Commentators caution against inadvertently subverting a culture of marriage.
The recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops gathering to discuss family issues was never about changing the teaching of the Church on marriage, family life, or sexual morality, according to the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, in a pastoral letter read over the weekend. “It was,” he said, “about the pastoral care that we try to offer each other, the ‘motherly love of the Church.’ especially when facing difficult moments and experiences in family life.”
Cardinal Nichols explained that as the synod grappled with how the Church’s pastoral practice could be strengthened and invigorated, it was recognized that “in trying to walk alongside people in difficult or exceptional situations, it is important to see clearly and with humility all the good aspects of their lives.”
From this initial point, said Cardinal Nichols, “we learn to move together towards conversion and towards the goodness of life that God has for us and that Jesus opens for us all. This positive approach flows right through the ‘Synod Report’ and I hope will increasingly shape our attitude towards each other.”
Recalling Pope Francis’s call for those participating in the Synod to “look reality in the eye,” Cardinal Nichols described how the Synod considered all manner of problems facing today’s families, ranging from domestic violence and the effects of war to immigration, polygamy, and inter-religious marriages. “The vastness of the picture and the suffering it represented was, at times,” he said, “overwhelming.”
Drawing particular attention to cohabiting couples or Catholics who have divorced and remarried, Cardinal Nichols said that even if such arrangements are “not in keeping with the pattern the Lord asks of us,” such people’s lives are often marked by real goodness. This goodness, he maintained, “is the basis for our care of them, for our approach to them, our invitation to them, to come closer to the Church and deepen their faith and attend carefully to its call. We say this confidently because it is within the call of our faith, the call of Jesus to each one of us, expressed in the truth of the Gospel and treasured in the Church, that our deepest happiness is to be found.”
The cardinal also noted how the Synod had reflected on how the Church might pastorally respond to persons with same-sex attraction, saying that while there had been “no suggestion that the teaching of the Church might somehow give approval to the notion of 'same-sex marriage' or that its teaching on sexual morality is to change,” two things had been very clear.
“The first is that we should never identify people by their sexual orientation,” he said. “Every person is endowed with unique dignity, both as an individual and as a Christian. This dignity is always, always to be respected. Secondly, it is the teaching of the Church that they are not only to be respected but also always accepted, with compassion and with sensitivity (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2358). This teaching has to be translated into loving care, in our daily life in the Church, in our parishes, and indeed in society.”
Cardinal Nichols especially drew attention to how Pope Francis said it is not enough for pastors to “welcome into the Church those in difficult situations or in trouble.” Rather, he said, it was their duty “to go out and find them, just as the Good Shepherd did for those who had drifted away.”
The Synod was, of course, not merely about the family, but about the family in the specific context of evangelization. As such, Hannah Vaughan-Spruce, a catechist based in the Diocese of Portsmouth, says she was especially intrigued by aspects of Cardinal Nichols’s letter that affect catechetical and pastoral practice, which she describes as “the daily reality of evangelization in a parish setting.”
Vaughan-Spruce agrees that Catholics should look to “the good aspects” of the lives of those who co-habit or are in a second marriage, etc., but believes that as a rule, “parishes are pretty good at this.”
The “difficult question” she says, concerns how people can be helped to move towards conversion and the goodness of life that God intends for us, explaining that, “the really hard part is to say to someone, ‘Actually, there is a problem with the way you are living that we need to talk about.’”
The tension between “remaining faithful to the dignity of each human person we encounter, while at the same time — at some point! — raising the issue with them if necessary that they are in a situation of serious sin,” is something she describes as a “nitty-gritty pastoral reality” that she has written about “many, many times.”
Citing the Catechism’s demand that catechesis must “reveal in all clarity the joy and the demands of the way of Christ,” Vaughan-Spruce notes that conversion requires change, and worries whether “if we over-emphasize the ‘goodness’ of people’s lives pre-conversion, we are actually excusing ourselves from telling them about true goodness, about life in Christ.” Such an approach, she says, risks slipping into a vision of Christianity that ignores how “our goodness flows from Christ, from an intimate life in him.”
David Quinn, director of Ireland’s pro-marriage think tank The Iona Institute, told Aleteia that on the whole he believed the cardinal's pastoral letter was very good, though he expressed a caveat about the section on cohabitation. “Improving the Church's pastoral outreach to cohabiting couples, especially when one or both is Catholic,” he cautioned, “has to involve recognizing not only the good that is in some cohabiting relationships, but also an invitation to consider marriage.”
“Widespread cohabitation is in no-one's best interests, not adults, not children, not society,” he explained, adding, “Cohabitation is associated with greater relationship instability than marriage. The job of the Church is to do all it can to strengthen a culture of marriage, among Catholics first and foremost.”
“Any pastoral outreach that inadvertently weakens a culture of marriage by signalling that the Church now has a much more relaxed attitude towards cohabitation,” he warns, “would actually be a good example of poor pastoral care.”
Greg Dalycovers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.