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.”)
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.”
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.