For the next three or so weeks, the focus of the Church is off of Pope Francis and on the bishops gathered for the ordinary synod on the family. If this sounds like deja vù, it’s because last year bishops gathered for an extraordinary synod on the same topic (ordinary synods happen every three years; extraordinary ones are ones that don’t fit that schedule and are fairly rare in the 50 years of synodal history). Plus there was a World Meeting of Families in Philly last week. This synod should end with a document, and possibly from that document Francis will write an apostolic exhortation like the one that sort of launched this blog.
Lots of expectations about what could happen in this process. A path forward for divorced couples to fully rejoin the church? Softening on same sex marriage? Married priests?
First, let me suggest one of the most likely, and most potentially fruitful outcomes: a new commitment to more comprehensive marriage preparation that extends across the lifespan from youth through traditional marriage prep to ongoing continuing marital education, if you will. The Church has an exceptional story to tell about the sacrament of marriage that most members, much less non-members, don’t know about; Saint John Paul II made it, and the Theology of the Body in which it sits, the cornerstone of his theology. To fully inculcate that appreciation of what marriage can optimally, gracefully be, would require a significant rethinking of what catechesis is and how it’s delivered, and if the outcome were for even 1/2 of Catholic marriages to fully embrace the prefiguring of divine love that marriage can be, it could transform the church and the world.
This would be the easy part.
The tough questions are really two-fold: What does the Church do for those whose marriages have broken apart seemingly irrevocably? What does the Church do with exemplary marriages that don’t fit the template? (I think there is an argument for married priests, but I just don’t see it coming up in a significant way in this synod.)
On the first question: Pope Francis seems pretty clear on this front: the Church should do everything it can to embrace and welcome the broken, because they are merely more visible reminders of the brokenness we all face in our own way. The catch is, how do we balance hope – the hope that through God’s grace no relationship is truly irretrievable, no marriage completely over – and mercy – and with it the recognition that sending someone back into an unrepentantly toxic relationship is dangerous and unloving. That’s a pastoral challenge I hope the synod chews on a lot. The Catholic understanding of marriage is lofty enough that a “cheap grace” that gives up too early defrauds the recipients from a great gift – the strength that comes with fighting through hardship. But so many people, mostly women, have been damaged unspeakably by an ethic that is unrelenting in its call to keep returning to a bad relationship that the Church has to be sensitive to the need to protect its more vulnerable members.
If the first question is pastoral, the second is theological and historical. It was just the Sunday before last when Numbers and Mark both told of examples of God working through those who weren’t considered to be acceptable by the favored. In both cases, and in Acts’ history of the inclusion of Gentiles, God clearly sided with the unexpected against convention.
If there are remarried couples who are truly modeling the beautiful mutual self-giving of divine love prefigured in marriage, should we in the Church be turning them away from full communion?
And what about this? I know same-sex couples who have been better examples of commitment, self-sacrifice and love for longer than I have been. While they, like many opposite-sex couples, have been unable to procreation biologically, they have created life in their service to the greater good and have nurtured life through adoption, fostering, and friendship. They do not fit the mold. They will never conform to the template of sacramental marriage the Church holds today. Just as the Gentiles who received the Holy Spirit did not conform to the template of Jesus’ first followers. Our call as the Church, as was that of the early disciples, is to look not for poll numbers or market share but for evidence of the working of God’s love, discern its authenticity, and honor it at the risk of sacrificing our own assumptions.