The Synod Begins

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Holy Father opened the Synod on the Family yesterday. My colleague Joshua McElwee has a report on Pope Francis’ sermon at the Mass which was, unsurprisingly, very powerful, calling the synod fathers and the entire Church to cling to what we have been taught, both what Christ revealed about God’s mercy and what He revealed about God’s will for marriage and the family.

Friday, I linked to a set of essays I wrote in advance of least year’s synod, noting that I did not see a need to alter them. Today, I should like to look at a few issues that have become clearer since last year’s synod, at least to me.

The first touches on what I noted about the pope’s sermon, that the synod must find better ways for the Church, in her teaching and practice, to evidence both our received teaching on marriage and the family and our received teaching about God’s limitless mercy. Too often, the two sides that have dominated the pre-synodal debate are cast as the “doctrine team” and the “pastoral team.” It is a false distinction. Our doctrine must inform our pastoral practice, and our pastoral practice must inform our understanding of our doctrines. More precisely, the “doctrine team” does not have a monopoly on doctrine; instead, they focus only on some moral doctrines – for example, the indissolubility of marriage, the sinfulness of sexual acts not open to procreation – and neglect other doctrines, such as God’s limitless mercy. It is hard work to reconcile these doctrines in the Church’s pastoral practice, but that is what the synod is called upon to do.

For too long, pastoral theology has been understood as a kind of subset of moral theology, while Pope Francis seems to view the Church’s theology differently, with moral theology as a subset of pastoral theology. It will surprise no one that I tend to agree with the pope. The moral-theology-first brigade starts with syllogisms and reach very clear solutions, but they speak in ways that evidence little sympathy for the human condition, and a crimped understanding of God’s mercy. One suspects that, given the chance, they would re-write the parable of the prodigal. This weekend, EWTN unhelpfully rebroadcast Cardinal Raymond Burke’s unhelpful talk at the Franciscan University of Steubenville last month. +Burke epitomizes the moral-theology-first brigade. His approach had a certain intellectual consistency to be sure, but it was so dry. When I hear Pope Francis speak, I think to myself, I would follow that man into a burning building. When I hear Cardinal Burke speak, I am not sure I would follow him out of a burning building.

These different approaches will manifest themselves in many ways but most obviously in the discussion about ministering to the divorced and remarried. As I noted last year, the current practice focuses on the wrong marriage, denying communion when a person enters into a second union when it was the first union that is in need of healing and forgiveness. A contribution to this discussion was made last month by Archbishop Blase Cupich, whom Pope Francis appointed to this synod. In a press conference in Chicago, when asked about the synod, he noted that in the Bible, before we get to the Decalogue, God reveals to His people Israel who they are and to whom they belong. (Here is a link to the video and the relevant part begins at minute 17:00.) The self-revelation of God starts with the human person, not the moral rules, and the synod must make sure that the Church’s current pastoral practice also starts with the human person. This is one of the most consistent and persistent themes of Pope Francis’ magisterium. Indeed, the Holy Father’s sermon yesterday could be seen as an example of what +Cupich had mentioned, as the pope explained “who we are” not just what we should do.

A different focus became clear in listening to the pope this past year, especially his many talks in the U.S. and in his sermon on Sunday when he spoke of our world of “many liberties, but little freedom.” When Professor Stephen Schneck first suggested our Institute at Catholic University organize a conference on libertarianism, I assumed we would focus mostly on economics and politics, but I have come to recognize that this conversation we began has a great bearing on issues relevant to the synodal discussion. Consider these words the pope addressed to the bishops gathered for the World Meeting of Families:

Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust.  The most important thing nowadays seems to be follow the latest trend or activity.  This is even true of religion.  Today consumerism determines what is important.  Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming…  Whatever the cost or consequences.  A consumption which does not favor bonding, consumption which has little to do with human relationships.  Social bonds are a mere “means” for the satisfaction of “my needs”.  The important thing is no longer our neighbor, with his or her familiar face, story and personality. 

