Wednesday, October 29, 2014
The Synod on the Family -- Putting the brakes on Francis' reforms
October 27, 2014
Francis' reforms seem to have shipwrecked or, at least, gotten stuck at the Synod held in Rome October 5 to 19, which brought together about 200 bishops from all over the world to reflect on conception, the Catholic Church's attitude and pastoral practice on different sexual orientations, different models of family and other questions linked to it. Many of us, in and out of the Catholic Church, were hoping for a change of mentality, orientation and course on a theme that has been characterized by positions anchored in the past without any openness to the changes that have occurred in society in recent decades. But we were also aware of the obstacles that would get in the way and the risk that a stalemate would occur.
The first obstacle was the protagonists of the Synod themselves -- the bishops. What contributions could people make who aren't specialists on the subject and don't follow closely the specialized studies in the various disciplines that deal with the phenomenon of the family in all its complexity? People who, moreover, have renounced starting a family to devote themselves exclusively to the service of the Church. It's true that experts and married couples were invited, but with hardly any influence in the discussions and without a vote when it came time to approve the final proposals.
The second was the heritage of previous popes. Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI stayed rigidly settled in the traditional paradigm of the family and doctrine on sexuality and condemned family models that didn't fit the conservative image of "Christian" marriage. Paul VI, who was beatified last Sunday by Francis, condemned contraceptive methods in 1968 in the encyclical Humanae vitae, in clear opposition to the orientation of Vatican II which supported responsible parenthood and against the majority of the commission of scientists and theologians who were advising him and who supported the use of those methods to put into practice the conciliar principle of the aforementioned responsible parenthood. The encyclical caused one of the most serious ruptures between critical theologians and Christian movements and the Vatican and generated an atmosphere of profound malaise within the Church, which led to an attitude of justified collective disobedience of the papal guidelines both in theory and in practice.
In the apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio John Paul II already warned about the most worrisome signs on the subject the recent Synod discussed, among which he cited "the spread of divorce and of recourse to a new union, even on the part of the faithful; the acceptance of purely civil marriage in contradiction to the vocation of the baptized to 'be married in the Lord', the celebration of the marriage sacrament without living faith, but for other motives; the rejection of the moral norms that guide and promote the human and Christian exercise of sexuality in marriage."
Cardinal Ratzinger, as president of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed a very harsh letter in 1986 to the North American [sic] bishops in which he stated that the specific inclination of homosexual people, although not a sin in itself, was however a somewhat powerful tendency towards intrinsically evil behavior from the moral point of view. For that reason, the inclination itself should be considered objectively disordered. The document was a reaction against those of us who believed -- and still believe -- that opposing homosexual activity and their lifestyle is a form of unjust discrimination, and he dared to assert, denying the evidence, that the Church's attitude towards homosexuality didn't involve any discrimination at all but was seeking to defend the freedom and dignity of the individual.
Consistent with this approach, Ratzinger asked the bishops not to include in any pastoral program organizations of homosexual people without first making it clear that all homosexual activity is immoral, ordered them to withdraw all support for organizations that would try to subvert the teaching of the Catholic Church on this matter, prohibited the use of "Church property" as venues for activities of homosexual groups, and urged them to defend the value of marriage in the face of legislation supporting the demands of homosexual groups.
Around that time [sic], the Roman Congregation for Catholic Education published the Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations with regard to Persons with Homosexual Tendencies in view of their Admission to the Seminary and to Holy Orders, forbidding homosexuals from entering the seminary and attaining the priesthood. A ban that continues today to the letter.
It wasn't easy in the Synod to break away from this tendency to exclude homosexual people and divorced and remarried Catholics since many of the Synod fathers were educated -- or rather instructed -- in it.
A third obstacle was the creation, from the beginning of the preparation for the Synod, of an "opposition front" to any change led by Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, President of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who was appointed by Benedict XVI to maintain orthodoxy and avoid any deviation in doctrinal and moral matters. He rushed to write a book on the family, recalling traditional doctrine, which he considers unmovable, and he signed a document with other cardinals against the reforms Francis tried to introduce on that subject.
But it wasn't all inertia, obstacles, and problems. There were also signs of openness. It was Pope Francis himself who, soon after being elected, propitiated a new atmosphere and opened the debate about the Church's attitude towards homosexuals and the access of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments. In the Synod itself, a climate of freedom reigned and the participants could express themselves without any type of restriction regarding the expression of their ideas. This atmosphere was favored by Francis who attended the sessions in an attitude of listening and without interfering in the discussions.
Already during the return flight from Brazil in July 2013, when asked on the plane about his attitude towards homosexuals, he responded in this manner: "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?...No one should marginalize these people for this, they must be integrated into society."
