Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Synod and the Pastoral Discernment of Difficult Situations

While we still await an official English-language translation of the Synod's Relatio, some of the more widely circulated (unofficially translated) paragraphs invite some initial reflection. Such, for example are paragraphs 69-71.

I have long thought that, just as  there are individuals and communities linked with the Church by baptism but in imperfect communion with her and others who although unbaptized are also related in various ways to God's people (Lumen Gentium 15-16), so too also it makes sense to think that within the Church different people experience different degrees of connection with the community and life of the Church. Such, for example, are those in irregular unions - whether unmarried cohabiting couples or divorced and civilly remarried couples. The Synod certainly recognized the need to address people in such situations with pastoral care and discernment.

Thus, paragraph 69 highlights marriage as a faithful and indissoluble union open to life, a grace for humanity which the Church joyfully proclaims to all people in all contexts. That said, the Synod recognizes that there are also situations in which this religious reality is not appreciated. The Synod invites the pastors of the Church to find ways to keep dialogue open with those in such situations and to be alert to whatever in those situations may promote people's human and spiritual growth and may provide opportunities for evangelization.Paragraphs 70 and 71 consider some of the material and cultural circumstances that may dispose unmarried couples to cohabitation and may make marriage appear impractical. Again, recognizing the existence of these realities, the Synod invites us to discern how such circumstances can become opportunities for deeper engagement with the Gospel message about marriage and family, as opposed to simply serving as obstacles.

Likewise, the Synod looked also at the increasingly sensitive situation of those who are divorced and have since remarried civilly.  Paragraph 75 alludes to the particular difficulty often experienced here in the US when a complicated marital situation gets in the way when someone subsequently seeks entrance into the Church. Paragraph 84 sets out the also not uncommon situation in which divorced and remarried couples are - or aspire to be - active in the Church's life, and challenges the Church to discern how to maximize that participation , while avoiding scandal. Interestingly, the text suggests that, rather than being seen as a diminished commitment to indissolubility, such outreach to the divorced and remarried may be seen as an expression of the Church's charity, which at least sounds like a more positive way to present it.

Paragraph 85 is especially significant n regard to the formation of conscience in particular case. It emphasizes the already recognized principle that the objective status of an action is not necessarily identical with subjective imputability, which may be affected by various factors. This leads in paragraph 86 to a cautious consideration of the kinds of conversations that might helpfully take place in the internal forum. Here especially is where conflicting interpretations are competing for world attention. Is this therefore a path to Communion for the divorced and remarried (as some are interpreting it), or does the fact that that possibility is nowhere explicitly mentioned mean that it most certainly is not such a path (as others are insisting). It remains to be seen both how this will be incorporated into whatever Exhortation the Pope eventually issues and how it will be implemented in actual pastoral practice. 

What the Synod certainly did do was to affirm traditional doctrine about marriage in a way which, avoiding gratuitously condemnatory language, was sensitive to the real-life complexities in which many families find themselves today.

It is easy to see how the secular media may run with some of the sentiments expressed in these paragraphs and create an impression that some doctrinal Rubicon has been crossed - even though much of what is being proposed in these paragraphs is not radically new and reflects aspects already found in pastoral practice. A culture unfamiliar with the living actuality of the Church's doctrine and pastoral practice may well create a new narrative which will drive the discussion. It remains to be seen whether and how the Holy Father will create from all this a more compelling religious and spiritual narrative to drive the discussion within the Church community and compete effectively with the otherwise dominant secular narrative.

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