Exploring pastoral vs. doctrinal concerns for the October synod on the family

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

Ross Douthat has written an outstanding piece about Pope Francis in The Atlantic. It provides a worthwhile read into an understanding of the forces that have shaped our current pope.

Douthat compares three recent biographies on the life of Pope Francis. The biographies are written by Elisabetta Pique, Austen Ivereigh and Paul Vallely. Although he characterizes all the biographies as doing a credible job in detailing the life of Pope Francis/Jorge Bergoglio, Douthat finds Ivereigh's The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope as coming closest to understanding what Pope Francis' priorities are and why they are important to him.

After an excellent analysis of the life of Pope Francis, Douthat, a conservative columnist, goes on to enumerate many of the concerns that traditionalists within the church have about Francis. Francis' comments on economic and environmental issues are among those concerns. Douthat appropriately agrees with many that Francis is merely elaborating on the remarks of previous popes. He falls well within the social justice tradition of the church. Douthat even sees the kinder, gentler, more pastoral papacy and church as a positive.

Where Douthat does become concerned is with possible changes in doctrine, which he finds troubling. The most pressing one is that of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. My own sense is that conservatives generally fail to see or do not want to see that marriage is not what this issue is about. It is about the Eucharist and who can receive it. It is, in fact, a pastoral discussion. All should be invited to the table of the Lord. It is only church rules that deny Communion to those who are divorced and remarried. Charity calls us to allow all to receive the Lord.

The Lord didn't shy away from sinners, but ate at the table with them. The Eucharist should not be seen as a reward for being good, but as nourishment for sinners along the journey of life. All of us need to partake of the bread of life. The indissolubility of marriage is not at issue here.

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While I believe that the distribution of Communion is not a doctrinal issue, it is true that this discussion does have something to do with an understanding of marriage. Traditionalists say that the divorced and remarried are living in sin. I have always had trouble with that image. So a woman whose husband leaves her after a couple of years of marriage is condemned to a life of never being able to remarry? She is left with two children and few financial options. She finds love, a companion, a father for her children and a provider. Yet she is living in sin.

There is something wrong when you can commit a brutal murder, go to confession and you are right with God, yet the single act of marrying someone you love saddles you with perpetual sin every day of your life. It doesn't make sense to me.

I know that annulments offer an escape for some. But while I would support Pope Francis' plan to make them free and easier to obtain, I believe they contain their own set of problems. They do not provide a satisfying answer to these issues. 

Well, perhaps on her death bed, she can make a perfect act of contrition and sneak into heaven by the skin of her teeth. In order to do so, she must renounce 30 years of a loving relationship, regret any children she may have had with her second husband, and acknowledge that the last 30 years of her life have been a period of constant sin.

Perhaps the church may find such an understanding reasonable. I have difficulty believing that the Jesus of the Gospels would see the situation the same way. I believe this is why Francis keeps telling us that doctrine can sometimes get in the way of serving the people. When we fail to take into account the human element of the situations we find ourselves in, we wind up with some very distorted notions of what ought to be.

It should also be noted that the Jesus of history, when he was speaking about divorce, was actually talking about the coming of the kingdom. He believed that the kingdom was imminent, so he was warning that now was not the time to marry. If you are married, stay married; if you are unmarried, do not get married, but focus on being ready for God's kingdom, which could be coming any day. Jesus was not expecting any of us to spend 30 years in any particular state. Understood in this context, Jesus' comments about divorce have a very different sense about them.

We are confronted with the realities of our lives each day. They don't always fit into the categories of our textbooks and theological niceties. Thomas Aquinas recognized this and always considered individual circumstances in making moral judgments. This is why Francis is calling us to love rather than condemn. Francis is asking all of us to determine how we can bring help and healing to those suffering in our community. The point of having a synod on the family should be to determine how we can help all of our people come closer to Jesus, not to issue new edicts detailing what everyone is doing wrong.


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