The Synod and the "great et, et"

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

The work of the synod enters into its final stretch this week, with the thorniest issues at the center of the discussion. It is time for the synod fathers to come together and engage in the hard work of reconciling their divergent opinions. In the past few days, we have seen some of the dividing lines become public, and it is worth looking at some of them to understand how steep a road the synod fathers face.

In an interview published at Catholic Philly yesterday, Archbishop Charles Chaput was asked about a previous intervention by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, in which the cardinal called those who live faithful, heroic lives a “new minority.” It was a plea for the workers in the field who worked all day for the agreed wage, and then resented the fact that those workers who came late, were paid the same as they. But these words of +Chaput’s strike me as key to the problem facing the synod. He said:

Reaching out to alienated groups like persons with same-sex attraction is important. But our first priority needs to be the families and married couples who really believe in Jesus Christ and already live their faith vigorously. Going to the peripheries can’t be done unless we first nourish the faithful people who provide the cornerstone of our Church life. 

You see the problem, yes? The archbishop seems to think that there are two groups at issue, “families and married couples who really believe in Jesus Christ and already live their faith vigorously” and those other “alienated groups.” He seems incapable of imagining that there are, among the alienated, those who “really believe in Jesus Christ” but who, for whatever reason, have trouble with the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family.

The fact that a person has trouble in living the Christian life should not surprise. Last Sunday’s Gospel reminded us of the cost of discipleship. We all have crosses to carry. But, the issue before the synod is whether some of the crosses the people of God are made to carry come not from Christ but from a theological and canonical approach to family life that is anachronistic. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of gay and lesbian Catholics. For thousands of years, no one inside the Church or outside really understood gay people to be constitutionally so. Same-sex behavior was considered an aberrational choice. But, in the past fifty years, at least in the West, we have come to recognize that gay people are more or less born gay. This does not mean we set aside two thousand years of Christian teaching about the proper ends of marriage. But, I think it is undeniable that the Church’s teaching on, and theology about, homosexuality is inadequate. The more conservative prelates at the synod fret publicly about the need for clarity, but there is nothing clear about the Church’s teaching on gays and lesbians.

I am reluctant to engage in armchair psychology, but sometimes it is impossible to avoid. In that same interview, +Chaput says, “If my conscience disagrees with the guidance of the Church on a matter of moral substance, it’s probably not the Church that is wrong. Human beings -- all of us -- are very adroit at making excuses for what we want to do, whether it’s sinful or not.” I hope he remembers that first sentence when, and if, Pope Francis delivers authoritative teaching that conflicts with the arguments +Chaput has been making at the synod. And, the bit about being adroit in making excuses brought to mind the least commented upon aspect of the now infamous letter from the thirteen cardinals challenging the procedures at the synod. One of the strongest criticisms of the Instrumentum laboris has been that it is too rooted in sociological analysis instead of theological bedrock. Yet, in that letter, the cardinals wrote: “The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution in our own synodal discussions.” Need I point out that this is itself a sociological point, not a theological one.

It is clear that the opposition to any changes in church discipline is organized. They have written books, published op-eds, given interviews, all in an effort to restrict what the synod can do and, by extension, how the Holy Father can proceed. Last week, there was an effort to hijack the Canon Law Society of America and enlist its good offices in an anti-Pope Francis stance. That effort was rejected, thankfully. You can tune into EWTN almost any night and hear some tendentious renderings of the synod proceedings. And, of course, the many in the blogosphere think half or more of the synod fathers are heretics and consider the pope a scoundrel.

I hope and pray that the synod fathers are all acting in good faith. They need to come together. I would refer the synod fathers to these 2007 words of Pope Benedict XVI. They are not exactly on point -- Pope Benedict was speaking to local priests in northern Italy where he had taken his vacation, and he was asked by a priest about balancing the divine and human in priestly life -- but I think they speak directly to the challenge facing the synod and the Holy Father. Benedict said:

I would simply say "yes" to what you said at the end. Catholicism, somewhat simplistically, has always been considered the religion of the great "et et" ["both-and"]: not of great forms of exclusivism but of synthesis. The exact meaning of "Catholic" is "synthesis". I would therefore be against having to choose between either playing football or studying Sacred Scripture or Canon Law. Let us do both these things. It is great to do sports. I am not a great sportsman, yet I used to like going to the mountains when I was younger; now I only go on some very easy excursions, but I always find it very beautiful to walk here in this wonderful earth that the Lord has given to us. Therefore, we cannot always live in exalted meditation; perhaps a Saint on the last step of his earthly pilgrimage could reach this point, but we normally live with our feet on the ground and our eyes turned to Heaven. Both these things are given to us by the Lord and therefore loving human things, loving the beauties of this earth, is not only very human but also very Christian and truly Catholic. I would say - and it seems to me that I have already mentioned this earlier - that this aspect is also part of a good and truly Catholic pastoral care: living in the "et et"; living the humanity and humanism of the human being, all the gifts which the Lord has lavished upon us and which we have developed; and at the same time, not forgetting God, because ultimately, the great light comes from God and then it is only from him that comes the light which gives joy to all these aspects of the things that exist. Therefore, I would simply like to commit myself to the great Catholic synthesis, to this "et et"; to be truly human. And each person, in accordance with his or her own gifts and charism, should not only love the earth and the beautiful things the Lord has given us, but also be grateful because God's light shines on earth and bathes everything in splendour and beauty. In this regard, let us live catholicity joyfully. This would be my answer.

The “great et, et” must be the answer of the synod to the questions they are facing in these final days of the synod. The task is not one of choosing moral doctrine over pastoral solicitude, but forging a synthesis between mercy and teaching, between the clarity of doctrine and the messiness of life. That can only happen when the “we” to which a synod father attaches himself consists of those who falter and those who fail, not only the heroic and morally upright. The “great et, et” must be the method of the church because we proclaim, at the heart of our Creed, the greatest “et, et” of all time, the incarnation of God Himself in human history.  

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