Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Greetings This Holy Season

I favor keeping “Christ in Christmas,” but I am not offended by those who wish me “Happy Holidays!”

According to a Wikepedia article, the expression “Happy Holidays” became a Christmas greeting in American English in a 1937 Camel cigarette advertisement.  Previously it had been used in British English in reference  to the summer-time break from school.

The word holiday came from the Old English term haeligdaeg which means “holy day.”  “Holiday” originally meant “holy day!” The term “holiday” then has religious origins if not religious connotations today.

And so, when I hear “Happy Holidays,” I think “Happy Holy Days,” and I find no reason to be offended. I suspect most people who use that “Holiday” greeting mean no offense, and even if they use “Christmas” in their greeting they probably are  not conscious of all that this term means.

 "Happy Holidays" can also include the Jewish Festival of Lights.

The Old English expression was Cristesmaesse describing the liturgical celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Middle English transformed the word into Cristemasse. Both terms meant “Christ’s Mass.” It is, so to speak,  liturgical language.

In the literal sense when we wish someone “Merry Christmas,” we express the hope that their “Christ Mass” may be agreeable or pleasing. The implication of the greeting (though clearly not intended by most who use the expression) is that one’s attendance at the Mass celebrating the birth of the Christ may be a pleasant experience.

Those who claim to know say that the greeting “Merry Christmas” was first used in an informal letter in 1699, and again in 1843 in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is the English way of expressing greetings in the observance of Christ’s birth.

It is curious, however, that most Europeans do not put the word “Christ” in their season’s greetings. Most of them are wishing others “Happy Nativity Day!” Such is the Italian Buon Natale, the French Joyeux Noel, the Spanish Feliz Navidad.

The Germans, of course, say something different: Frohe Weihnachten, Happy Holy Night. But I especially like the Hawaiian way: Mele Kalikimaka (the phonetic equivalent of the English “Merry Christmas”). Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters have helped me to accept and enjoy that version.

However it is expressed, whatever the language, the greeting during this holy day season acknowledges the most extraordinary event in human history: that time when God took on the human condition and, in the picturesque language of John’s Gospel, “pitched his tent among us!”

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Mele Kalikimaka!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Challenges of the "Francis Effect"

It seems to me that the so-called “Francis effect” (the modus operandi of Pope Francis) has had little influence on the agenda, statements, and actions of most Bishops’ conferences around the world, including the United States Catholic Conference.

Most of the People of God, especially the laity, however, are enthralled. And their acceptance of his papacy rests on more than the media's misrepresentations of what the pope has said and done since the evening he first appeared on the Vatican balcony.

The “Francis effect” is an echo of the “effect” of the Gospel, of the style of Jesus, of the values of the Kingdom as presented by the Christ.

Papa Francesco’s papal style challenges the old mind-set and  the bureaucracy of many Church leaders. He begins with people not law. He advocates simplicity. He admits we do not have all the answers. He questions whether the answers we have are in every case the correct or appropriate ones. He puts aside the royal airs and aristocratic bearing of some of our previous popes. His lifestyle is a threat to the episcopal lifestyle and wealth of some Church leaders. He does not fear to act, to move and remove, to tackle the tough issues of Church and world.

I suspect that some  bishops are thinking (maybe hoping) that Francis won’t last long, that his papacy is an anomaly, that his successor will take us back to the way things were. Such reasoning, however, is baseless. It is well known that “You can’t go back;” you can resist change or you can move ahead, but you can’t go back.

As the number of pastoral bishops increases during the Francis’ years, so the mindset among bishops will alter. Many of those in the chief pastoral office of their dioceses have never been parish pastors. Their degrees in Canon Law or their careers in bureaucracy have formed their attitudes and their vision of what it means to be Church.

Francis urges the People of God to ongoing discernment, to recognize that some Church customs are no longer meaningful or useful, even that some Church precepts “should be insisted upon with moderation ‘so as not to burden the lives of the faithful’ and make our religion a form of servitude” (Joy of the Gospel, 43).

A couple US Bishops have banned the hymn “All Are Welcome” on the grounds that it sends a false message. Francis says, “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always open wide” (Joy of the Gospel, 47).

Many bishops are so protective of the Church, perhaps so fearful of the Curia, that they hesitate to act, except perhaps in raising money or binding their people to strict interpretation of Canon Law. Francis says, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security” (Joy of the Gospel, 49).

Francis urged bishops to enter into pastoral dialogue “out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear” (Joy of the Gospel, 31).

It is clear that Pope Francis is urging on Church leaders and all the People of God a new way of doing business.

The outcome of this new expression of papal leadership, the results of the “Francis effect” still lie in the future, but over time this papacy will have its influence on bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity alike –not because it is new or challenging, but because it is Gospel-based, reflective of the values of the Kingdom. It is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus.

Jesus’ style was troubling to the religious leaders of his day. He promoted mercy, forgiveness and love. His priorities did not ignore Torah but they definitely challenged and changed some aspects of what was once thought the only way.

The “Francis effect,” however slowly it is implemented, will be effective because it echoes the “Jesus effect,” and Jesus simply will not go away.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Being Thankful

I see some of my Facebook friends and acquaintances have been posting “Things For Which I Am Thankful.”

Those “things” have included  “for good tires and windshield wipers,” “for eating fermented foods on a regular basis,” and "for music."

