What light can we gather from the recent Synod? Never before has a synod received so much attention. It has aroused many hopes and it has revealed real problems. 1. The hopes that the Synod arouseda. The recent synod is not a rare bird. It is within the interest of the Vatican Council II to approach modern man: Gaudium et spes spoke of the family as the first point of dialogue between the Church and the world. St. John Paul II’s first synod was about the family and he accompanied it with his innovative “Theology of the Body.” Why so much interest in the family? Because “the family is the way of the Church” (John Paul II, Letter to Families). Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, explained that the grammar of revelation is love. With his “Theology of Love” he showed how the impulse of eros requires caritas. Pope Francis takes up their witness. He boldly convened his first synod to address the challenges of the family. And he gave it such importance that he wanted to finish it off with a second synod in October, 2015 dedicated to the vocation and mission of the family.b. There is hope that the great effort initiated by the Vatican Council II comes, finally, to the people of God.The fresh air could give young people new hope to face getting married and arouse a culture of life that would encourage spouses to generate children and educate them for a great and beautiful life. At the same time this fresh air could breathe new life into the formation of priests. What answers do newly ordained priests give today in response to questions of love, sex, desire, happiness, and promise?Fresh air is needed because the difficulties are great. The challenges are not only about man’s innate weakness in sexual matters, but also about the difficulty in understanding what makes sex and love great and beautiful. Hence there is now a separation between faith and life, between what the Church teaches and what many people think. Pope Francis has had great courage to confront this problem, to uncover the wound that festers.c. However, this great hope of fresh air has been joined since the beginning with stale air. The Secretary of the Synod initiated a large-scale survey concentrating on the problems of the family. But what father of a family needs to do a survey to know what is going on in his own home? Still more, the February extraordinary Consistory had a unique presentation in that the theme focused on the question of communion for the divorced who are living in a new union. Someone went on to state that if this issue was not resolved in the next Synod, it would not be worth meeting. Was this view of the problem what families were hoping for?d. The work of the Synod fathers had its most important expression in the Relatio Synodi, the official report of the Extraordinary Synod . What did we find? A document that is configured as a document of compromise. The “animated discussions” to which the Pope alluded give a glimpse of the internal differences. Just look at the mode of communication that was used to appreciate the liveliness of the discussion: a brief summary of the interventions was made public, not the words and the text of each member, but rather the Relatio post disceptationem, an unofficial report of the internal discussions, was given to the press, much to the displeasure of many of the fathers. Also as required by some bishops, the summaries of the small groups were published. And in his final speech, the Pope, surprisingly, did not speak of the family That a Church document was the fruit of internal discussion is not surprising. This process also happened at the Vatican Council II, where prepared documents were rejected and reworked, corrected; where the Pope had to intervene specifying and reserving issues. To interpret a text, it is crucial to know its history, to see what has been changed and to appreciate what has been added. The same is true of the Relatio Synodi. Comparing it with the original document, the Relatio post disceptationem, is very enlightening.2. The problems the Synod has revealed.The Synod has brought many questions to our attention. Not all of them have the same importance and some of them have even been rejected or amended in the presentation of the final report. a. Among the rejected, since they did not reach the necessary majority of support, are the three primary issues of contention. Number 52 concerning studying access to the sacraments for the divorced in a new union, 53 on spiritual communion and the possibility of admitting to sacramental communion the divorced in a new union, and 55 on welcoming people with homosexual orientation. These numbers had already undergone significant changes, however, even the current wording failed to satisfy the synodal assembly so they were rejected. First lesson: these roads lead to discord in the Church.b. What were the most significant changes made to the Relatio post disceptationem?The first is a change in perspective: looking at the family not from a problematic point of view, but in all of its positivity. The family is good news in and of itself and those who fight to live it deserve all of our support. Indissolubility is not a burden, but a gift. The second is a change in emphasis. The number of times certain words were mentioned nearly doubled: “faith” went from 20 to 35; “grace,” from 7 to 16; “truth” from 8 to 15. This increased emphasis on the importance of faith, grace, and truth is very significant: it highlights the limitations of a purely human approach to the family.The third change is a clarification of the so-called “inclusive perspective.” After the model of the “seeds of the Logos” that are scattered in creation and in other religions, they wanted to apply this approach to other forms of love outside of marriage. The final Relatio clarified that for this to be so, for “seeds of the Logos” to