Marriage and Family: The Church at the Crossroads

The Synod on the Family to be celebrated in October 2015 will be very different in comparison with all the previous Synods of the Catholic Church. It will be so, but to a certain degree we can say it has already been so. In February 2014 Cardinal Walter Kasper delivered his famous report on the Gospel of the Family to the Consistory of Cardinals, thereby initiating discussion within the Church at large. Nothing like that had ever happened in the past. During this lengthy period of time many have been those who have expressed their views: individual cardinals and bishops, episcopal conferences, theologians, associations and movements, intellectuals and persons active in the apostolate, ordinary people and improvised parties with views to expound. In the minds of some people this was a positive fact that enabled open discussion to take place within the Church. In the minds of others, however, it was detrimental cacophony that assimilated debate in the Church to what transpires in civil society and the world of entertainment, thereby distorting its sense. The Holy Father had summoned the Synod Fathers to Parresia, to the frankness stemming from the sharing of the same faith. In many cases, however, it is difficult to deny that more than parresia it proved to be vociferous chatter, purposefully provocative statements, preliminary condemnation of suspected foes, launching of ultimatums, and the assumption of tactical positions in an effort to condition both the outcome of the Extraordinary Synod of 2014 and the entire synodal process in general. Moreover, far from being excluded is the fact that many faithful may have been scandalized by statements made by bishops and cardinals, which were dictated by synod-related political tactics and contrary to what the Church has always taught.

As part of the process leading up to the Synod dioceses were entrusted with the task of consulting the faithful. While the intention might have been to foster the involvement of the faithful regarding the themes of the Synod, people actually had the impression it was a “grassroots” survey, a very unusual practice in the Catholic Church and not really in conformity with its hierarchical nature. In any case, these Catholic opinion polls exposed their flank to instrumental use: in many dioceses the actual participants were very few in number, but their opinion was projected as that of the majority.  

This brings us to the Ordinary Synod of October 2015 completely worn out by a myriad of interviews, conferences and contra conferences, declarations and corrected versions thereof, positions taken in a high profile fashion, statements made by bishops venturing far out in the forefront, and other bishops stock-still in dogma as it has always stood. Thereby created have been the conditions for a real danger: the replacement of the real Synod with a virtual Synod. Proposed anew has been the issue that emerged with Vatican II. Many people fear that no matter what will be the final document approved by the Holy Father, the real effects of this synodal process are already being felt and will leave traces in any case. In other words, this phase of confrontation and debate has permitted the initiation of pastoral practices and de facto doctrinal revisions that already constitute a real outcome of the Synod, and it will be difficult to revert all this if the Synod’s conclusions were to prove to be different.

This enables us to see that the first core theme of the Synod in October is the Synod itself and the category of “synod-ness”, with the need to sterilize its meaning of categories that belong to today’s society, to secular democratic debate or the entertainment society, and have nothing at all to do with the Catholic vision.

Likewise emerging from all this is the fact that the Synod will have to tackle the relationship between doctrine and pastoral praxis, even though, in light of the magnitude of the issue, there is no way of knowing if it will do so. As far as this specific theme is concerned, the Church is very divided. And yet it is a fundamental theme because it involves what we understand by dogmas of the Church, Catholic Tradition, and the Church’s relationship with the world.  If there is an eternally valid doctrinal nucleus ever equal to itself, doctrine comes before pastoral praxis. Not in the sense that the latter must merely be the application of the former, but in the sense that pastoral praxis receives light and guidance from that doctrinal nucleus. If, however, the dogmatic and doctrinal nucleus is historical and changes in time, there is no absolute Catholic viewpoint and the Church will just have to narrate its own life in critical confrontation and debate with other narrations, and with them interpret changing situations. In this case pastoral praxis in the sense of being present in situations, listening to people and accompanying them receives priority over doctrine. During the 2015 Synod the issue of the relationship between doctrine and pastoral praxis will be tackled as the relationship between truth and mercy.  Having mercy come before truth, however, entails the danger of replacing the mercy of God exercised in the truth of the Sacraments with our mercy as pastoral agents. In fact, doctrine is not abstraction; it is life. As we can see, these are far from minor matters, and the opinion poll conducted among the faithful cannot really provide that much helpful input.   

During discussion at the Synod, the dogmatic and doctrinal nucleus in its relations with pastoral praxis will naturally have to do first and foremost with matrimony and the family, but Catholic dogma is a whole and if one brick is moved there, another brick moves somewhere else.  The issue of permitting civilly remarried divorced persons to the Eucharist  has quite  justly assumed great importance, almost as if it were the sole theme of the Synod, precisely because it does touch upon this dogmatic and doctrinal nucleus. If remarried divorced persons are admitted to the Eucharist after some sort of ‘penitential’ itinerary, yet to be invented ex novo in terms of pastoral praxis and discipline, but without abandoning their sinful situation, there can be no repentance and it will become possible for them to receive the Eucharist in a condition of notorious and public sin. Undermined at that point would be the sacramental nature and essence of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and hence all the sacraments. Moreover, neither adultery nor the exercise of sexuality outside matrimony would be considered grave sins any longer. This would pave the way towards a conception of the human body as an instrument, which is what current sex ideologies want, and no one in the Church would speak about chastity any more, without taking it for granted that people still talk about it. Changed at that point would have to be Church doctrine regarding engagement, sexual relations prior to matrimony, birth control, masturbation, and same sex relations as well. The Church would have to revisit its own conception of family sexual morality and rewrite the Humanae vitae of Paul VI, as well as the Familiars consortio and the  Veritatis splendor of John Paul II. In so doing, however, the Church would have to revisit morality as a whole, and not only one part of it. For example, disappearing would be the notion of intrinsece mala, that is to say those actions – for example, adultery and sexual relations against nature – which always and in all circumstances (semper et ad semper) constitute an evil and must never be committed. In so doing, the Church would forego natural morals since the notion of intrinsece malum was proper to Socrates and Antigone, and belongs to the body of natural moral law confirmed and defended by the Church. Foregoing natural moral law in a definitive manner, however, entails revisiting the relationship between nature and grace, the relationship between Catholicism and other religions, as well as those with the lay world of the Gentiles.

As we can see, the landslide would be enormous, and it is astonishing that issues of such importance have been treated in the Church during this lengthy pre-Synod phase in a manner not always fitting, and at times in a approximate and even uncouth way.

The list of themes and issues I have highlighted above does not exhaust the range of questions to be dealt with by the Synod, which have to do with many other aspects of family life as set forth in the Instrumentum Laboris. Nonetheless, they do constitute the fundamental nuclei of the question, and likewise dependent thereupon is the approach to other problems. Consider, for example, themes falling within the Social Doctrine of the Church, such as the issues of demography or labor, a family salary or the social activism of families, family policies or family welfare. All these arguments have to be tackled not only from a fully Catholic vision of the family, but also with the fullness of Catholic dogma behind said vision. Once the sacramental nature/essence of the sacraments has been sapped, the Social Doctrine of the Church fades away since it is based on the evangelical requirement to “order secular realities to God” and purify nature with the supernatural. This is why the theme of the relationship between the Church and the world will be at the center of attention at the Synod. When the Synod is over we will find out whether the Church still has a word and a praxis of salvation for the world, a salvation coming from the eternal and which bursts into history from outside it, of if the Church is an equal partner with all other worldly realities in the same quest for a truth it does not possess, but with respect to which it challenges itself and asks questions of itself. We will know if Jesus Christ is the Response or only a question.

Stefano Fontana