The arena for gratitude is immense.

The reasons why we should be grateful are the development of peace of mind, ease in coping with problems, openness to the intrusion of God into our daily lives.

It seems to me that to be grateful one must be humble, down-to-earth. One must be honest -- honest enough to acknowledge that it’s all gift (or “grace” if you prefer).

Without denying our ability to be creative, responsible, productive, and hard-working, I have to admit that our ability or power to do anything is ultimately a gift from God.

I don’t know who said it, but I like the observation that “Heaven is a state of thankfulness for having received what we did not deserve, and for not receiving what we did deserve.”

Georges Bernanos ended his novel The Diary Of A Country Priest with the insight that “grace is everywhere.” The poor un-named priest who was the protagonists of the novel had suffered from failures, rejection, and self-awareness of his own weakness and incompetence. On his death-bed he had the consoling epiphany that no matter one’s circumstances in life each circumstance is a gift.

The ordinary, every-day is easily over-looked, and yet it is in ignoring or neglecting the mundane that we miss God’s entry into our lives.

The Bible’s psalmists frequently encouraged the people to give thanks to the Lord. The divine goodness was manifest to any who stopped long enough to look and ponder.

Catholics especially are constantly reminded to be grateful –their most important act of worship is called “eucharist” –Greek for “thanksgiving.”

America’s nationally-observed federal holiday prompts all citizens to pause and be grateful for the sacrifices of our fore-bearers and for the divine providence which richly blessed both the country and the people who have settled here.

Even the least religious or patriotic among us have reason to be grateful. As one pundit put it, ‘If you think you haven’t much to be thankful for, why not be thankful for some of the things you don’t have?”

Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Children's Confessions and Communal Absolution

For many priests the ministry of “hearing children’s confessions” is a sweet and sour experience.

Bring into church 150 second, third and fourth graders together with five priests and over the next hour administer the rite of reconciliation –private confession by “the penitent child” and individual absolution by “the shriving confessor.”

Imagine bringing fifty second-graders into church for a brief “penance service” (a welcome, prayer, reading of Scripture, homily, examination of conscience, communal act of contrition) and then individual confession. Even many adults find it difficult to be quiet and prayerful for thirty or forty  minutes; imagine the struggle for seven-year-olds. No wonder they find church “boring.”

It seems to me that the third option in the Rite of Penance is the ideal solution for the time and tedium of children’s confessions.

The usual way of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, the first ritual, is called the “Rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents.” The ritual calls for the priest to welcome the penitent, read a passage of Scared Scripture (optional), call for the penitent’s confession of sins, impose “satisfaction” (a penance), and ask the penitent to express sorrow (an act of contrition), offer the words of absolution, proclaim praise of God  and dismiss the penitent. This ritual or some form of it is used in most settings.

When we bring children together for confession, the second ritual, the “Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with Individual Confession and Absolution” is usually chosen. This ritual is popularly known as “a penance service.”  

The third ritual is the “Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution.” This form begins like the second ritual (the “penance service”) but calls for general confession of sin and general absolution, that is, the whole group of penitents is absolved as a group. Individual confession and individual absolution are not used.

Application of this third ritual, the communal confession and communal absolution, could be used for “hearing children’s confessions.” It engages the children for the whole time they are gathered in church and it provides a non-threatening experience of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. Use of this form does not leave the children sitting in church waiting (with the expectation they will be quiet, not squirm, and will pray or read for the next forty minutes).

When the rite for the Sacrament of Penance was studied and revised following Vatican II, the three-fold ritual was approved, but restrictions were put on the use of the third option (communal absolution). Canons 960-964 of the Code of Canon Law restrict its use.

It was expected that use of the third option would include the provision that those who were guilty of mortal sins would confess them in private confession (using the first option) as soon as they could.

It has been unsettling for many of  us to learn that the committee which revised the rite of Penance expected the third option to be the one used most often.

The secretary of the revision committee, Franco Sottocornola, commented that the third option allows a more frequent reception of the sacrament. In his book Reconciliation (Liturgical Press, 2001) David M. Coffey, STD, noted, “His (Sottocornola’s) statements about the third rite will come as a surprise. The rite that now (because of official restrictions) is scarcely celebrated at all was perceived in 1974 as the one that would be celebrated most often!” (p. 167).

Coffey continued, “The frequency which Sottocornola anticipated for the celebration of the third rite in the average parish was once a month…By postponing the confession of grave sins to a later time, it placed the emphasis firmly on the most important element of the sacrament, that is, on reconciliation with God and the Church” (p 168).

I suspect that parish penance services during Advent and Lent would be enhanced by the use of that third ritual, but I am convinced its use would be a blessing and a practical application of the sacrament when it comes to children’s confessions.

I wonder if I should write Pope Francis.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Synod: A Messy Journey

Whether you take one side or the other in the discussions at the Synod on the Family you have to admit that we have seen in action that fifth mark of the Church.

Those of us raised on the Baltimore Catechism remember the question and answer: Q. What are the chief marks of the Church? A. The chief marks of the Church are four: one, holy, catholic or universal, and apostolic.

Those marks or properties were proposed as criteria for proving that the Catholic Church is the one true Church of Jesus Christ.  Over the centuries apologists suggested many other marks (or signs, characteristics, arguments) to demonstrate Catholic claims: e.g, miracles, pastoral succession, antiquity, infallibility, and even indefectibility.