be found, a "stable and true relationship between man and woman" (22) is always required. They also eliminated ambiguous expressions, such as “imperfect forms... ordered to marriage,” like cohabitation, etc. And they also eliminated the comparison with the “degrees of communion” in the mystery of the Church, regarding other confessions. As a consequence, the concept that the Gospel is an ideal in which people participate in varying degrees disappeared as well. Gradualism was changed into divine pedagogy. The newness of Christ and the sacraments which ends the Mosaic era and its shortcomings (allowing divorce) was highlighted (13, 15-16). Finally, it is not until the new document that the virtue of chastity was mentioned (39).c. What background questions can be seen in these changes? Among the changes, there are three: The first is how to confront the rupture that exists between faith and life. In response to pastoral failure arises the great question, “what is the pastoral reality and how can it be helped?” The solution of going case by case (proposed by Cardinal Kasper) was manifested with little momentum: it conflicts with underlying problems. Additionally, Kasper´s position is contrary to the teaching of the Lord who, before the pharisaic perspective of deciding which case yes and which case no, showed that in every case there is enclosed an original plan of God: even more, a divine action. Neither has the “inclusive approach” proved to be very encouraging, because it does not take seriously the drama of persons and the tragedy of their desires.Secondly, the background question of improving pastoral efforts toward marriage and family refers to the relationship of the Church and the world (Spadaro). Here is a turning point in which a misinterpretation of the phrase of the Pope, "Who am I to judge?" is fatal. If it is intended that the Church renounces judgment and opens to acceptance (Boeve), a radical point is forgotten: the world, which the Church should welcome, would be the world of ideology. But a church incapable of judgment would not be able to transmit a truth of love. And today´s cultural challenge requires a judgment on the truth of love: young people ask for this and appreciate it. The Church cannot speak to ideology (Pérez Soba). Here is the great defect of the intermediate document of the Synod––it does not speak to the concrete man, touching his deep and true desires, but rather it entertains the ideology of the world.Thirdly, the Synod fathers’ discussions touch upon a radical question: what role does sexuality have in the Christian life? It was brought up that in our time love and sex are somewhat liquid (Bauman), without structure, plastic material capable of receiving different forms (Giddens). What density does sex have? Does a truth about sexuality exist or not? This question is found in the heart of sacramental theory, of whether marriage itself is original sacrament. If we don´t answer this question well, we liquidate the whole sacramental structure of the Church.We saw what the media said during and after the Synod and we cannot fail to recognize that today there is great confusion. The risk is falling into the irrelevant practice of Christianity.3. Principles of light for family ministry in the Synodal journey. I propose five rays of light that will be able to illuminate the way of an authentic pastoral conversion.a. The family is not a problem, but a Gospel.Each family, beyond the problems it faces and its weaknesses, reminds us of an essential fact: there lies in each one of us a vocation to love. In this vocation our identity and fulfillment come into play, because “it is not good for man to be alone.”Is not solitude perhaps the greatest evil that grips post-modern man? The family, on the contrary, touches fully upon the hopes of man: his capacity to grow with others, to create bonds, and to make life fruitful.b. The Gospel is not an ideal, but a gift; it generates a new beginning.To insist on the Gospel as an ideal to be achieved distorts its meaning, turning it into moralism. The Gospel transmits grace because it is a performative word; it realizes what it announces. And this action is because it is a word full of Spirit. Also, when the Gospel of the family is announced the family transmits a pneumatic doctrine. By no means does the Gospel place unbearable weight upon weak shoulders. The Gospel reminds man the greatness of his vocation and shows him the root and destination of this vocation, God himself, the source of love. c. It is not enough to proclaim the Gospel; it is necessary to bear witness and offer company. The word that has been announced in the family needs mediations to germinate and grow. If the listening is not accompanied in vision, distrust will arise. We need to see witnesses; not because they do not have difficulties and weaknesses but because in them is revealed the divine fecundity, the action of a God able to fulfill his promises. Even more, the testimony needs accompaniment and sound practices: to say, “Walk with me, do not be afraid to take this step.” And after that it is necessary to help man to “live as if God exists,” and “as if he himself would live the vocation to love.” This accompaniment requires authentic closeness, a closeness that understands the hopes and difficulties of man and is able to offer a “family community” of reference. Is this not what fiancés need, a real journey accompanied by authentic pastoral guidance? How can this be done in the first years of marriage with creativity and attractiveness?d. Mercy is not only compassion but the generation of the subject.The problem of a disease is its source. A good doctor goes to the source, otherwise the disease will reproduce and threaten the patient even more. To offer a compassion that does not resolve the source of the disease is harmful to people. The