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Synod on the Family: There Is No Need to Fear Debate in the Church

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AFP/ANDREAS SOLARO

Jorge Traslosheros - published on 09/30/14

Don't Panic: Neither Kasper Nor Müller Questions the Sacramentality of Marriage

We are just a few days away from the extraordinary Synod of bishops which will address the problems families face in today’s world. Although it may be difficult to believe, the planet is bigger than the West – where, certainly, the press has built up inappropriate expectations.

The goal of the Synod, as Cardinal Parolín clearly explained, is not to change the Church’s doctrine, given that it is based on the Gospel. Rather, its purpose is to address the problems facing family and marriage, in order to define a pastoral strategy ranging from the local to the global level. It’s an incredible challenge. Personally, it fills me with joy to know that, in this world of relativism and frivolity, there is an institution that takes seriously a reality that will accompany us all our lives: the family (whatever it is like) into which we were born.

The false expectations are rooted, more than in bad will, in a lack of understanding of the way in which a truly Catholic debate takes place, especially when important topics such as the family are on the table. Nothing is more mistaken than the idea of arrogant intransigence inside the Church, although the temptation always exists and must be fought without compromise. There is always someone who confuses authority with immobility. To understand how a debate is carried out within Catholic parameters, we must principally pay attention to five elements:

1. St. Augustine’s maxim takes precedence: Unity in essentials, liberty in doubtful things, and charity in all things. The essential is relatively little and solid, since it depends on doctrine that emerges from the Gospel and from tradition. Because the ground is firm, debates tend to be intense. Nevertheless, when the essential is respected, charity rules. Charity should not be confused with sweet smiles and exchanging well-educated salutations. In a serious debate, like that which we are seeing now before the Synod, charity is affirmed through openness and dialogue: that is to say, seeking the truth even when the sweet smiles are absent. On the contrary, when the essential is not respected, freedom devolves into a diatribe and charity is absent. In that case, the Catholic aspect is lost. Up to now we have not seen anyone in in this debate fall into this situation, and I am sure that we won’t.

The debate between Cardinals Kasper and Müller is passionate at times, but follows St. Augustine’s logic. No one questions the sacramentality of marriage, which is essential, and that is why they argue with great freedom about pastoral care for people who are divorced and remarried. Other cardinals have joined the discussion, which is logical and very healthy. No one should panic; in the end, charity will win, as we shall see.

2. The debate follows a specific order in accordance with the dialogue of faith and reason. A problem is observed, an hypothesis is proposed, and arguments for and against are sought, making use of very different branches of knowledge – theology, science, sociology, history, etc., – in order to make solid and informed decisions. It is typical in cases like these that different members of the church participate in different moments – whether they be lay people, religious, priests, bishops, or theologians – through consultations, as advisors, etc. The process is based on a deep conviction that reality is the map of our existence; that reason is the tool that helps us understand reality; and that faith is the compass that keeps us oriented on the path.

Apparently, in the case mentioned above, Kasper and Müller are supporting different positions with the Pope’s permission, and they are clearly very convinced of what they are saying. The Pope took it upon himself to propose the hypothesis that is being debated about the convenience, in certain cases, after a penitential period, of allowing people who are divorced and remarried to receive the sacrament of Communion. What is certainly true is that the method is being followed and material for discussion in this sensitive topic is abundant, as it is in other topics as well. We can be sure that pastoral decisions are not made lightly.

3. Dialogue between justice and mercy is encouraged. If only the former is taken into account, we draw near to rigorism, which betrays justice; if only the latter, it becomes confused with laxity which is the opposite of mercy. When debate is carried out within the coordinates of faith-reason and justice-mercy, we enter the territory of charity – which, on the other hand, confirms the old principle of Catholic culture: et-et, bringing together in charity. The reader could draw a Cartesian plane whose center is, precisely, charity. It will help a great deal to understand where the different positions are located with all their nuances, and also how none of them strays outside the terrain of the Gospel and tradition.

4. Different theological schools have a very important place in the debate. Today it is necessary to take into account that, since Cardinal Newman, there is an attempt to center theological reflection on the dignity of the person in contrast to the excesses of collectivism, individualism and utilitarianism in our time. This philosophical and theological personalism has been very present in the magisterium of the most recent popes, including Francis. The principle is simple. Christ shows us the fullness of our humanity, because he opens for us the path towards God. The dialogue between faith and reason, between our fragile humanity and Jesus, between justice and mercy, is oriented towards making the dignity of each and every person a reality in the particular situation of each culture. Frankly, at the current moment in the debate and having examined the different positions, I observe in all the participants, without exception, the same intention and vocation in favor of the human person.

5. The debate is at every moment subject to a test of authenticity. Faith in the value of reason should coincide with reasons for faith. Only then are we dealing with a genuine discussion within Catholic coordinates.

The process as a whole is conducive to making firm pastoral decisions, although those decisions may end up being unpopular or politically incorrect. Implementing and developing them may take generations, but it will move forward. We must not forget that, in the culminating moment of making decisions, the Pope is alone before God.

Paul VI’s prophetic denunciation of the antinatalist mentality of our epoch and of systemic injustice towards the poor of the world, as well as his no-less-prophetic defense of the Council, of ecumenism and of religious freedom, are good examples of what we are talking about here. His courage, so attacked inside and outside the Church for sometimes very different reasons, allowed Catholics to move forward in the midst of difficulties. Today, the pro-life movement and ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, the defense of religious liberty, the affirmation of the Church’s Social doctrine and the Council itself are daily realities for common Catholics; but the great polemics that they unleashed at another point in time tend to be forgotten. There were even some who abandoned Catholicism due to their extreme positions while, curiously, they assured the world that they were the real Catholics.

The synodal method of guiding the Church, so loved by Paul VI and now by Francis, confirms the personal responsibility of each bishop and of the Pope himself in making decisions. Unsurprisingly, Ratzinger explained it masterfully: the Church walks a delicate equilibrium between collegiality and personal responsibility, lay people obviously included. Once again, the old principle: et-et, bringing things together in charity.

Because there is order and clarity in ecclesiastical debates, there can be freedom. To think that the Church could arrive to a point where arguments would cease is to fool oneself. This has never happened, not even in apostolic times, and this is one of the greatest riches of Catholicism. In fact, this kind of debate is one of its most important sources of progress throughout history and one reason why studying it can be so fascinating. I am sure that the Synod on the family, in both of its chapters, will be no exception. Its decisions will mark the direction of the Church in the present and for future generations. Just one recommendation: fasten your seatbelts, because this is going to get very exciting!

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