The number of marks in the 16th century ranged from two to a hundred. Since the 17th century we have generally agreed on listing the four.

Throughout it all, however, the fifth mark which I think we saw at play in the Second Vatican Council, in the Synod on the Family, and in countless other occasions in Church history has yet to be officially added to the list, even though it has been there since the Council of Jerusalem (cf Acts 15) and in Jesus’ relations with the apostles –the Church is also messy.

It has to be messy (unsettled, in conflict, contentious) because it is made up of people, and as a result sometimes has, in Pope Benedict XVI’s famous phrase, “a disfigured face.”

The controversies at the Synod demonstrate that the Church is a living body, still wrestling with implementation of the Gospel, still on a journey. In his closing remarks Pope Francis described the Synod as facing “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.”

One temptation , he noted, was “to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word (the letter), and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises (the spirit): within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve.”

At the same time there was at the synod a temptation to, what Pope Francis called, “a destructive tendency to goodness (in Italian, buonismo), that in the name of deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so called ‘progressives and liberals.’”

Clearly the Holy Father was walking a fine line, but a necessary one if the integrity of the Gospel is to be preserved.

He reminded his audience, “Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront., to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families. One year to work on the ‘Synodal Relatio’ which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as ‘lineamenta’ (guidelines).”

The discussions continue, contentious points will be debated again and again in bishops’ conferences around the world, in anticipation of the next Synod in October of 2015.

The initial summation (the so-called relatio post disceptationem) issued on October 13, midway through the Synod, was met with applause by some and rejection by others.

Reports from the Vatican indicate that points in the initial summation were submitted to intense discussion by the bishops, leading to a change in language. This final report has been judged  “a compromise document” and a “re-balanced” report.

Two of the issues which caused sparks focused on homosexuals and divorced/remarried Catholics.

Those who expect or want a non-messy Church are sure to be disappointed as discussions and debates continue over the next twelve months.

It is said that Pope Francis’ speech at the closing of the Synod was greeted with sustained applause, a welcome sign that differences in opinion and theological application do not undermine the fundamental unity of the Church.

We are now in a time of discernment, a time for finding concrete solutions (to borrow the language of Pope Francis). It is therefore a time of prayer, of openness to direction from the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis prayed, “May the Lord accompany us, and guide us in the journey for the glory of his name, with the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saint Joseph.”

And then he added, “And please, do not forget to pray for me! Thank you!”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Preliminary Report From The Synod

It’s unnerving to me that the Extraordinary Synod’s preliminary report has been greeted by such descriptions as “ground breaking,” “an earthquake,” and “the worst document ever issued by the Church.”

Some like what they read; others do not.

On October 13 the synodal committee* charged with the responsibility of summarizing the significance of the first week’s discussions issued its relatio post disceptationem (a report on the discussions) regarding the challenges facing families in the context of the new evangelization.

As is expected, the bishops are not unanimous in their responses to the questions surrounding cohabitation, civil unions, homosexual persons, and the divorced-and-remarried.

Some of the bishops are concerned that change in the Church’s attitude toward the persons involved in these difficult situations will undermine basic and immutable principles of ethics, morality and dogma.

Others, perhaps the majority of the 190 bishops who vote on these matters, are concerned about application of these principles without denying Church teaching on divorce, homosexuality, or sexual morality in general.

Also as expected, many in the media and even many Catholics have so focused on the bishops’ discussions about cohabitation, civil marriages, the-divorced-and-remarried, and homosexual unions that they have neglected or ignored the context in which these discussions have taken place.

They overlook Pope Francis’ reminder that to address today’s challenges, we must maintain “a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ” and “return to the source of the Christian experience.” It is in this attitude that “new paths and undreamed of possibilities open up.”

Pope Francis, like St. Paul, wants to turn the Church’s primary focus to Jesus rather than to law. Perhaps The Letter to the Galatians should be required preliminary reading for those discussing family challenges in the context of  the new evangelization.

 Law is necessary but its necessity is balanced by the realization that it is the spirit that gives life (cf 2 Cor 3:6).

The Narrow Edge

The synod is walking the narrow edge between principle and pastoral application.

One of the principles operative in the bishops’ discussions has been gradualism, or the principle of gradualness. Pope John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortitio in 1981 noted that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth.” Pope John Paul  used the terms “ex gradualitatis” and “gradualis perfectus” in reference to this gradualism.

He said, “Married people too are called to progress unceasingly in their moral life, with the support of a sincere and active desire to ever better knowledge of the values enshrined in and fostered by the law of God” (34).

He made it clear that he did not mean “gradualness of the law,” the idea that there are different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals or situations” (34). He did however recognize that couples are at various stages of understanding the law and are called to press on to implementation of the law of Christ.

The synodal discussions supported the idea of taking people where they are and helping them to progress. The preliminary report notes, “It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of ‘all or nothing.’ The dialog and meeting that took place in the synod will have to continue in the local churches…the guidance of the Spirit, constantly invoked, will allow all God’s people to live the fidelity to the Gospel of the family as a merciful caring for all situations of fragility” (40).