The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer “useful” or “satisfying” for the tastes of the consumer.  We have turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the tastes of certain “consumers”, while so many others only “eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Mt 15:27).  This causes great harm.  I would say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of impoverishment born of a  widespread and radical sense of loneliness.  Running after the latest fad, accumulating “friends” on one of the social networks, we get caught up in what contemporary society has to offer.  Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized.

Loneliness is the consequence of a hyper-individualism, of a mistaken sense of human autonomy and a diminished sense of human solidarity. I have long believed that in our spread eagle capitalist consumerism, we teach our children at a very young age that their happiness can be found with stuff, and that the best stuff is new stuff. This does not begin an education in the kind of patient, persevering love that makes a family or a marriage work. Pope Francis is not shy about warning against excessive individualism, nor in calling for solidarity – in our families, in our political life, and in our economic relations. The pope also was clear that many families, beset by poverty and exclusion, have great difficulty in forming and sustaining families. In his address to Congress he highlighted the situation of migrants, who are often separated not only by circumstance but by unjust laws.

One issue that has not gotten enough attention is the collapse of the extended family. Until a couple of generations ago, most people grew up with grandparents across the street or cousins down the road. Now, such examples of extended families living close to one another are rare, and not only in the industrialized West: Globalization has pushed many families of farms and into urban centers. The Holy Father consistently talks about the importance of grandparents but unless those grandparents are accessible, their importance is diminished. All of this puts an enormous amount of pressure on the nuclear family and many families are unable to make it without the traditional supports of the extended family. The synod should invite episcopal conferences to examine this issue and see how the Church, specifically our parochial structures, can become a surrogate extended family. The bonds of blood may not be able to provide the kind of support once supplied by the extended family, but the bonds of grace might.

In 1884, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore mandated that every Catholic parish have a school. Not every parish was able to meet this requirement, but it was a goal, and in many cities, a vast network of Catholic education was constructed and served the Church well for decades – and still does! Perhaps today, the mandate should be that every Catholic parish establish a daycare program. We usually have the space, and, not to be crass, there is money to be made in daycare so many parishes need not be warned off by the expense. More importantly, daycare in the parish would help create community. My last neighborhood did not have many kids in it, so it was not really a neighborhood. Now, I live in a neighborhood teeming with children and, guess what? It is a real neighborhood. I suspect daycare could revitalize the life of some parishes that are struggling, bringing in young families, finding creative ways to enlist those who come to daycare in other parts of the life of the Church, connecting our youngest Catholics with our senior Catholics in ways the pope has suggested.

The idea of parish-based daycare leads to another issue that the synod should confront. The Holy Father has used the image of the Church as a “field hospital” and, in the case of the divorced and remarried, certainly we need to do a better job ministering to them. But, should we not also consider being a clinic for the newly married? How can a parish support newlyweds? In this busy, often lonely, iPad-obsessed, isolated culture, do our parishes offer mentoring from older couples? One parish here in Washington has a free monthly Saturday night when the parishioners can bring their kids to the school and they are cared for and entertained and the parents can go on a date. That’s a really nice thing. Too often, a young couple gets their pre-Cana counseling, which is very uneven, and then it is “Keep warm and well fed!” In my parish, and many others, baptisms take place in the context of Sunday Mass. After all, a child is not baptized into a checklist of doctrines but into a community of Christians we call the Church. I hope someday that marriages will also take place in the context of Sunday Mass, so that their sacramental quality is emphasized, not their societal panache.

This brings us full-circle. Doctrine is not opposed to pastoral practice but, in some cases, our pastoral practice only highlights only some of our doctrinal inheritance. Given all the things a couple preparing to marry in America today has on their mind, the invitations, the reception, the bridesmaids and the groomsmen, the music, the outfits, how do we break through all that and teach that this is a sacrament? As the parable of the sower indicates, it is not enough to presume on God’s grace, as the “doctrine team” tends to do, we have to cultivate the soil so that it is good soil.

Much of the attention in the press will focus on the hot button issues of what the synod will say about gays and lesbians, and how it will deal with the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics. But, the real focus must be on how the Church ministers to all families in such a way that the family is strengthened and becomes a school in evangelization and humanity. That may not catch the headlines, but it is what is most important in the next three weeks. 

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