Category Archives: synod

Writing straight with our crooked lines: #Synod15, family, and the hot issues.

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 vĂ¹, 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.


Reaction to yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on marriage

Scrolling through Facebook last night, I felt compelled to share Father Jim Martin’s post on the Supreme Court decision in support of gay marriage because it captured what I had been thinking, not just about gay marriage but about the response Jesus would have his followers take toward anyone who was lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise.

One friend responded with some happy surprise that a Catholic priest would take such a “Jesus-like” position. Another, who knows the Church better, pointed out that there is still work to do, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops took a very different approach, calling the Supreme Court decision a tragic error. Which is really disappointing, but probably not that surprising. Earlier this week, Vatican Radio interviewed Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, which is preparing to host the pope as part of the World Meeting of Families in September. If you listen to Archbishop Chaput’s interview, you find the same mindset as Father Martin’s: focus on spreading the love of Jesus and let the other stuff work itself out.

The new bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, appointed like Chaput by Pope Francis, talks in his initial interview about the need for a church that “banishes judgmentalism.” While he doesn’t specifically address gay marriage, his point sure contrasts with the USCCB statement.

Rocco Palma, author of the blog Whispers in the Loggia, has as expected the most comprehensive coverage of statements by the bishops, jointly and individually. Beyond his initial post, which trends toward the USCCB approach, he pulls excerpts of newer statements on his Twitter feed, accessible from his site. There is some variety, and my guess is that there is an overall trend toward moderation and a greater emphasis of love for LGBT Catholics than there was a few years ago. But there is work to do on the “banish judgmentalism” front. 

While the conference in Philadelphia in September is a global one, it will be worth tracking how this issue plays out there.

“I’m sticking with Jesus”


Is anyone else finding it relevant that as the Church leadership discusses rules on divorce and remarriage, contraception, homosexuality and other family issues, the daily readings from Galatians, in which Paul rails against the congregation for falling for false prophets who undercut the power of the gospel of grace by insisting that followers have to obey the law in full? No? Just me?

Last week, talking about the synod, Cardinal Pell of Australia told the press that on divorce, “I’m sticking with Jesus.”

Well. It’s true that in Mark 10:11-12, Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

But in Matthew 19:9, Jesus throws in a caveat: in cases of unchastity, it appears, remarriage isn’t adultery.

And in John 8, Jesus is asked what to do with a woman caught in adultery. His response, as you know, is to challenge he who is without sin to cast the first stone. And when nobody dares, He tells her to “go and from now on do not sin any more.” No big penitential rite. No paperwork. Just go, do better.

But I think rather than argue over which of those versions “counts,” Pope Francis would rather focus on a couple other stories: in John 4, Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman (the conversation itself breaking cultural norms), asking for water from her and telling her “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” And only after she begs him for this living water does he raise the issue of her five husbands. And then, he does so with the effect, not that she goes and gets four annulments, but that she recognizes him as a prophet, runs into town, and tells everyone she sees to come see this prophet, with a result that many Samaritans in the town become believers.

Maybe the question we should be asking about Church teaching is, does it have this kind of result? Or does it get in the way of spreading the gospel?

All About Expectations

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.

Francis’ Focus on the Family

Slight departure from my too infrequent posts on Evangelii Gaudium, about which much more needs to be said.

This week’s news is personal and local for me, as Pope Francis announced an a series of meetings by bishops (called synods) on the topic of the family. One remarkable thing is that he asked all families to pray for the meetings. His announcement came via a letter addressed simply “Dear families,” which you can read in its entirety (it is short) on the Vatican website.

While I have not gotten to this point in The Joy of the Gospel, the humility of Francis in asking for prayers from regular families, and his promise to include lay Catholics in the proceedings, shows a theme apparent from the beginning of his papacy that spiritual wisdom and faith lies with all believers and not just with priests.

Incidentally, if the pope wants me, I’m all in for this process. Especially since I help (very little, and insufficiently,) with marriage prep at my church. Just putting it out there.

But beyond the synod announcement comes news from my very own diocese, St. Petersburg, Florida, where Bishop Robert Lynch had the audacity to follow directions and implement a broad survey of the faithful in his care as requested by the Pope. Apparently, this isn’t what most of his US colleagues did. And apparently, the Catholic press was surprised that he was so direct in reporting the results. Here, see?

If you’re wondering, here’s a link to Bishop Lynch’s actual blog post. And are the results themselves. All worth reading.

Since you may have heard some of this, I figured it would be helpful to put all the resources in one place. More on the synod as news breaks. Back to your irregularly and infrequently scheduled blog.