There was general agreement among the bishops that procedures for diocesan marriage tribunals which render judgments about cases of nullity need to be more accessible and flexible and there needs to be “a speeding-up of the procedure” (44).

Without changing the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and homosexual unions, the synod recognizes that “homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community” and then asks whether we are capable of welcoming them (50).

The English translation (provided by the Vatican’s press office and labeled “unofficial”) goes on to ask whether our communities are capable of welcoming them, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony” (50). Some bishops at the synod and other critics have objected to the word “valuing” in the above translation, noting that the Italian says valutare, which can also be rendered as evaluate, consider, appreciate, understand.

Change in Attutude

Several statements in the Relatio suggest a definite change, not in dogma but in attitude:

--Speaking of the law of gradualness as “typical divine pedagogy” (13).

--The need for spiritual discernment regarding cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced-and-remarried persons (20).

--Evangelizing as the shared responsibility of all God’s people (26).

--A repeated insistence on renewal of programs for training priests and other pastoral associates through a greater involvement in families themselves (32)
 --A clear call in the synod for  the necessity of courageous pastoral choices (40).

It is noteworthy that some of the language in the preliminary report reflects the language of the instrumentum laboris, the working paper that was developed from the worldwide surveys which Pope Francis called for in preparation for this year’s synod. The voice of God’s people has been heard.

Also noteworthy is the poverty of the English translation the Vatican press office provided. It could be a computer generated translation, for several sentences are awkward and do not reflect what we might call “Church language.”

Nevertheless, that a Church document that seeks to be pastoral and to bring the Gospel into the lives of all people should be hailed as “an earthquake” or as “the worst document in Church history” is a sad commentary on how we have been behaving for too long.

It is essential, of course, to recall that this “Relatio post disceptationem” is a preliminary report on the synodal discussions and is not the final verdict. A synod will meet in October of 2015 to evaluate these initial discussions.


* The synodal committee, assisting Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary, included  Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Vatican), Cardinal Donald Wuerl (United States), Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez (Argentina), Archbishop Carlos Agular Retes (Mexico), Archbishop Peter Kang U-ll (South Korea) and Father Adolfo Nicolas Pachon (Spain).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Domestic Church --A Model For Universal Church

The extraordinary synod on challenges to the family now meeting in the Vatican is an historic event.

A light has been lit in this meeting –not as bright as the Pentecost two thousand years ago, not as warm as the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago –but there is light and warmth emanating from the synod hall in the Vatican.

By calling this synod Pope Francis is encouraging collegiality in what might well be an unprecedented way.

He has gathered some 200 bishops plus others from around the world and requested 12 married couples to join the assembly to offer their experience of family life.

One of the couples, Ron and Mavis Pirola of Sydney, Australia, spoke before the assembly on opening day. Having been married for 55 years and being the parents of four children they obviously qualify as representatives of family life in practice.

Perhaps their most telling observation was recounting an incident in the life of their friends:

“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’s our son.’”

The Pirolas were simply giving the bishops an example of the tension that families must face in very day life.

And they linked their example to an observation in the instrumentum laboris, the working document which the bishops had received to jump-start their discussion. In part one, chapter one, number 4 of the instrumentum laboris the bishops were reminded that the Church looks to the Christian family in order to fully understand her mystery.

The universal Church can learn from the domestic church!

The domestic Church, the Christian family, experiences the same tension which the Church constantly faces, “the tension of upholding the truth while expressing compassion and mercy.”

In the family the response is “He’s our son.” In the Church should the response be any different?

The light and warmth of the family is a light and warmth for the Church at large.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Good News About Marriage

At last, some good news about marriage and divorce.

Social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn has discovered that couples have a much better chance of making their marriage last “til death do us part” than previously thought.

Popular “wisdom” has held that half of all marriages end in divorce. I know I have heard and reported that dismal statistic for years. When Feldhahn did the  research on that issue, she found that “the vast majority of marriages last a lifetime” and that “the current divorce rate has never been close to 50 percent.”

Using 2009 Census Bureau statistics,  she discovered that 72 per cent of people are still married to their first spouse.

This is good and encouraging news. As Feldhahn notes, couples getting married need to know that they have a better than 50/50 chance of a lasting marriage, and in that knowledge find the hope and determination to work through their problems and remain committed for life.

Still better news is her discovery that “most married people today enjoy being married to their spouse and, given the chance, would do it all over again.” Reviewing several polls and surveys, Feldhahn concluded that “although most couples have to work at marriage, and some will go through very hard times, most come out the other side and enjoy each other for a lifetime.”

And, for me, another encouraging discovery is the influence of religion on supporting marriages. Active church-goers are less likely to divorce. Or “simply stated, couples who go to church or other religious services together on a regular basis have the lowest divorce rate of any group studied.”

All these insights and more can be found in The Good News About Marriage, subtitled “Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage And Divorce,” by Shaunti Feldhahn (Multnomah Books, 2014).

Looking ahead to the Synod on the Family which is to meet in October in the Vatican, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, has published his reflections on the issues the Synod faces, among which, of course, are the divorced and remarried members of the Church.

The instrumentum laboris (the working document that is to jump start the Bishops’ discussions during the Synod on the Family) acknowledges the problem of divorced people who have remarried and are consequently, according to present Church norms, excluded from receiving Holy Communion.

