I kinda thought my next post wouldn’t be until Pope Francis published his encyclical on the environment, but I realized that there’s been a lot of attention about this week’s extraordinary synod of bishops on the topic of the family, and my non-Catholic, was-Catholic, and Catholic-but-busy friends were aware and not necessarily sure about it. So let me throw a few things out there.
First of all, I’m hugely grateful that the Church leaders are looking at Catholic family life as in crisis and need of rethinking. I play a small role in our parish’s marriage prep process, and that fact alone should be enough to tell you that we need to do better. I have talked a couple into delaying if not calling off their wedding, but I have also seen couples who seemed very much on the right track have their marriages quickly fall apart. It is horribly painful for them, and I feel like I and the Church have failed them.
Second, let me say that I have not been watching live streams of the goings on, only monitoring some news coverage, so I am by no means an expert on the process or the likely outcome of this meeting. But I can share a few things and my best hope for the process.
In the run-up to this meeting, the interviews with participants have all included a statement about how, yes, it’s great that the media is interested in this BUT we need to set expectations. This will not be a groundbreaking meeting, nor will it be a duke-it-out debate. And they are right. But the “lower expectations” message has at least three levels, and you need to understand them all.
First of all, there’s the level of process. This extraordinary synod is called that because it’s not a regularly scheduled meeting, not because it’s going to do earth-shaking stuff. It decidedly is not, from a process perspective, because the goal of this meeting is to set the agenda for the ORDINARY synod that is already scheduled next year. If you work for a big enough organization, the “meeting to plan what we will talk about at the meeting” phenomenon is painfully normal. That’s what this is.
The second “low expectations” message is about doctrine. The participants have said that this is about pastoral issues, not doctrinal ones. What that means is, among other things, the Pope and cardinals are not going to wrap up this process by saying “Remember all that stuff about contraception/gay marriage/polygamy? Never mind. We’re changing those rules.” So if your threshold on “worth reconsidering the Catholic Church” is for the Church to say the sacrament of Catholic marriage is open to same-sex couples, I don’t see the synod clearing that bar or even attempting it.
Now, the third “low expectations” message, I think, is more questionable. Some of the more traditional bishops have made noises that, whatever the synod is about, it’s primarily about being more effective at educating those in the pews on what Catholic teaching is on family issues. Essentially, at it’s most humble, this line of argument says that Church leaders just need to get better at communicating the truth. (At its least humble, it says that we parishioners need to get better at hearing and obeying the truth.)
My expectation is that this line won’t win. Already in this synod, it seems pretty clear that the participants are invested in focusing on how to effectively share the love of God and minister to people in all life settings, and there seems to be a recognition that just as we are all children of God, there are elements of God’s grace and love in relationships that don’t quite align with the Catholic ideal of sacramental marriage. Even the first day included some detailed and pointed discussion about how Church leaders need to adopt more thoughtful language – labeling believers as “living in sin” or “fundamentally disordered” puts up some pretty significant barriers to evangelizing. That may sound simple, but it’s still progress.
Here’s where I realistically (I think) hope this ends up: at the end of the ordinary synod, the Church reaffirms that the full sacramentality of marriage is intact as the ideal for family life and we need to do more to help Catholics understand all that that entails and offers (which is WAY more than simply one man, one woman, saving yourself for marriage, being open to children by not using artificial contraception, and not divorcing; if you’re not familiar with the Theology of the Body, read up on it). At the same time, there is a statement that we are all on a path to holiness, and we as Church need to support each other in that journey not only by holding up the ideal but loving each other in the imperfect and real as a way to encourage progress and spiritual growth. That means putting love before judgement in all the areas where the Catholic Church currently is perceived to have it the other way around, even while encouraging fellow believers to make the next right choice.
Pope Francis’ most famous statement of his early pontificate was about gay clergy: “Who am I to judge them if they are seeking The Lord in good faith?” My cautious expectations are for more in that vein such as:
-Recognizing that God’s love can manifest itself, if imperfectly, in same-sex and non-marital relationships. While these aren’t marriage in the sacramental sense, they are still of value as opportunities to grow in love.
-Acknowledging that, even if the choice of artificial contraception is against Church teaching, couples who are deliberate and prayerful in approaching that choice may grow in their appreciation of the holiness of marriage through the process.
-(This might be the toughest) Affirming that only God truly knows the state of a person’s soul, and that, just as the sacrament of Eucharist was instituted with a group of apostles who were themselves sinners, and as it is a sign of God’s grace in sanctifying us as imperfect creatures, all who believe in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine and who confess the Catholic faith should be welcome to receive it. Even those who have divorced and remarried.
Ok, maybe my expectations are too high, too.