post-modern culture has introduced a Trojan Horse in the Church: a distorted idea of mercy as if God forgives all and that is it, or as if it were sufficient to qualify for divine mercy: "to every sin, His mercy." But God does not forgive without regenerating the sinner, without transforming his will, without turning his desires, without arranging his affections, without renewing the alliance.e. Sex is not liquid, but noble and holy.Who understands the mystery of human sexuality? Whoever discovers the promise it holds. It is the promise that is revealed in every encounter between man and woman. It is therefore so necessary that the Church helps to interpret the experiences of love because they can be a revelation of what makes life great and beautiful. From this perspective sex draws a bond out of loneliness, it makes communion possible, and it makes life fruitful, dilating the hearts of the parents. Of course, sex also speaks of drama, even tragedy. There is only one way to live it with humanity, as the Church shows: that is, the way of the logic of gift. Only then does sex acquire appropriate action, new greatness, unique nobility, and uncommon holiness. When the Church asks for the marriage context for sexual relations, She asks for a promise to give it meaning. Her way of accompanying is to help people to mature their desires with the virtue of chastity.4. ConclusionDecidedly, the family is the way of the Church for it is where flourishing and fruitfulness is found. Today it is a sign of contradiction. The great intuition that began with the focus of Vatican Council II is headed for shipwreck. Can we offer a real ark where the greatness of humanity can live? The great confusion that the media has introduced compels us to be clear in doctrine, creative in practices, and humble in testimony.
The Holy Father has called for a Synod on the Family. In doing so, he has shown vision and courage. For, if the Church is a battlefield hospital to heal wounds, those caused in the family are the most severe. Moreover, without family life the evangelizing endeavor is deprived of its grammar: how could we announce, without family, that God is the Father who sent his Son to generate the Church as the Bride and to make us brothers?However, after the joy brought by the announcement of the Synod, a surprising turnaround has happened. The debate seems now to be focused on an old issue: whether or not to reinstate divorced people who have remarried civilly to Holy Communion.One may think this is a non-substantial issue and accept it will be solved in passing; it is a disciplinary issue that if conceded will make the face of the Church much friendlier. It must be said, however, that there is much at stake in this debate. The mass media have guessed right: the changes would be profound. In what way?How to Live the DoctrineWhat is at stake is not just a disciplinary issue, not even a doctrinal one, but the very meaning of the doctrine. This does not mean that the issue cannot be discussed. In fact, the Pope wants it to be discussed. But we cannot deceive ourselves thinking that only practical disciplinary matters are involved.The truth is that Christian doctrine does not consist merely of ideas, nor is it spread with mere words as simple formulas. Doctrine is communicated through the real and embodied language of signs: the sacraments and, in particular, the Eucharist. Only in this way is it made clear that Christian doctrine is born from the lived experience of an encounter, and not from an abstract speculation. Doctrine is important because it expresses and defends the purity of the encounter, its depth, its authenticity and significance. The Eucharistic communion, participation in the body of Christ and the place where the Church is built, is therefore a visible profession of faith. Thus to decide who can and cannot receive communion is a doctrinal act. The Eucharist declares who the Church is, what salvation is received, what truth is confessed, and the way of life it proposes.Along with the Eucharistic language another symbol comes into play, another place of encounter; marriage is also a sacrament. Once again, there is something more than a disciplinary problem at stake. The sacrament of marriage also confesses in a tangible way who the Church is, the love with which Christ loves her, and the unwavering fidelity of his covenant.The Eucharistic communion of a marriage is thus a double living testimony, engaging two sacraments, of the core of Christian doctrine. It ties together the connection between the Body of Christ communicated in the Eucharist, the Body of the Church there generated, and the bodies of man and woman united in one flesh. The question that arises, then, is this: if we affirm the indissolubility of marriage according to the word of Jesus, on one hand, and yet allow communion to divorced couples with a new civil union, does it not deprive the doctrine of its flesh, and deprive the Word of God of its concrete connection with life? Shouldn’t the one who claims that this is only an issue of discipline, first review his concept of doctrine? Rather, shouldn’t he review his concept of life?How to AccompanyThe fact that this question is a doctrinal issue does not make it less pastoral, but rather just the opposite. Because Christian doctrine springs from an experience and a word that has been received, it is therefore a light that shines directly on people’s lives. Consequently, the issue is not to choose either to defend the discipline of the sacraments or to have mercy on the people. The choice is to take sides between two different ways of caring for people, between two diagnosis and two different healing therapies.It is necessary to have a healthy understanding of the pain of these baptized persons. Their wound is not only that of their previous failed marriage. There is, above all, a