Bishop Bonny sees the relationship between the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Since Eucharist is a sign of unity, can those who have divorced and remarried outside the Church have access to that sign of unity? The traditional answer has been “No.”

Perhaps, however, participation in the Eucharist should be seen not only as “a sign of unity,” but also as “a means of grace.” Bishop Bonny writes, “According to present teaching and discipline, people who are divorced and remarried are not permitted to receive communion because their new relation following a broken marriage is no longer ‘a sign’ of the unbroken bond between Christ and the Church. This line of argument clearly has significance.

“At the same time, however, one should ask the question whether it says all there is to say about the said individuals’ spiritual life and about the Eucharist. People who are divorced and remarried also need the Eucharist to grow in union with Christ and the Church community, and to assume their responsibility as Christians in the new situation.”

Bishop Bonny suggests that part of the reason that many Catholics do not pay much attention to “the dogmatic texts and moral statements coming from Rome” (e.g., the matter of birth control) is that these matters tend to be decided by the Bishop of Rome without input from bishops around the world. Pope Paul VI took birth control  and collegiality off the table at the Second Vatican Council. Since then there has been tension between primacy and collegiality in the Catholic Church, between papal condemnation of birth control and the practice of birth control by many Catholics.

It seems that Pope Francis has put these issues “back on the table” –though a synod if not a council, through discussion of marriage issues in a more pastoral context.

It is good to know that divorce, as common as it is, is not the norm and end for most marriages. It is good to know that the Catholic Church’s hierarchy are taking marriage issues (divorce, birth control, exclusion from communion) more seriously and pastorally.

No one can predict with precision what the Synod will recommend. It seems likely that a more pastoral approach to the problems which families must face will become the rule for the immediate future. It seems likely that if we disseminate the information that most marriages in fact last a lifetime we will have countered the demoralizing effect of the old and false information about the frequency of divorce.

Both of these considerations serve, in my mind, as good news for marriage and the family.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Any Hope For Family Synod?

It’s my hunch that most reform-minded Catholics have little hope that the Vatican’s Extraordinary Synod “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” will produce meaningful change.

Those opposed to reform on some of the central issues (contraception, divorced-and-remarried Catholics, the marriage annulment process, natural law) anticipate little or no change.

Church officials have been reminding us that Church dogma cannot be changed, that Church teaching and practice are not based on public opinion, that “no one should get his hopes up.”

Called by Pope Francis, the synod is scheduled for October 5-19, 2014. The participants will be representatives from Catholic Bishops’ Conferences around the world.

Any Hope For A Meaningful Synod?

There are a number of reasons why the forecast is less than hopeful. First, many Church members do not expect that much can come from a gathering of celibate men discussing family matters.

Secondly, the bishops’ credibility is at low tide because of pedophile cover-ups. Bishop R. Daniel Conlon, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children, acknowledged that "Our (the bishops’) credibility on the subject of child abuse is shredded."  And it is not the only area in which confidence is weak.

Thirdly, history suggests that, at least officially, most hierarchs favor maintaining the status quo rather than taking the risks of pursuing development of Church teaching.

There is, however, a lingering hope that the same spirit (Spirit?) which took direction of the Second Vatican Council might be influential in the upcoming Synod too.

Just as the previously unthinkable took place at Vatican II, so maybe, perhaps, the unthinkable will come out of the extraordinary synod on the family.

Among the major issues of obvious concern to the people who responded to the Vatican’s 2013 request for input on the unprecedented worldwide survey about family matters were: 1) birth control; 2) whether “divorced-and-remarried” Catholics could receive communion; and 3) the ambiguity of “natural law.” (The Vatican’s summary of the worldwide input in a “working document” (the instrumentum laboris) suggests that the Bishops will see that Church teaching and member practice are at odds in many areas of “family life.”)

Birth Control

The question of birth control was raised at the Second Vatican Council but Pope Paul VI took the issue off the Council’s agenda and appointed a separate commission to study the matter and report to him.

There seemed to be openness among many Council fathers to the possibility of Catholic use of artificial contraception. The pope’s commission suggested that artificial means could be justified. The biggest obstacle to the change, according to many theologians and bishops, was how to countermand Pope Pius XI’s condemnation of contraception in 1931.

Journalist Robert Kaiser wrote that both Edward Schillebeeckx and William Van der Marck, Dominican theologians, told him during that council that “they thought the Church would have less difficulty reformulating its teaching on birth control than it would have in trying to explain how it was that the Church could change its teaching” (Clerical Error, Robert Blair Kaiser, p. 229).

The Instrumentum Laboris, a tool for discussion at the Synod, notes that “couples generally do not consider the use of contraceptive methods a sin” (129). The document contrinues: “The responses also demonstrate the diversity in pastoral practice among the clergy in reference to this subject, including those who show understanding and support, and others who are either very rigid or entirely permissive” (129).


Whether Catholics who have divorced and remarried outside the Church should be permitted to receive the sacraments was a topic addressed by Cardinal Walter Kasper in his lecture “The Gospel of the Family,” given at Pope Francis’ request to an extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals in February of 2014.

Cardinal Kasper emphasized that “Jesus’ words, according to which human beings cannot separate what God has joined together (Matt 19:6), must be the starting point and foundation of our reflections. No one questions the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage that was contracted and consummated (ratum and consummatum).”

