cardinal Kasper. You may or may not agree with this or that point, but Kasper is clearly one of the leading theological lights of the post-Vatican II era. One can disagree with him without being dismissive.

As well, we now know that Cardinal George Pell has written an interesting, and telling, introduction to this book. Among other things, Pell writes, “Doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory.” So far, so good. But, which doctrine? The doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage must come together with the Church’s doctrine on God’s infinite mercy. That was the whole point of Kasper’s book. But, the real problem with what Pell wrote is found in these sentences. “The issue is seen by both friends and foes of the Catholic tradition as a symbol -- a prize in the clash between what remains of Christendom in Europe and an aggressive neo-paganism,” Pell wrote. “Every opponent of Christianity wants the church to capitulate on this issue.” These are the words of a culture warrior. I would note that “Christendom,” as a sociological phenomenon was a decidedly mixed blessing. I also do not think we should let the desires of “every opponent of Christianity” dictate how the Church approaches this, or any, issue. Finally, the track record of those who resist the development of doctrine – think Cardinal Ottaviani opposing Dignitatis Humanae – does not warrant such a sweeping condemnation as Pell puts forward. The lens is wrong here. The Synod Fathers must concern themselves first with the Gospel, and what it reveals about God’s mercy. Then, and only then, can they assess the adequacy of our current pastoral praxis and teaching. And, while the Church must always be attuned to the culture, we can’t make decisions because of some over-arching cultural narrative that was born in a political ward. You can search the history of the Church and in almost every century you will find leaders of the Church inflicting great harm by forgetting that they are not politicians.

I have been reflecting on the problems with the culture warrior approach all weekend as I read various commentators trying to figure out who the new Archbishop-elect of Chicago is. The consensus was that +Cupich is “a moderate” and not a “culture warrior.” The problem with this analysis is that “moderate” suggests mushy, perhaps even lacking in zeal. I would suggest that the opposite of a culture warrior is not a moderate. The opposite of a culture warrior is a churchman, someone who takes his cues and looks for his answers first in the Scriptures, but also in the  rich traditions of our faith and, critically, in the lived experience of the Christian faithful. I look at those bishops and popes whom I most admire, from the past – Pius VII, +Gibbons, Pius XI, +Mundelein, Paul VI, +Hallahan and +Hickey, to name a few almost at random – and I see churchmen. (The list is relatively modern because of the limits of my own study and because the relationship of the Church to culture took on a different quality after the Reformation and Enlightenment. Real scholars would need to examine how this point relates to earlier times.) I look at the prelates I most admire today - +O’Malley, +Wuerl, +Levada and, yes, +Cupich – and I see churchmen. This is not to say that other bishops less allergic to the culture wars do not love the Church. Of course they do. But, their lens is too inflected with a narrative that is rooted in political or sociological, and sometimes philosophical, analysis. They almost always end up a bit gloomy, forgetful of the fact that an apostle is one who witnesses to the empty tomb, someone who has been touched by the joy of the Gospel, not just shaped by the dictates of canon law. We need bishops – and Chicago just got one – who see the big issues, and the small events, of life through the prism of that empty tomb, a prism that is handed down from generation to generation, each one seeing something that was hidden from earlier generations, each one finding new ways to be faithful, each one looking for new ways to be faithful. That is not moderate, that is radical. Our culture, and not just a few marriages, needs a sanatio in radice, but that will be brought about by those who see culture as a thing to be engaged, not a thing to be fought. It is my fervent prayer that the forthcoming synod on the family will see all the synod fathers deliberate as churchmen.




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