The extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family kicked off in Vatican City on Monday, and we are beginning to see what frank and open dialogue may look like in the church at its highest level in 2014.
Many Catholics are hopeful the synod will bring meaningful change to how the church ministers to the modern Catholic family. But where Pope Francis encouraged synod members to speak boldly and candidly, at least one prelate was quick to say that bold does not always mean earth-shattering.
"Mercy does not take away the commitments which arise from the demands of the marriage bond," said Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, in reference to the thorny question of divorce and remarriage, which is of particular concern for Western Catholics.
"This means that, in the case of a consummated sacramental marriage, after a divorce, a marriage recognized by the church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive," he said.
At the same time, remarks made by a married Australian couple spoke with eloquence to the concerns of many Western Catholic families, including divorce.
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Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney, who have been married for 55 years, said:
- "That attraction that we first felt and the continued bonding force between us was basically sexual. The little things we did for each other, the telephone calls and love notes, the way we planned our day around each other and the things we shared were outward expressions of our longing to be intimate with each other."
- "Our faith in Jesus was important to us. We went to Mass together and looked to the church for guidance. Occasionally, we looked at church documents, but they seemed to be from another planet with difficult language and not terribly relevant to our own experiences."
- "Friends of ours were planning their Christmas family gathering when their gay son said he wanted to bring his partner home, too. They fully believed in the church's teachings, and they knew their grandchildren would see them welcome the son and his partner into the family. Their response could be summed up in three words, 'He is our son.' "
- "A divorced friend of ours says that sometimes she doesn't feel fully accepted in her parish. However, she turns up to Mass regularly and uncomplainingly with her children. For the rest of her parish, she should be a model of courage and commitment in the face of adversity. From people like her, we learn to recognize that we all carry an element of brokenness in our lives. Appreciating our own brokenness helps enormously to reduce our tendency to be judgmental of others, which is such a block for evangelization."
Even though the synod is still in its earliest stages, NCR asked University of Notre Dame sociologist Mary Ellen Konieczny and University of San Diego theologian Emily Reimer-Barry, both of whom study Catholic family life, to weigh in.
One could view the proceedings so far "as reproducing existing differences in the Church," Konieczny wrote in an email, "with the emphasis on open dialogue (and possible change) representing a more progressive impulse, and boundary drawing around Church teachings a more conservative impulse."
"But in fact, I think that a dialogue such as that recommended by Pope Francis, where participants at the synod are free to say what they really think, while taking as given Church teachings surrounding marriage and family life, has the potential to move the conversation forward -- especially in the context of the need for evangelization -- by taking seriously that more effective pastoral responses to the difficulties of families are needed today, and perhaps especially surrounding the difficulties of marriage."
"The Catholic couples I spoke with when researching my book," The Spirit's Tether, Konieczny wrote, "and in subsequent research on how congregations respond effectively to marital conflict and divorce, mirrored Americans generally in their desire for marriages that were richly intimate and emotionally satisfying partnerships -- what sociologists of the family call 'individualized marriage' or 'soulmate marriage.' These are high expectations. But of course, at the same time, they all had experienced in one way or another the difficulties of marriage and child rearing, which tempered their expectations, sometimes in ways similar to those so beautifully spoken of by the Australian couple who spoke at the synod."
"I hope that attentive listening to married couples talk about their joys and difficulties and how they perceive the Church, as dioceses did in the run up to the synod, continues through the synod since, as we see in Catholic parishes, knowing and understanding the pressures and stresses of family life today is the foundation to an effective pastoral response," Konieczny wrote.
Reimer-Barry wrote: "I am uplifted by the descriptions of the Synod's first session because Pope Francis, Cardinal Erdo, and Ron and Mavis Pirola have captured just the right tone in their remarks. All emphasized the need to listen with humility. I hope the Synod can symbolize for the Catholic faithful that the church is not only a teaching church but a learning church."
"Cardinal Erdo invokes the 'law of gradualness.' This may signal a creative way to draw on the tradition while simultaneously opening up a new way forward for rethinking church practices. The law of gradualness refers to the idea that the church does not expect the impossible. Every believer must do the best he or she can in his or her own particular circumstances; as Richard Gula has said, no one is morally obligated to do what he or she is incapable of doing (Reason Informed by Faith, 84). The law of gradualness is not a cover for taking the easy way out; instead it encourages constant moral striving while also recognizing each person's different capacity.
"I wonder, though, if it is helpful to frame pastoral questions as totally distinct from doctrinal issues; to me, this downplays the significance of the challenges families face today. Is the Synod really going to discuss pastoral care of families affected by HIV/AIDS without considering church teaching on condom use? Will there be openness to discussing the contributions of feminist theologians or must we continue to hear that 'there is not consensus on the ideology of gender theories' as the Synod meets to discuss issues of sexuality without a critical mass of women participants? Pope Francis has said, 'Let no one say: "This you cannot say." ' This is refreshing indeed, precisely because so many people have heard that message repeatedly in the church."
"I remain hopeful," Reimer-Barry wrote. "My prayer is Come, Holy Spirit!"
[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is email@example.com.]