And yet there is what Kapser calls “an additional hermeneutical principle." He says, "According to the Catholic understanding, one must construe the words of Jesus in the context of the entire tradition of the Church. The tradition in our case is not at all unilinear, as is often asserted. There are historical questions and diverse opinions from serious experts, which one cannot simply disregard. The Church has repeatedly sought to find a path beyond rigorism and laxity, that is, it has sought to do the truth in love.”

Kasper recalled the practice among Orthodox churches, where a second marriage is possible according to a principle they call oikonomia. While Catholics do not practice this solution, Kasper acknowledged, the Church does know the similar principle of epikeia.

“In short,” he said, “in our current matter., there is no general solution for all cases…We here in the Consistory are all celibates; most of the faithful, however, live out their belief in the gospel of the family in concrete families and sometimes difficult situations…Some courage and above all biblical candor (parrhesia) are necessary…We should at least open the door a crack for people’s hope and expectations and at least give a sign that we, for our part, take seriously the hopes as well as the questions, anguish, and tears of so many serious Christians.”

Natural Law

The 2013 preparatory survey asked whether people understood that God’s designs are written into nature, and went on to question whether this “natural law” had any impact on their understanding of family and of marriage.

Survey results showed that the concept of “natural law” reveals “large scale perplexity” surrounding this idea. The Instrumentum Laboris noted that “In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible” (21).

Some people think “natural” means “spontaneous” or “doing what comes naturally.” Natural law is considered “an outdated legacy” (22).

Responses from some areas of Africa, Oceania, and East Asia pointed out that polygamy is considered “natural” and that nature tells husbands that they may divorce their wives if they are unable to bear children (25).

The working document draws the conclusion that “the demise of the concept of natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today. This is also a result of a certain criticism of the natural law, even by a number of theologians” (26).

The Other Half of the Equation

Given the multitude of pastoral challenges facing family life today, the Synod might well be tempted to focus on problem-solving or on restating Church teaching and thereby neglect the context in which Pope Francis wishes the review to take place, namely in the context of evangelization, in the light of the Gospel.

Even before the conclave which elected him began, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, reminded his fellow electors that ”the Church must come out of herself and go to the peripheries,” into the mystery of sin, pain, injustice and ignorance.

In his speech to his fellow cardinals, Bergoglio said the Church must avoid any form of “theological narcissism” which “keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not allow Him to go out.”

In his first meeting with journalists, Pope Francis said he wanted “a Church that is poor and for the poor.”

On his trip to Rio de Janeiro he told those who had gathered for World Youth Day, “I want to see the Church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures."

At Pentecost he said to the thousands gathered at St Peter’s, “I prefer a thousand times a Church damaged by accident than a sick Church closed in on itself.”

In late Spring of  2013 Pope Francis met six men and women of religious orders and said among other things, “Say you err or make a blunder –it happens! Maybe you’ll receive a letter from the Congregation for Doctrine, saying that they were told this or that thing…But don’t let it brother you. Explain what you have to explain, but keep going forward…Open doors, do something where life is calling out to you.”

The evangelization Pope Francis has in mind is not  mere repetition of doctrine, nor is he saying that dogma can change. What he wants is a pastoral application of the truth to real life and real people.

He does not suggest that Jesus’ teaching about divorce can be ignored, but neither does he want the Church to mistreat or do any injustice to those who fail to live up to that teaching.

Pope John Paul II spoke often about “a new evangelization,” which, he said, “begins with the clear and emphatic proclamation of the Gospel, which is directed to every person…Only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangelization develop” (John Paul II and The New Evangelization, edited by Ralph Martin, p. 13).

Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, said in a lecture on the new evangelization, “When Catholic priests address their congregations as if religion were simply a matter of legalistic conformity, they fail in their primary task of preaching the Gospel” (ibid, 14).

I doubt that most Catholics have much hope for the Synod on the Family, but I recall that some 50 years ago there was little hope or expectation when the bishops gathered for Vatican II.

Looking at family life in the context of the Good News is more than tilting at windmills. When the Spirit breathes where she will, even a tiny breeze has the potential for making significant changes in the mind and heart of the Church.

As usual, we must pray.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"The Church Is Sick" (Hans Kung)

Even if you don’t accept everything he says, you have to admit that Hans Kung makes a strong case for his diagnosis that the Church is sick. You may not agree that it has “a debilitating and potentially terminal illness,” but you will have a hard time disproving his contention that “the Catholic Church is in its deepest crisis of confidence since the Reformation.” Pope Benedict  XVI said the Church has a disfigured face.

His book Can We Save the Catholic Church? (William Collins, 2013) spells out Kung's diagnosis, points to “the Roman system” as the major cause of the Church’s illness, and offers a prescription for recovery. The accumulation of power and prestige in Rome led to what Kung calls "the Roman system."

Kung is 86 years old. He served as a peritus (expert theological adviser) at the Second Vatican Council, lost his license to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian in 1979 when he publicly rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility, and has continued to criticize the “Roman system” as the major flaw in the Church’s mission to represent Christ.

After more than 50 years of study, experience and pleading, Kung says he has published his diagnosis “only to fulfill my duty in conscience to offer this service (possibly my last) to my Church, a Church which I have endeavored to serve all my life.” Can We Save The Catholic Church? may well be his final effort to spell out what he sees wrong with the Church and once again urge its members to seek reform.

