Monday, October 13, 2014

Synod's First Document: We Must Meet and Lead the Wounded to the Fullness of Christian Living

After a long week of speculation and, among more conservative Catholics, some trepidation, the first "official" document from this year's Extraordinary Synod on the Family  is finally here.  Suffice it to say, there is a lot of reaction and analysis already out there, and we'll continue to get more daily for the foreseeable future.

In general, the document is encouraging.  There is a lot of good in it.  While we will see a lot of point by point analysis over the coming days, the most important thing to take from it is that the bishops want to encourage a gradual approach to leading those in difficult family situations into the faith.  This has been somewhat expected, as what little information the public was getting out of the synod during the first week was that gradualism had become a very popular topic of conversation among the bishops.  Not unjustly, concerns were raised that this may signal the return of a somewhat dissident idea, condemned by Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical Familiaris Consortio (34), that God's law could be applied at different levels to different people because of their circumstances.  Fortunately for those so concerned, the document actually references John Paul's very condemnation of the idea and seems instead to suggest the view of gradualism promoted by the sainted pope.

In fact, this "law of gradualism" is ultimately the very theme of the entire document, finding its expression in virtually every paragraph.  The synod fathers are saying this: when a person is living a lifestyle that has fallen short of the teachings of Christ and the Church, it does no good to point out his sin and move on.  On a human level it makes the person suffer and feel excluded, and on a divine level it does nothing to lead the person closer to Christ and to living a moral lifestyle.  Rather, we must go out to meet the person where he is at (like the father in the parable of the prodigal son) and from that standpoint try to lead him away from sin and into the fullness of living Christ's teaching.  

Some may be concerned that this would be an implicit softening of the Church's stance against sin, but this concern is unfounded.  It's very foundation is the very Catholic and very traditional idea that sin darkens the mind and enslaves us, along with the also deeply Catholic notion that the concrete human circumstances of our lives have a profound impact on our spiritual lives.  A couple cohabiting stably for 3 years with a daughter very likely do not have any ability to meaningfully understand the Church's reasons for rejecting this lifestyle as moral, and their basic needs of paying the bills, putting food on the table, and caring for a young child make it very difficult for them to see a way to make radical moral changes even if they can begin to really grasp the importance of Christ's teaching on the matter.  Instead of telling such people that they are in sin and acting as though our job is done, we must accompany them along what is often a very long path towards Christ, meeting them where they are at and helping to move them to the fullness of Christian morals.

This idea is not new.  It's the very essence of evangelization.  The Jesuits who first brought the gospel to Central America in the 16 and 1700s did not make landfall and immediately begin pointing out the problems with the natives' marriages.  They began by introducing these new peoples to Jesus and gradually inviting them to conform their lives to him.  St. Paul did not preach to the Greeks an all or nothing Gospel; he began by presenting Christ in the context of their own experience and inviting them to see in him the fulfillment of their own spiritual beliefs.  The author to the Hebrews clearly took a similar approach, providing for his audience first "milk" before expecting them to be capable of taking "solid food."  Indeed, it's how even very traditional and conservative Catholic commentators and clerics encourage the laity to evangelize today: invite friends to Mass, be open to answering their questions, preach by example, don't push too hard, etc.

While the concept is certainly an old one, I do think its an area that many very faithful Catholics have as a bit of a blind spot today.  We see such sin and disregard for Christ and the faith of the Church all around us that we tend to lock down very hard against it - sometimes at the expense of being willing to allow Christ to lead lost souls to him in his own time.  Put another way, in a world which lives so little of the Lord's teachings we're so concerned with making sure everybody knows and follows what he has taught that we often forget that we need to help a great many people even care what he has taught in the first place - not to mention helping them realize that he cares about them.  Ultimately, that's what the synod fathers are calling us to do.

That doesn't mean that any process of building up a Church-wide attitude of leading people gradually will go smoothly.  I suspect that it will be similar to the process of implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council - which may scare many.  Ultimately, the degree to which an approach like this can be faithful has a lot to do with the faithfulness and dedication of the priests and bishops implementing it.  A faithful and tireless priest encouraged to approach things this way will be able to shepherd many souls to Christ.  On the other hand, dissident or more poorly formed priests will find it very easy to use such practice as an excuse to teach people that it is OK to live outside of Church teaching.  Fortunately, it is well established that the priesthood seems to be emerging from the crisis of the past, with more and more faithful priests being ordained each year.  As always, pray for our priests!

