Jan 26, 2015
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 aroused
a. 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.
Decidedly, 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.