In this book he reviews Church history, summarizing here the “critical, historical account of twenty centuries of Christianity” which he published in 1994 under the title Christentum: Wesen und Geschichte (published as Christianity: Essence, History and Future in 2004 by Continuum).

Reviewing various historical and defining moments in the Church’s history, Kung keeps asking whether the Church faithfully reflects the original Christian message “which to all intents and purposes is Jesus Christ himself” (57). 

He decries the Inquisition of the past, but insists that it is still operative today even if in a less physically violent form. He notes the name change, from “Holy Office (of the Inquisition)” to the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (CDF), but explains that it “now practices more subtle forms of psychological torture, and its proceedings continue to be secret, which is one of the reasons why the Vatican was not permitted to join the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, which demands certain minimal human rights” (290).

Kung, of course, has himself been subject to investigation by the CDF because of his book questioning papal infallibility. Just six years after the close of Vatican II Kung was writing in Infallible? An Enquiry (Collins, 1971) that “the Council put forward a magnificent programme for a renewed Church of the future” (15), but “the people of God are being deprived of the fruits of the Council” (22).

In his Disputed Truth – Memoirs II (Continuum, 2007), Kung explained why he refused to go to the “colloquium” to which the CDF had called him, describing its style as "hierarchical and heartless” (266), adding, “I will in no way submit to an inquisitional procedure disguised as a ‘colloquium’ in which in the end there is no other possibility for me of safeguarding my rights (something that is granted even criminals in civilized states) than ultimately to subscribe to the Roman dictate if I don’t want to fall victim to Roman sanctions” (268).

In effect Kung argues that the CDF will not discuss but only condemn what it deems contrary to Church doctrine. Kung believes that theologians need to be given an ear, an opportunity to explore, to seek the truth. He believes that over the centuries Rome has shown itself capable of learning, and he hopes that someday the organ of the inquisition will become an organ of  proclamation of the faith. “The protection of the faith is better served today not through the exclusive persecution of errors but through the positive promotion of Christian doctrine” (266).

Inquisitorial practice, however, is only one of Kung’s criticisms. Among other ailments of the Church are: 1) the Roman monopoly of power and truth; 2) juridicism and clericalism; 3) hostility to sexuality plus general misogyny; 4) theological vindication of the use of force and war; 5) great financial power; 6) refusal to reform. All these ailments are contrary to the Gospel and the health of the Church. 

Failure to acknowledge the problems and refusal to speak up exacerbates the illness. Denial is not a redeeming or curative factor.

Kung goes on to list therapies for restoring the Church’s health; among them are 1) exercise of  pastoral leadership by office-holders, not a ruling dominium (often a dictatorship) but rather a ministerium (healing service); 2) reform dictated by the testimony of the Gospel not by canon law; 3) a papacy which maintains community with the Church (an idea that seems part of Pope Francis’ style of ministry); 4) development of a Curia in accord with Gospel values; 5) appointments based on competence rather than cronyism; 6) openness in and restructuring of Vatican finances (another concern of Pope Francis); 7) allowing priests and bishops to marry; 8) opening Church offices to women; 9) inclusion of  laity and clergy in election of bishops.

Kung concludes his diagnosis, therapy and prognoses of an ailing Church with these remarks: “I have once again --this time at a very advanced stage of life--  set forth in summary fashion my vision of a Church which could fulfill the hope of millions of Christians and non-Christians alike. It is a vision based on my experience over decades of careful study, and my experience of struggling and of suffering for it. It is a vision of how the Church could not only be saved and survive but also flourish once again” (331).

Offering his prognosis Kung said, “I hope very much that this book will assist the English-speaking world in supporting Pope Francis’s reforms by offering a precise historic and systematic analysis and viable, practical proposals for reform” (xii)…Doubtless, Pope Francis will awaken powerful hostility, above all in the powerhouse of the Roman Curia –opposition which is difficult to withstand. Those in power in the Vatican are not likely to abandon the power that has been accumulated since the Middle Ages” (337).

“Can we save the Catholic Church?” Kung asks, and then provides a positive answer, “…sooner or later, we will once again become what Christ founded us to be” (338).

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Synod on the Family

The Vatican’s General  Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops released on June 26, 2014, a summary of  input concerning the pastoral challenges facing families in preparation for an Extraordinary Synod  to be held in October. The document is described as instrumentum laboris, a “working document.”  

A Preparatory Document issued in November, 2013, posed questions to allow “particular Churches to participate actively in the preparation of the Extraordinary Synod.” Bishops from around the world were invited to send their experiences and opinions about the social and spiritual crises of families and to suggest how the Church can better respond to them and to new family-related situations “requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care.”

The summary of the world-wide consultation (the instrumentum laboris) has been given to the members of the upcoming Synod “to define the ‘staus quaestionis’ and to collect the bishops’ experiences and proposals in proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner.” A second meeting, the Ordinary General Assembly in 2015, will focus on “working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family” according to the Preparatory Document of November, 2013.

World-wide Consultation

The committee charged with developing the instrumentum laboris  faced the mammoth task of collating observations and recommendations from dioceses all over the world, input which on occasion offered culturally-based and sometimes conflicting conclusions.

