Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Synod

I have hesitated until now to write anything specific about the Synod (the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, called to discuss "the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization"). Obviously, that is not because it is unimportant - far from it! Certainly, the Synod is important, although exactly how important and why will be determined more by what happens after (and after the "Ordinary" Synod on the Family next year). 

Regardless of that, however, the Synod has already acquired an enormous importance in consequence of the quantity of coverage it has received in both secular and religious media. Such coverage, of course, especially in the secular media has tended somewhat toward the sensational - emphasizing conflicts among Cardinals and among the Synod Fathers (as if such disagreements were completely unprecedented) and focusing on issues of interest largely in secularized "First World" societies. We have not heard so much about the concerns of bishops from "Third World" countries, where poverty, religious persecution, family disruptions due to migration, and polygamy are particularly important preoccupations, perhaps of more interest to those societies (the majority of the Church) than Western concerns about, for example, divorce and remarriage.

That is not to say, of course, that divorce and remarriage are unimportant. Obviously they are. That is one thing on which both sides of an increasingly shrill debate do agree. (The debate is increasingly shrill in the media. How shrill it may actually be within the Synod is, of course, a whole other question.)

The increase in divorce and the apparent breakdown of anything resembling the traditional culture of marriage and family life is in fact one of the particularly distressing dynamics of Western societies over the past 50 years. Obviously, the Church needs to address this issue in order to understand what is happening so as to anticipate and react to its adverse impact on so many aspect of modern life  Like it or not, the state of the family directly impacts the Church's ability to pass on the faith from one generation to the next. Meanwhile, the Church must also provide effective pastoral care for those most adversely impacted by the contemporary breakdown of marriage and family life (among them, single people who would probably prefer to be married but for whom marriage is increasingly foreclosed because of economic and other factors, the victims of divorce - notably children, whose social and economic prospects predictably suffer as a result of being children of divorce - and divorced couples themselves, including, of course, those now in subsequent "irregular" unions).

The Eastern Orthodox Churches famously have their own special way of addressing that last issue. I remember writing my first seminary course paper on that topic. At the time, I think I found the Orthodox approach somewhat attractive, but even then I recognized that (theological considerations aside) it might be rather difficult to implement such a two-tiered approach in our contemporary Western culture of equality and rights. Still, there is something to be said for giving people a second chance - especially if that second chance is recognized as a merciful concession not quite equal to the first marriage. It has long appeared obvious to me that different people - and the same people at different times due to different circumstances in their lives - find themselves in different relationships to the Church's life. And we need to have ways of reaching  out to and including as many people as possible, recognizing the complex diversity of their Church connections.

At the same time, what (for lack of a more nuanced terms) could be called the other side of this debate raises real concerns of grave theological and pastoral significance. How free is the Church in regard to Christ's clear prohibition of divorce and his condemnation of subsequent remarriage as adultery? How free is the Church in regard to its traditional view of that as an impediment to the reception of Holy Communion? Theologically, these are not trivial concerns. And then there are legitimate pastoral concerns about further undermining the culture of marriage at a time in human history when one could argue that what the world needs is more marriage, not more divorce.

Each "side" (to oversimplify the debate as if this were about politics) has serious, legitimate concerns and has raised serious, legitimate concerns about the other's arguments. It will require rigorous discernment to navigate through this issue, and I for one would not presume at present to predict any outcome.

Outside the Synod, however, there is also the potential danger of disappointment that some may feel who have been led - by the way these issues are being presented in the media - to expect outcomes that are actually rather unlikely. Inflated expectations - when finally deflated - can be devastating. One need only recall the ominous precedent of July 1968!

And, apart from such specifically neuralgic issues, there remains the larger problematic - illustrated in the responses to the pre-synodal survey - of the communication gap between the Church's vision of marriage and family life and the experience of contemporary couples. The intervention of the Australian married couple at yesterday's session was surprising only in that they said what they said in that setting. But what they actually said should hardly have been much of a surprise. "Our faith in Jesus was important to us. We went to Mass and looked to the Church for guidance. Occasionally we looked at Church documents but they seemed to be from another planet with difficult language and not terribly relevant to our own experiences." 

It will take more than a Synod to bridge this gap - this inter-planetary gap! But somehow a beginning must be made, a beginning which both responds boldly to a new social situation and also is faithful to God's plan for his creation.

In circumstances such as those in which the Church now finds itself, she must all the more trust in her Founder's promise to remain with the Church forever and in his promise that the Holy Spirit really will guide the Church wherever it needs to go.

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