That said, the only truly concerning part of the document is truly concerning because it seems to suggest a widespread misunderstanding of mercy that I have written about previously.  At the end of the first part of the document, we read this very confused statement: "This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy."  Thoughtful readers will immediately see the problem.  In suggesting that the doctrine of the faith be presented "alongside" mercy, the it is implied that mercy is somehow not a part of the doctrine of the faith.  This is troubling in many ways.  First, the doctrine of the faith is mercy in its essence.  It is rife with mercy.  It is all about mercy.  Each and every teaching of the Church is nothing less than a declaration of mercy.  To riff on St. Paul, it is mercy to teach that divorce and remarriage is wrong because if not for the law, I would not have known it wrong.  It is also mercy because within that declaration of remarriages moral character is the ever-present offer of forgiveness.  More troubling, though, is a clear and glaring gnostic sense: God's traditional teaching is severe, but the Church must express Christ's "new message" of mercy.  

In any case, it's important to realize that this relatio, as its called, is nothing more than a summary of what's been discussed by the bishops.  It doesn't teach anything, it has no decisions, and it has no real binding weight of any kind.  What it does do is relay a general sense of the way that the bishops at the synod are thinking.  How are they thinking?  They are thinking about reaching out to people who have not lived up to Christ's teachings and trying to walk with them along a path back to fully embracing them.  This is good.  The synod, the discussion, and the spiritual battle are not over yet, however.  Continue to pray ever more fervently for the Spirit to Guide the Church into the way of salvation!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Extraordinary Synod, Justice and Mercy

As the extraordinary synod on the family presses forward this week, one theme has emerged as clearly predominant: that of the balancing of justice and mercy. From the writing of bloggers, journalists, and priests to comments given by numerous bishops who are actually participating in the synod, it has taken center stage as the great conundrum of the gathering.

God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful at one and the same time, so it is repeated again and again, but we are only human and so have a much more difficult time trying to uphold the teachings of Christ on marriage while being merciful to those who have failed to live up to them.  Because the Church's current practice of denying Communion to such persons is seen as emphasizing justice, those posing the question suggest we have a good grasp on justice. Incorporating mercy into the picture is said to be a much more difficult task because it seems to oppose justice.

But there is in fact absolutely no difficulty or challenge to this question.  None whatsoever.

In fact, the question suggests that many do not seem to understand justice as well as they think. In justice, God recognizes sin and holds people accountable for it.  What he does not do is unwaveringly hold a sin against a person who has turned from it.  Unfortunately, this is most often our human approach. A person who kills another is forever known as a "murderer," even if he should regret his crime and never commit the evil again. During the priestly sex abuse scandals, some priests confessed to years' old sins, declared that they had repented and not perpetrated in decades, and resigned as active ministers to go live alone in a spirit of penance. Protesters followed them to their new homes to ensure that they would never be free of hearing condemnation. Countless other examples, both as serious and less important, could easily be pulled from the life of any one of us.  Fortunately, his ways are not our ways, and so in God justice means that while sin is indeed addressed, it is not held stubbornly against a person without end - even in the tiniest of ways.

In mercy, God forgives those who have recognized sin and decided to turn from it freely and without exception. He requires no atonement before he will forgive (Jesus has already made the atonement in any case), he does not wait for the sinner to be perfect, and he even reaches out to those in sin to offer them forgiveness before they ask for it or even realize that they need it. However, he does not ignore or neglect ongoing sin.  On the contrary, he does everything that he can to lead us out of that sin and away from the darkness that it brings.  

So we see that just because God holds people accountable for sin, it doesn't mean he eternally and unwaveringly does so to those who try to sin no more. In fact, virtually nobody involved with the synod would question this fact - even the most left wing bishop or even a Unitarian would readily agree with the notion.  That question so ubiquitous in discussion of this synod is concerned with squaring this truth with mercy.  However, in exactly the same way that God's justice is concerned with whether a person ceases to sin, just because God forgives sins it doesn't mean that he doesn't hold people accountable for ongoing and persistent sin.  The concept is precisely the same: both God's mercy and his justice by their very nature take into account what a person is doing now regardless of what a person may have done in the past.

When we look at it from his perspective,  we begin to see that justice and mercy are in no way opposed, but complement and, if we may put it as such, have an a symbiotic relationship to one another. They make one another possible. Because in justice God holds us accountable for sin, his mercy can meaningfully pardon that sin.  Because in mercy God moves on from past sins of the repentant, his justice can be concerned with the reality of a person's present state rather than a past which does not define the person.  This is precisely why many of the saints and great theologians declared that in God justice and mercy are not separate;  they have often been described as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, in Aquinas' theology God is perfectly simple, meaning he has no "parts" but all of his characteristics are identifiable with one another. His love IS his truth, his truth IS his mercy, his mercy IS his justice. It fits pretty well with the Scripture's teaching that God is love and that God is truth and that God is life, etc, doesn't it?