The document notes, for example, that “the responses indicate that in Europe and across America a very high number of persons are separated, divorced or divorced and remarried; the number is much lower in Africa and Asia” (paragraph 86).

In the discussion about natural law (a concept often quoted in Church teaching) the feedback from the bishops indicates “large scale perplexity surrounding the concept of natural law” and affirms that “the concept of natural law turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible” (20, 21).

The summary says that “several Episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania and East Asia, mention that, in some regions, polygamy is to be considered ‘natural,’ as well as a husband’s divorcing his wife because she is unable to bear children –and, in some cases, unable to bear sons” (25).

The survey results garnered from the preparatory document of November, 2013, confirm that the Catholic Church is truly worldwide and multi-cultural.

Difficult Situations

In addressing the question of same-sex unions or marriages the instrumentum laboris explains that in some cultures homosexuality is prohibited by civil law, while in other cultures homosexual behavior is not punished but simply tolerated, and still other cultures have introduced legislation to recognize civil unions of homosexuals (110-112).

The input from Catholic bishops insists that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions” but “according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided’” (110).

Of special concern to many is the question of admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to the sacraments. In Europe and in some Latin American and Asian settings, “the prevailing tendency among some of the clergy is to resolve the issue by simply complying with the request for access to the sacraments” (93).

A significant number of responses recommended consideration of  “the practice of some Orthodox Churches, which, in their opinion, opens the way for a second or third marriage of a penitential character” (95). It was noted that “in some cases, Catholics in countries with a major number of Orthodox Christians remarry in the Orthodox Church following their customary ritual and then ask to receive Communion in the Catholic Church” (96).

Long List of Challenges

I cannot in this blog touch on all the elements under consideration for the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod based on the instrumentum laboris. The Vatican’s English translation of the document is 48 pages long. Other areas of concern include communication (64), abortion (65), sexual violence (66), trafficking (67), drug abuse (68), migration (72), pedophilia (75), impact of war (77), cohabitation (81), and more.

My reading of the document leads me to believe that the Bishops will be tempted to initiate a large number of new programs and/or promote existing ministries for the support of family life. Among the recommendations are: 1) formation of the clergy in presenting better homilies; 2) ongoing catechesis of the families; 3) using language which is accessible to all, especially in liturgy; 4) parish programs to support married life; 5) ministry to those in irregular marriages; 6) more pastoral approach to the marriage “annulment” process; 7) programs to offer spiritual care for single, homosexual people; 8) programs to promote openness to life; 9) formation-aid to assist parents in the education of their children; and several more.

I suspect that genuine, effective response will require more than implementation of new programs. Talking about the challenges must be only a start. Development of programs can help. But true pastoral response to the need of today’s families will require conversion both in the thinking of the hierarchy and  in the lives of the faithful.

One element I do not detect in the instrumentum laboris is the need for a review and self-analysis of Church discipline and teaching to render them more pastoral in meeting the challenges of the modern family.

Cardinal Kasper’s Input

In February of 2014 Pope Francis called together an extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals, and part of their agenda included an address by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. His topic, The Gospel of the Family, was clearly preparatory for the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family.

Cardinal Kasper caused a stir when he questioned how the Church could best respond to Catholics who have divorced and remarried without a Church “annulment.” He acknowledged that the Church cannot propose a solution that is contrary to the words of Jesus, but also acknowledged the  wideness of God's mercy and asked “how the Church can conform to the indissoluble cohesiveness of fidelity and mercy in its pastoral practice with civilly remarried, divorced people.”

He recalled the address of Pope Francis to the Roman Rota on January 24, 2014,  in which the Holy Father emphasized that the juridical and the pastoral dimensions are not in opposition to each other. “Mercy does not exclude justice,” Kasper said, emphasizing that  “pastoral care and mercy are not contradictory to justice.”

He reminded the bishops about the response he found in his study of the Church Fathers where “in individual local churches there existed the customary law, according to which Christians, who were living in a second relationship during the lifetime of the first partner, had available to them, after a period of penance, admittedly no second ship –no second marriage—but indeed a plank of salvation through participation in communion. Origen reports on this custom and describes it as ‘not unreasonable.’”

Concluding his address, Kasper noted that “we may not limit the discussion to the situation of the divorced and remarried or to many other difficult pastoral situations that have been mentioned in this context. We must begin positively, discovering and proclaiming again the gospel of the family….families are the test case for pastoral care and the most serious test case for the new evangelization.”

Kasper did not provide the answer to the questions he raised, but he raised the questions in response to the problems and needs faced by families today. It is his hope that the “forthcoming Synod, guided by God’s Spirit and after consideration of all points of view, can point out a good path that all can endorse” (The Gospel of the Family by Cardinal Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2014, p.p. 52-53).


As I read the instrumentum laboris, as I reflect on Cardinal Kasper’s Consistory Address on the family, as I recall the hundreds of responses we received in our archdiocese when Archbishop Schnurr chose to consult with his Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and with the faithful of the Archdiocese by means of the online survey, and when I think of the challenges to the family I see in our parishes, I am more than convinced that we must (all of us) pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the bishops when they gather in Synod.

Pope Francis has asked the faithful to pray to the Holy Family, and he composed this prayer for our use:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division; may all who have been hurt or scandalized find ready comfort and healing. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer.

Let us pray.