new wound caused by the new union: indeed, why did Jesus forbid it if it did not hurt the human heart? In seeking a new union after the divorce, they have tried to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh start. They have attempted to bury the memory of that radical promise they once sealed, a promise that forever contains their names and call, which they declared before God and man. This second wound is a more dangerous one because it is more difficult to recognize it as such and the temptation to justify it is greater. Do we have here a criterion to determine the just way to heal them? If these baptized persons are allowed to receive communion, their way, their progress ends at the same time; they will no longer search for more, it will be impossible for anyone to sow in them the restlessness that will enable them to discover their open wound and their need for medicine.It is true that there is no wound, however deep, that God's mercy cannot cure. Precisely this truth is why those who trust in his love have no need to hide their wounds. The important thing is to understand the specifics of this injury in order to apply the appropriate soothing agent. The problem is not primarily that the divorced couple has acted against the word of Jesus, but that they have settled in a situation contrary to that word. The novelty lies in the stagnation resulting from their action. In this situation, speaking of mercy steals its greatness because it would be unable to heal the wound, to regenerate the person's real role as husband or wife, to fill and accomplish one’s life and to give unity to the narration of its story.Nonetheless, there is another possible way: not being able to receive communion reminds them of the need to enter into a journey. To take this route the Church invites them to pray, to approach God. Only from closeness to Christ will they receive true mercy: the powerful grace that allows them to change their lives, to recognize the promise, accepting that they cannot be "one flesh” with someone else, and to be able to solve that situation.Therefore the pastoral question that this discussion raises is this: could these baptized people receive communion without them thinking that their life choice is justified, that they do not need conversion in this field, that the wound can be covered without being healed?Culture: How to Build itIn accompanying people, the Church always opens them more toward the good of all men. With the family as the foundation of society and the native place of human bonds, we cannot lose sight of the social aspect of the debate. Accordingly, the discipline of the Church also provides an opportunity for divorced people who have entered a new civil union to open themselves, beyond their particular problems, to the common good of men. Not receiving communion means to abandon the desire to have their situation recognized as good and so testifies, in a paradoxical way, to the indissolubility of marriage and the real possibility of a love which lasts forever. It is a testimony that they will pass on to their children. They will learn the power of God's faithfulness and the stability of his promises. The message is clear: it is we, not the Lord, who has changed.In this way we understand another aspect of mercy: the "mercy toward culture,” by which young people are ensured that it is possible to love forever; by which it is said to the marriages in trouble to continue fighting for their love; by which the forgiving grace of Jesus is testified in front of the world.Here comes, therefore, a third question: if the indissolubility of marriage would be affirmed and yet communion given to some divorced people who have started new unions, how do we prevent society from thinking that in practice the Church has capitulated to divorce? Even more, how do you avoid a snowball effect?What is at Stake?What it is at stake is not simply a marginal issue. In the face-to-face encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus knew how to put his finger on her wound, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” Nor is it simply a disciplinary matter. The Pharisees understood it this way, always looking at exceptional cases. Jesus, however, cleared their hindered memory, and thus clarified the cultural dialogue. What is at stake is the original plan of the Father for each person, and the power of his grace to heal our wounds. When talking about the uniqueness of every person and every situation, and the fact that this may force us to identify and decide on a case-by-case basis, are we not following a different path from the one indicated by Jesus? Can this way be fruitful?What can we expect from the Synod? Someone has dared to say that if the issue of communion for divorced couples in a new union were not addressed with new courage and frankness, it would be better to have no Synod. What a strange conclusion. Before the family’s wreckage in the West, does the Church not have a word of hope?Yes, along with the Holy Father, we want a Synod on the Family: a Synod which engenders hope in young people because they know that they are accompanied on the adventure of saying ‘yes’ to marriage. A Synod generating hope in spouses when they see a living Church that does not leave them alone. A Synod drawing the Church close to parents in the most difficult task of rearing their children toward a great and beautiful life. A Synod capable of fostering, in the midst of the “Demographic Winter,” a culture of fruitfulness (generativity). A Synod that promotes a “battlefield hospital” where wounded families could find healing. Here there is fruitfulness. Because this is what it is at stake in the next Synod: either fruitfulness or sterility.The article was originally published in Spanish in Revista Ecclesia, no. 3722, April 12, 2014. Posted with permission from the author.