I have a difficult enough time defending my own words and actions. It’s a new and disconcerting experience for me to be asked to defend the words, writings, and actions of the entire Church Catholic. Nevertheless, I find that often times well meaning friends and family outside of the Catholic Church will ask me to attempt to explain the Pope’s latest interview, or, in this case, the Synod on the Family. Well, you asked for it.
Over the last couple of weeks there has been a tidal wave of media coverage regarding the Synod on the Family; largely because Pope Francis has gone out of his way to make sure that the entire proceedings were presented with complete transparency. Pope Francis encouraged participants to speak freely, prayed for the gift of parresia (a Greek term meaning openness); and then allowed for daily press briefings, made public the interim report, published the working groups notes, and disclosed the participants vote counts on the final document. All this transparency is good – and bad.
There has been a lot of confusion. Part of this stems from the fact that the media covering the event has their own obvious agenda when reporting on anything Catholic. Part of this stems from the differing views amongst the bishops on how the Church is to pastorally address such issues as homosexuality, and whether those who have been divorced and remarried could be readmitted to the sacrament of communion without an annulment.
For those observing from the outside it has appeared to be a synod deeply divided. Liberal bishops versus conservative bishops. Individual conscience versus Church authority. Truly, a tale of two synods.
For many of the Catholic faithful, myself included, there came a moment in the proceedings that I will call a “hippocratic moment”; a moment when I was suddenly no longer concerned with any possible good that might come from the synod, but instead I was feverishly praying that the bishops would, “First (and foremost) do no harm!”
There has been a lot of talk about “gradualism”, with many people attempting to equate the word with “progressivism.” In other words, they understand gradualism to mean that the Church is slowly – gradually – moving away from orthodoxy and towards a more progressive, and indeed a more liberal stance on issues such as divorce and homosexuality. Gradualism sounds a lot like relativism – no?
Actually, gradualism is a principle that has been at work in the Christian Church from it’s very beginning. Gradualism is a principle of Catholic moral theology which encourages people to grow closer to God and His plan for their lives while acknowledging that sanctification is a long and slow process of small steps, rather than expecting individuals to jump from initial conversion to perfection in a single step.
St. Paul speaks of it in this way, “I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”1 To be clear, we don’t leave people where they are at, but we do realize that we must encourage as much as we exhort, and that we must try and help them to take the small steps that will bring them closer and closer to Christ.
The law of graduality aside, there were a minority of bishops in the synod who were pushing for a more liberal agenda. And the midterm report released by the synod seemed unduly influenced by this minority viewpoint. There was talk of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to return to the sacrament of the Eucharist on a case by case basis after an appropriate period of penance, and a section that read,
“Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?” The report also said that,“Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners,”
While it is important to evaluate how the Church welcomes those who have strayed from the teachings of Christ, it is also important to keep in mind the words of Archbishop Charles Chaput who said that, “None of us are welcomed on our own terms in the Church. We are welcomed on Jesus’ terms, that’s what it means to be a Christian. You submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching. You don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.”
Cardinal Wilfred Napier had the following to say, “[M]edia reaction to the document — some of which called the report a ‘stunning’ change in the Church’s approach to homosexuals — has caused such an upset among the synod fathers.” He added: “We’re now working from a position that’s virtually irredeemable. The message has gone out that this is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying, and it’s not what we’re saying at all,” He went on to say, “No matter how we try correcting that, and this is my experience with the media, once it’s out there in the public, there’s no way of retrieving it.”
“Just like you, I was surprised that it was published,” he told reporters. “You people got the document before we got it, so we couldn’t have possibly agreed on it.” Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was even more terse in his assessment calling the document, “Undignified, shameful” and “completely wrong.”
Having been raised Protestant, I have seen disagreements in churches before. I have seen ministers who push their agendas or try to reshape the gospel to fit the current cultural norms. I have seen division and church splits. I have grown up being well acquainted with the fallibility of the church.
It is an altogether new experience for me however to be a part of a Church indefectible.
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines indefectiblity in this way, “By this term is signified, not merely that the Church will persist to the end of time, but further, that it will preserve unimpaired its essential characteristics. The Church can never undergo any constitutional change which will make it, as a social organism, something different from what it was originally. It can never become corrupt in faith or in morals; nor can it ever lose the Apostolic hierarchy, or the sacraments through which Christ communicates grace to men. The gift of indefectibility is expressly promised to the Church by Christ, in the words in which He declares that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Having grown up outside of the Catholic tradition, this is a brand new area of faith for me. I have struggled previously with faith in God, now I must also struggle with faith in His Church. It is one thing to accept intellectually the promise that Christ gives to His Church that he will preserve her indefectible, it is another thing to hold to that faith in the midst of watching the synod disintegrate into a media debacle. Apparently I have entered into uncharted waters on my faith journey.
Last week I read an excellent article at the Patheos website that really spoke to me where I was at.
“In short, neither Progressive nor Reactionary dissenters really trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit or the indefectibility of the Church. Both believe the development of doctrine is, at bottom, not the Church coming to a deeper understanding of the will of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but a random collision of power and mere human will in which anything might happen and any ideology might become top dog depending on who is the strongest. And therefore, they believe it is all on them to (for Progressives) Change the Church into modern reflection of Liberal Values or (for Reactionaries) Save the Church from mutating into a ‘dark and false Church.’ Neither really believes the job of Savior of the Church has already been filled, so they need to make it happen.”2
But, apparently all my concern was for naught. Apparently the job of “Savior of the Church” has been filled, and Christ is still at work preserving His Church.
The synod’s final report was released last Saturday without any of the problematic areas reflected in the midterm report. It is a beautiful statement from the bishops of the Catholic Church to families everywhere – I highly recommend taking the time to read it.
Pope Francis’ speech at the close of the synod is also very much worth reading, and earned him a standing ovation from those attending. The last two millennia have proven time and again that Christ is still at work preserving His Church from error, but to witness the process firsthand is a new and disconcerting experience for me.
It is important to note, that none of what the synod discussed or the reports which they released are doctrinal in nature – as Cardinal Dolan reminds us, “Synods don’t change doctrine. Nobody changes doctrine. We believe that we’re given doctrine by God and our job is to faithfully and effectively pass it on,” he continued. Synods are more of a pastoral conversation of a family coming together to kind of give ourselves a report card on how we’re doing that and if we can do it better.”
Rather, we have merely been invited to listen in on the pastoral discussions surrounding the Church family as our bishops prepare for the larger synod next year to be followed ultimately by Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation. I can hardly wait!
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