Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Heated Debate Outside the Synod Hall

Wouldn't it be great to be able to eavesdrop on the debate that has been going on inside the Synod? Apparently, they are now meeting in their circuli minores (small groups). Personally, I've never particularly liked small groups and have often had the experience of overhearing the next group and thinking their discussion more interesting that whatever group I happened to be stuck in! I wonder how the Synod fathers are experiencing their small groups!

Outside the Synod, the debate (if such it may be called) has been predictably heated - maybe actually a bit over-heated. And, as so often happens when opposing sides don't actually debate each other directly, what seems to be happening is that instead of actually talking to each other, each side tends to talk past the other and speak instead to its already defined constituencies (very much the same sort of problem we experience in our polarized secular politics).

Of course, there have also been many wise and perceptive analyses - on both sides of the debate. 

For years now, I have thought about how different people find themselves in different degrees of relationship with the Church because of particular circumstances in their lives (circumstances that certainly include, but are not limited to, such presently high profile issues as contraception, civil marriage, remarriage, and sexual orientation). So I find myself naturally very interested in how the Synod also seems to be thinking along similar lines - referring to "the law of gradualness" and relating it to what Vatican II taught about "elements of sanctification and truth ... found outside of the Church's visible structure," but which "as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity" (Relatio, 17, quoting Lumen Gentium, 8). Over at Crux, I think John Allen's column on "Lifestyle Ecumenism" presents a particularly helpful analysis of this possible direction. (See

On the other side as well, there have been some significant observations and critiques that are well worth considering. Over at First Things, for example, R.R. Reno - referring to Relatio 46 on "avoiding any language or behavior that might make them [referring here to the divorced who have remarried] feel discriminated against" - warns that this may make "our feelings the criterion of the Church's pastoral ministry." (See 

This, of course, is not a new worry. In recent decades, we have all experienced how sentimental, emotional, "feeling" language has often taken over and pushed aside more traditional and substantive language about good and bad and right and wrong. And one doesn't have to be a traditional Christian to notice or worry about this. I think back to Philip Rieff's classic Freudian critique of similar tendencies in modern culture (The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 1966). 

At least since the 60s, it has been recognized that religion has been in danger of being reduced to therapy. Reno's concern that "if we make feelings the criterion, then the truth about discrimination (and much more) is subjective" is a legitimate one. Especially in this therapeutic era, the challenge of 2 Timothy 4:1-5 remains as relevant as ever.

On the other hand, all cura animarum is in a certain sense a species of therapy - albeit, hopefully, one rooted in the truth revealed by God and in human nature. The challenge - and this is why "the law of gradualness" is so relevant - is somehow to accept and accompany people as and where they actually are at present while simultaneously proposing the truth that God has revealed about himself and human nature. This applies actually to all people, all of whom are imperfect and fall short of beatitudinal perfection, not just those in particularly problematic, sexually-related situations. In any case, a minimum first step in the direction of accompanying people on the way is to choose carefully the language one uses, so as to invite people to come along rather than self-righteously to drive them further away! 

On the other hand again, I think Reno does voice a very legitimate concern when he wonders whether we no longer "know how to speak about the Church's moral teachings about sex and marriage in ways that we are confident will help people conform themselves to the moral truth. In this confusion, we drift toward therapeutic ways of talking and call for 'dialogue'." 

I fear Reno is certainly on to something here, but it also applies a lot more widely than just to sex and marriage. After all, how comfortable (already a dangerous word!) are we with Jesus' strong strictures against wealth? How forthrightly do we propose Jesus' teachings about wealth and the Church's social teaching rooted in the universal destination of the goods of the earth? Or are we also afraid of offending - in this case, offending business people and the well-off? It is a perennial problem, not just a uniquely modern one, nor one only involving sex and marriage.

What exacerbates this problem in our contemporary ("postmodern") cultural situation is, of course, the decline of authentic religious belief (and hence of the moral language associated with it, which was until recently a common moral language). A corollary of that has been the collapse of a classical conception of human nature and the resulting loss of any common language about human nature. The Synod's Instrumentum Laboris (n. 21) explicitly touched on this when it noted that "the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible."

Some sort of natural law reasoning, some common conception and shared language about human nature seems essential if the church is to speak to the wider world about moral matters and say something comprehensible in a pluralistic society. What happens in a postmodern world in which there are (as many of Alan Wolfe's respondents believe) "so many ways of being human." (Cf. Alan Wolfe, Moral Freedom: the Search for Virtue in a World of Choice, Norton, 2001, p. 83). Are we then left, sadly, with therapeutic-sounding language as the only approximation we still have to a common moral language?

It seems to me that a cura animarum rooted in accompanying people according to "the law of gradualness" is inevitably part of any effective response to such a situation. But we cannot assume or expect that it will satisfy everyone - at either extreme of the debate.

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