Monday, October 13, 2014

Reflections on the Extraordinary Synod's mid-way report

It' surprising to me how many people live under rocks, or, more accurately dwell so far away from the lives of normal people, or, in the case of Church commentators, so far from parish life, that they can't grasp the relative significance of events in the Church or in the world. But that is a subject for another day. At least for me, one good reason why it is important to read these documents myself is to separate what they actually contain from efforts to spin the contents, which usually consists in unduly emphasizing some aspects while completely ignoring other, equally important, or even more important, aspects. It is also important to note at the outset of any such post that, even though the English translation is on the Holy See's website, it has to be something of a "rough and ready" translation. At the top of it, even on the Holy See's webpage, appear the words, "[Unofficial translation]."

Today Péter Cardinal Erdő, Realtor for the Extraordinary Synod, read out loud to the assembled members of the Extraordinary Synod the Relatio post disceptationem of the General Rapporteur, or the mid-way report of the Synod's proceedings. This report is nothing more than a summary of the interventions made over course of the last week. It will form the basis of the Extraordinary Synod's final document, which, in turn, will be given over for use to those preparing for next year's Ordinary Synod. Hence, this report is no more earth-shattering than the interventions that it seeks to summarize. All of this is stated very well in the document's conclusion:
The reflections put forward, the fruit of the Synodal dialog that took place in great freedom and a spirit of reciprocal listening, are intended to raise questions and indicate perspectives that will have to be matured and made clearer by the reflection of the local Churches in the year that separates us from the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of bishops planned for October 2015. These are not decisions that have been made nor simply points of view. All the same the collegial path of the bishops and the involvement of all God’s people under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead us to find roads of truth and mercy for all


While one might quibble with the assertion that it "took place in great freedom," the general discussion is what it is, to employ a wholly useless colloquialism. The document has three constituent parts: I. "Listening: the context and challenges to the family"; II. "The gaze on Christ: the Gospel of the Family"; III. "Discussion: pastoral perspectives." Each part features several subsections.

The Extraordinary Synod clearly recognizes "the value and consistency of natural marriage must first be emphasized" (par 18). This is no throwaway line in the document. It encapsulates the Church's unchanging witness over the centuries. Part III is the portion of the document in which the most common concrete pastoral challenges are set forth and briefly sketched out. Therefore, I wish to briefly look at certain subsections of this part. At some point, I may circle back around and address the first subsection of Part II on "gradualness."

As regards marriage preparation, the Synod clearly recognizes the need for better, more in-depth, preparation for couples marrying in the Church, including catechesis on marriage as part of preparing for the sacraments of initiation. The Synod also set forth the need for parishes to reach out to newly married couples, couples who are in the first years of marriage: "The parish is considered the ideal place for expert couples to place themselves at the disposal of younger ones. "Couples need to be encouraged towards a fundamental welcome of the great gift of children. The importance of family spirituality and prayer needs to be underlined, encouraging couples to meet regularly to promote the growth of the spiritual life and solidarity in the concrete demands of life" (Relatio, par 35).

One of the subsections that many might find provocative is the one entitled Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation. At least on my reading, there is really nothing out of the ordinary here, especially in the suggestion that "Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects" of such relationships and that "All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel. They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy" (par 39). As one who pastorally works with people in these situations quite regularly, this what most of us already do all the time for heaven's sake.



The question that can't be avoided: reception of the Sacraments by people who are civilly divorced and civilly re-married. Before jumping to those often vexing cases, I was gratified that a lot of consideration was given to those who are civilly divorced and not re-married. There was one proposal concerning those who are divorced and remarried that set forth a vague penitential path involving the bishop. I would assume that in addition to being civilly divorced and civilly remarried that another condition to "walk" such a path would be that the penitent had petitioned for an annulment and not been granted one. I still do not see how such a proposal can be squared with fundamental Church teaching. So, it seems that between now and next year's Synod "a greater theological study was requested starting with the links between the sacrament of marriage and the Eucharist in relation to the Church-sacrament. In the same way, the moral dimension of the problem requires further consideration, listening to and illuminating the consciences of spouses" (par 48). By "moral dimension" I take to mean the teaching of our Lord about remarriage and adultery. Given the importance of this question on every level from the pastoral to the dogmatic, it is my hope that such a study is undertaken by the International Theological Commission.

The subsection on Welcoming Homosexual Persons, takes up a challenging and important subject. I like that this subsection (par 50-52) begins with the axiom: "Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community." Reality (i.e., the way things actually are) is the only starting point for meaningful engagement. Hence, we can't pretend that there is nothing of value in any and all human relationships that are characterized by self-sacrifice and the good of the other. I do wonder about something in this section that strikes me as potentially contradictory, which makes me glad it is posed in the form of a question: "Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?" Clearly we need to grapple honestly with the truth in answering this question. There is also the recognition of the powerful force brought to bear on the Church by individuals and organizations that espouse "gender ideology," which is to be resisted and rejected. It has seemed to me for all the years of my own ministry that the the Church, in her love and care for people who are homosexual, is required to "thread the needle" pastorally-speaking. It usually seems to provoke a scandal to mention the need for holiness, repentance, and conversion across a broad range of issues involving sexuality. It does seem right and just to recognize the priority of the rights of "children who live with couples of the same sex."

I have to admit to being very gratified (a way of being thankful, not indulged) at the subsection dealing with the transmission of life: The transmission of life and the challenge of the declining birthrate. This section consists of three paragraphs (53-55). Here is the middle paragraph:

Probably here as well what is required is a realistic language that is able to start from listening to people and acknowledging the beauty and truth of an unconditional opening to life as that which human life requires to be lived to its fullest. It is on this base that we can rest an appropriate teaching regarding natural methods, which allow the living in a harmonious and aware way of the communication between spouses, in all its dimensions, along with generative responsibility. In this light, we should go back to the message of the Encyclical Humanae Vitae of Paul VI, which underlines the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control (par 54)
Above all, education is essential: "The fundamental challenge facing families today is undoubtedly that of education, rendered more difficult and complex by today’s cultural reality" (par 56). What is more necessary today than ever, given the vast range of circumstances in which people choose to live, is for the Church "to support parents in their educative undertaking, accompanying children and young people in their growth through personalized paths capable of introducing them to the full meaning of life and encouraging choices and responsibilities, lived in the light of the Gospel" (par 57).

Let's hope and pray that between now and this time next year the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with due reference and regard for Scripture, authentic Tradition, and the witness of so many saints, does not lose the bubble on the need to clearly set forth what is authentically human, keeping in mind St Paul's words: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all" (1 Cor 15:19).

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