Hat tip to Simcha Fisher for her calm and reasoned analysis. I suspect there are others, but my FB newsfeed has become a repository of nuclear material and I don’t have a HazMat suit handy.
Should we all be freaking? Let’s start with the fact that the goal of the report is to “outlin[e] the main questions highlighted over the past week,” as Vatican Radio aptly described it. It’s not a Magisterial pronouncement. It’s not supposed to be a doctrinal statement. It doesn’t present the results and recommendations of a deliberative process. It’s more akin to the minutes of a free-wheeling board meeting, minus any actual resolutions.
The time to panic is when and if some of the stranger suggestions make it into the Extraordinary Synod’s final recommendations. And especially, of course, if the October 2015 Synod on the Family concurs with any recommendations that dilute, revise or jettison the immutable teachings of Jesus and the Church He founded.
Although nothing is “settled” by virtue of being in the interim report, one can sympathize with the distress some have expressed, arising solely from the week’s interventions (as they’ve been summarized by the Vatican press office). Far too much time seems to have been spent on how we need make more palatable our demanding teachings on the indissolubility of marriage, the ban on contraception, on cohabitation and homosexuality with large dollops of sweet talk. Following these teachings demands maturity, sacrificial love, humility, self-control, and faith, among other virtues, as well as the grace of the sacraments. Why pretend otherwise?
Why create the impression that among living arrangements that include sexual intimacy, there are categories of good, better and best?
What was missing from the interim report, which many hope to see in the final report, is – as noted by Mary Shivanandan, STD, Professor Emerita of Theology, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (at CUA) – a “vision of marriage and family powerful enough to draw people to conversion even gradually or to encourage those in difficulties to stay the course. Such a vision has been given by Pope St. John Paul II inFamiliaris Consortio, his catechesis on the Theology of the Body and in the Letter to Families. Let us give them a chance.”
Two overarching concerns have been raised concerning the interim report.
First, it seems that the principle of “gradualness” is being proposed anew with respect to how the Church treats individuals who are not living in accord with Catholic teaching. Examples would be to permit reception of the Eucharist by contracepting couples who refuse being open to children or to divorced/remarried couples who will not live as brother and sister. In her article posted today – “What Does the Synod Mean by Gradualness?” – American auditor Alice Heinzen explains that the Synod Fathers are using the term as it was defined in Familiaris Consortio, no. 34. Her understanding is in line with an explanation offered yesterday by Dominican Father Dominic Legge, O.P. One cannot return to the sacraments by committing to gradually relinquish a gravely sinful practice. One must make a definitive renunciation of the sin, followed by the normal path of Christian life: a gradual ascent (with occasional backsliding, perhaps) toward the perfection to which we are called.
The second overarching concern arises from the language of the interim report: it’s simply fraught with ambiguities. A charitable reading allows one to reconcile most of the text with settled doctrine. Reading the worst possible interpretation into every ambiguous phrase can make your head explode, as one wag put it.
The confusion begins to be evident in Part II, “The discernment of values present in wounded families and in irregular situations” when the question is asked, “what possibilities are given to married couples who experience the failure of their marriage, or rather how is it possible to offer them Christ’s help through the ministry of the Church?” Is this a veiled plea to allow for reception of the Eucharist? That’s one reading, but not the only one.
Confusion also arises from suggesting that one might apply the “doctrine of levels of communion, formulated by Vatican Council II” – which recognizes that “elements of sanctification and truth” are found in denominations and faiths outside the structure of the Catholic Church – to the situations of “cohabitation, civil marriages, divorced and remarried persons” by “appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.” To what end exactly?
We appreciate the good we find in other faith communities, but we do not admit them to Holy Communion. Are we meant to show our appreciation for the positive values of those who are cohabiting, living in civil marriages, etc. by not condemning or insulting them? That’s Christian Charity 101 so why would that point have to be made?
Under the “Truth and beauty of the family and mercy,” we are told that “a new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences.” The key phrase, of course, is “accepting the reality.” What could possibly be meant by “accepting”? Sure, everyone has to acknowledge that these realities exist, but if accepting means condoning, ratifying, acknowledging them as worthy of some action on the part of the Church – other than her willingness to engage the individuals with respect and to explain Catholic teaching with charity and encouragement – don’t think so. And where’s the concern for the children of cohabiting parents (or, often, the children of one parent who’s cohabiting with an adult unrelated to the child)? The physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual harm these children suffer should take precedence over the desires of the adults to feel accepted.
Under Part III’s “Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation,” the report states that irregular situations “have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk toward the fullness of marriage and family. … They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy.”
No one would quibble over this statement. It’s just sound pastoral practice. But the discussion that follows on “Caring for wounded families (the separated, the divorced who have not remarried, the divorced who have remarried)" quotes a passage of Evangelii Gaudium (no. 169) in which Pope Francis calls for all to be initiated “into this ‘art of accompaniment,’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.” Again, good pastoral practice to gently lead adults whose marriages have failed closer to the fullness of faith, but it’s novel, to say the least, to refer to the situation of adults who are divorced and remarried as living on “sacred ground.”
We’re told that “various Fathers underlined the necessity to make the recognition of cases of nullity more accessible and flexible.” If they did so, their views did not take into account justice due to the innocent abandoned spouse and children, but only the views of those who want to get on with their lives with a new spouse. As Dr. Fitzgibbons has documented in his two recent articles (and here), marriages can be saved and far more attention needs to be given to strengthening marriage than streamlining the annulment process.
The reception of Communion by divorced and remarried individuals is mentioned in the interim report as a topic open for discussion (a point that deserves far more treatment than there is space for here).
The final two topics generated the most confusion and controversy: “Welcoming homosexual persons” and contraception.
Common decency demands that we respect the inherent good in every person including those with same sex attraction. Father Paul Check, executive director of Courage International, wrote this in an article published last week:
And he explained:
If this is what the Synod means to say in the paragraph quoted below, all well and good. But asking if our communities are capable of “valuing their sexual orientation” seems to require a rather different level of acceptance. The report states:
It states that “the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given a priority,” yet the social science research is clear that no one is giving any priority to the rights of children being raised by same sex couples.
In discussing the essential feature of openness to new life within marriage, and affirming the teaching of Humanae Vitae, the interim report seems to contradict this point by referring to “the need to respect the dignity of the person in the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control.” Certainly, a couple has the responsibility in good conscience and for serious reasons to postpone or limit the number of children they bear, through periodic abstinence. But the phrase “the moral evaluation of the methods of birth control” suggests something entirely different, a capitulation to the contraceptive mentality. We can only hope that the final report will offer greater clarity and adherence to the truths of our faith.
Susan E. Wills
is spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English-language edition.