Guest Columnist The Synod on the Family: What is at Stake?

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 Doctrine

What 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 Accompany

The 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 it

In 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.

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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.

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