On a different occasion, he suggested the possibility of reviewing the current ban on access for divorced people who have remarried and adopting a less excluding attitude than the current one. There were cardinals who moved in the direction of the Pope and showed a more open and positive attitude towards change, including Cardinal Kasper who, in response to the Cardinals who signed the conservative document, said that "Catholic truth is not a closed system" and supported the access of divorced and remarried people to the Eucharist, while imposing very strict conditions:
"A divorced and remarried person: 1. if he repents of his failure in the first marriage, 2. if he has clarified the obligations of the first marriage, if it is definitively ruled out that he could turn back, 3. if he cannot abandon without further harm the responsibilities taken on with the new civil marriage, 4. if however he is doing the best he can to live out the possibilities of the second marriage on the basis of the faith and to raise his children in the faith, 5. if he has a desire for the sacraments as a source of strength in his situation, should we or can we deny him, after a period of time in a new direction, of "metanoia," the sacrament of penance and then of communion?"
His answer is yes, but with important nuances and details: "This possible way would not be a general solution. It is not the wide road of the masses, but rather the narrow path of what is probably the smaller segment of the divorced and remarried, those sincerely interested in the sacraments. Should not the worst be avoided precisely here? (that is the loss of the children with the loss of a whole second generation)...A civil marriage like the one described with clear criteria should be distinguished from other forms of irregular cohabitation such as secret marriages, common law marriages, especially fornication, the so-called wild marriages. Life isn't just black and white. In fact, there are many nuances."
The methodology itself that was followed in preparation for the Synod allowed us to harbor hope for change. The Vatican sent a survey to all Christians about the issues that would be addressed by the episcopal assembly to know the opinions of the different Catholic communities in the world on the subject. Most of the answers were in favor of more openness and bringing the doctrine on the family up to date in accordance with the changes that have happened in recent decades.
But this atmosphere of openness was soon met with the retort of Cardinal Muller who appealed to dogmatic and legal arguments to oppose even the possibility of discussing the subject: "If the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible."
It's true that in the Synod there have been important changes in the analysis of the situation of the family and the criticism of its ills, in the attitudes and the language used. Proposal 8 does a good analysis of the most serious situations families are going through today: discrimination against women and growing gender violence towards them, too often within the family, sexual abuse of boys and girls, penalization of motherhood instead of considering it a value, genital mutilation in some cultures, the negative effects of war, terrorism and organized crime on families, the growing phenomenon of street children in the big cities and their suburbs.
The attitude towards civil marriages and cohabiting couples is more understanding and welcoming since, it says, positive elements should be found in them, and in the attitude towards homosexuals. It shows the need to welcome people in difficult situations such as divorce and find new pastoral paths for wounded families, not based on "single solutions."
But on the fundamental issues, there has been no change whatsoever. Two examples. Proposal 52 describes the two tendencies of the Synod fathers on the possibility -- only the possibility -- that divorced and remarried couples be able to have access to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist -- the one that favors keeping the current prohibition rules in force, and the one that supports allowing access to the sacraments, but with many restrictions -- not in a generalized manner but in a few special situations and under very specific conditions. Moreover, the eventual access to the sacraments should be preceded by a "penitential journey" under the responsibility of the diocesan bishop. Even with all these restrictions, that proposal was rejected by 74 of the Synod fathers and failed to reach a two-thirds majority.
Another example is Proposal 55 on homosexuals. It supports the need for a respectful welcome and non-discriminating treatment towards them but it is blunt in its rejection of gay marriage, even to the point of excluding them from God's plan on the family and marriage. Nevertheless, the proposal was rejected by 62 Synod fathers and also failed to reach a two-thirds majority.
To stop the logical pessimistic feeling the Synod has left in those who had hoped the openness would be real now, it has been stated, as a consolation, that this Synod is not the last word and one must wait for the one in October 2015 which will develop definitive conclusions on the family. I ask: Will the panorama then change and will unfettered access of divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation without bias or caveats and the recognition of homosexual marriage be granted as is done in the Anglican Church, or will they go back to using the ambiguous "yes, but no" expressions so characteristic of ecclesiastical language? Or will the response be left ad kalendas graecas?
Will they go on thinking in legal categories or go along with the rhythm of life and tend to the real problems of the family? Will the answers be sought through appealing to the Code of Canon Law or through dialogical reasoning? Will those who are deemed sinners for having begun a new common life project and started a new family continue to be driven out from the Church community and from the Eucharist which, according to Vatican II, is the center of Christian life?
Will the different sexual identities -- gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals -- that in fact exist among Christians as they do in society, be respected and acknowledged in the Catholic Church? Will the official Church walk at the pace of society and be sensitive, as John XXIII asked, to the signs of the times, among which is the explicit recognition of different models of family, or will it once again miss the train of history?
And one final thought on a realistic note. I think that deeming the access of divorced and remarried people and homosexual couples to the Eucharist a problem only exists in the minds of the hierarchs, not in practice. And denying such access is in the Code of Canon Law, not in the life of the Christian communities. Many Christian communities worldwide (parishes, grassroots communities, couples' groups, etc.) don't even raise the issue. Divorced and remarried Christians and gay couples are welcomed unreservedly in those communities to which they belong and they participate in the sacraments like the rest of the believers. And they do it quite naturally, without any guilt complex, without consulting or asking permission from the clergy and bishops or wondering whether they're acting according to the discipline of the Church, without undergoing any "penitential journey." They've already had enough and continue to have penance in their lives without adding yet more.