The Synod on the Family has closed, at least for the time being. It has occasioned much angst, but in the end, the Holy Spirit has again protected the Church from catastrophe. All the more disturbing portions of the Synod’s preliminary notes have been removed from the final documents. Life goes on.
Have we reached any useful conclusions about Catholic marriage and family life? Perhaps so, though most of them have been negative. A number of reflective members of Catholic media (including R. R. Reno, Fr. Mark Pilon, and Aleteia’s own Susan Wills) have already made some astute comments about things that will not help revitalize our Catholic marriage culture. For example, it will not help to initiate a wave of “dialogue,” targeted to ensure that people don’t feel bad about disregarding the Church’s teachings. It will not help to try to cut through the painful details of a million different irregular family situations, by issuing committee-authored top-down directives to be more “pastoral.” It will not help to pretend like Christian marriage can be made easy and uniformly pleasant.
Writing at The Guardian, Austen Ivereigh has suggested that the Synod is moving the Church in a more fruitful direction by bringing the language of the pastoral into its formal deliberations and teachings. As Ivereigh points out, individual pastors have long been engaged in the day to day work of working through the sensitive details of difficult personal situations, offering encouragement and advice and the grace of the Sacraments for those who can and will receive them. On an institutional level, however, Rome appears impassive and pedantic, focused on doctrinal clarity and not on compassion. Pope Francis, Ivereigh thinks, is helping to change that by investing the Holy See more directly in the work of ministering to troubled souls.
This seems like a fair reading of the Holy Father’s inclinations. Pope Francis has an obvious zeal for reaching out to the most afflicted. Most famously, we find this reflected in his evocative analogy to a military hospital in which the desperately wounded find treatment. The Church, in his view, must be that hospital, where people mired in sin and hurt can find succor and healing.
Turning specifically to the issue of the family, however, we now encounter a question. Is it possible to do this on an institutional level? Desperate cases generally require significant personal attention. They cannot be handled en masse by the Holy See. And the intense focus on reaching out to the fallen has already caused much angst throughout the Catholic world; as the saying goes, hard cases make for bad law. Might it not actually be appropriate for pastors and the laity to see to the individual work of caring for troubled souls, while Rome provides the support they need to speak the truth with confidence? On an institutional level, perhaps there should be less focus on triage, and more focus on developing a wellness plan.
Truthfully, a wellness plan is sorely needed. We need to do a better job of transmitting the faith to young Catholics, so we can reduce the chance that they will end up as spiritual “amputees.”
And indeed, it is possible to do better, even in a culture that scorns Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. I reflected on this a few weeks ago, recalling my discomfiture sixteen years ago when I encountered Catholicism for the first time as a starting freshman at Notre Dame. As a young Mormon, I had been given a lot of no-nonsense instruction in sexual ethics. Having heard much about the rigor of Catholic teachings on these subjects, I naturally expected my classmates to share my sincere belief that fornication was wrong, that sex ought to be reserved for marriage, and that marriage should be ordered towards procreation. Some did. But I was shocked by the number who dismissed these teachings, or even ridiculed them. If my college classmates were at all representative, I would say that the Mormons did a better job of preparing me for Catholic marriage than many Catholic parishes would have done.
This strikes me as a far more serious problem in the Church today than any excess of judgmentalism, or a deficiency of compassion. Teaching at a Catholic University today, I see similar deficiencies of formation in my students, with the primary change being a greatly increased acceptance of homosexuality. It’s especially saddening to reflect that these young Catholics are for the most part lifelong Mass-goers, generally from intact families, whose parents have made significant sacrifices to give them a serious Catholic education. The are not yet fallen away or living in irregular situations. (Though tragically, some of my former classmates now are.) These young people should be our shock troops, burning with zeal to win back the world for Christ. Instead, far too many seem lazy and lukewarm, only dimly aware of Catholic teachings, and ready to agree with the mainstream culture that the Gospel in its fullness is more a source of embarrassment than of pride.
If we can’t win over our own children, I don’t see how the Church can possibly regain the missionary zeal that the Holy Father very laudably wishes to instill. But an effective “wellness plan” requires clear instruction, together with the evident expectation that the young will listen and obey. When reaching out to non-Catholics and the fallen away, a softer touch may sometimes be necessary, and there are also throughout the world, Catholic subcultures that have collapsed to the point where we should effectively regard them as missionary zones. But we should never to treat our own children as though their full embrace of the faith is an exotic fringe possibility. We don’t want them to be self-righteous, but we do need them to take pride in representing a faith that is deliberately counter-cultural. That is the only way to protect their souls from a hostile world, and to prepare them to be soldiers for Christ.
In the end of course, effective catechesis is not in tension with zealous-but-compassionate efforts to minister to the desperate. Quite the contrary: well-formed souls are the only ones who can effectively carry on the vital work of reaching out to the afflicted. But if pastors and laity are to carry on this work with the missionary zeal that the Holy Father obviously wants to see, they need to know that Rome stands firmly behind them. And it may be that the sort of “institutional compassion” the Synod has been considering over these last weeks simply is not compatible with the firm doctrinal support that the faithful continue to need. The world is trying, relentlessly, to tear Catholic teachings (especially on sex and marriage) to the ground. The faithful need to see that their leaders are prepared to defend it against the onslaught. So perhaps it would be better to let individual pastors be pastors, while the Holy See sees to the vital work of keeping the ship—obviously and visibly—on course.
Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.