To bring this down to that great attention-grabbing issue of the synod, what does this mean for divorced and remarried Catholics?  It means that the Church can very easily know how to be both just and merciful in these tragic situations. Invite those in marriages which contradict Jesus' teachings to try to live by those teachings. Do not allow a person's past sins to define him but look to his ongoing choice to sin or to strive after Christ. Indeed, one of the most common complaints from married and divorced Catholics has been that they feel as though they are defined by one mistake in the past.  Calling these people to live in continence with "second spouses" would, if done with a good explanation, help them to feel and understand that the Church does not care what they did then and that an effort to reject grave sin now is what matters. This would be perfectly just and merciful, as God is.  Of course, other than what truly is a dire need for more outreach and education for those in irregular marriages, this is largely how the Church currently practices.

I would suggest, then, that the real question is not how to balance justice with mercy - or even doctrine with pastoral care when we realize that in these conversations "pastoral" usually means "merciful" and "doctrine" is usually what people have meant when they have said "justice." Rather, the question is that age old question of how to bear the Cross that discipleship in Christ brings. To live in accord with Christ's teachings on marriage will bring suffering to the divorced and remarried - great suffering.  On a human level, this is something none of us wants to put on another person.  It is also true that telling remarried couples that their marriages are invalid makes them feel excluded and hurt. These cases even tug on the heartstrings of those who minister to these people, as not a few bishops have explicitly lamented over this past week of the synod.  The reason we find this all so difficult is not that the question of mercy and justice is complicated.  No, it is because the question is so simple that we know our answer to it must be to lay crosses onto the shoulders of our brothers and sisters whom we love.

There is great suffering here, and helping to shepherd and support and accompany people through it must be a key topic - the key topic - of discussion at the synod. I hope and pray that the bishops realize this and can improve the Church's efforts in this. We must all become Simon of Cyrenes in helping to bear the crosses of our once fallen brothers and sisters - but crosses which they must bear and which lead to redemption.  It would be the most important thing they could hope to do these few weeks!

Yet the profound difficulty of this question must not be confused with the very simple question of how mercy and justice relate. The great preacher and likely eventual blessed and saint Fulton Sheen famously said that any theology which attempts to skip Good Friday to get to the Resurrection, that is, any theology which rejects suffering in favor of an easier resolution, is a sign of Satan's work.  Let us pray that the synod fathers may realize that they must not step a foot down that road.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Insidious Trap of "Casual Dating"

Of the many communities and movements making up what is a very exciting contemporary landscape for young adult Catholics, the promotion of marriage and, of course, that whole dating process by which two people actually arrive at marriage is one of the most important and the most discussed.  Over the past decade or so, two particular approaches to the topic of dating have come to dominate the blogosphere and whatever might constitute the "watercooler" for devout 20-somethings (the perpetual adoration lobby?): Courtship and so-called "casual dating."  The emergence of both as a common topic of conversation seems to be predicated on the concern that young Catholics just don't date - however that might be defined - enough.

Casual-dating has been - at least in every circle I have been exposed to - by far the more popular of the two as far as ideas go.  In a recent post on the FOCUS blog, Therese Aaker adroitly lays out the argument in favor of the approach, hitting on all of the points that are commonly made by proponents.  I won't spend time reviewing them here; if you are unfamiliar with the idea then I highly encourage you to read her piece.  What I will do is explain why I could not possibly be more opposed to the idea and why indeed I think it is a bad one.

A very bad one.

First, casual dating greatly devalues the uniqueness and unrepeatable beauty of each human person. In his Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility, the indisputably most important theology of human relationships, Pope St. John Paul II describes how the mystery of a particular woman in a sense "calls" to a man, inviting him to delve into that mystery.  The importance of this mystery is a theme that he returns to often, and the identity of each person as an unrepeatable manifestation of God's love a key to the whole picture of man and woman.  From the standpoint of St. John Paul II's theology, a man chooses to pursue a woman because something about her has reached out and pulled him into her mystery.  From the standpoint of casual dating, a man chooses to pursue a woman because she has the right biology and happens to be Catholic. Not quite the same, is it?

To be fair, proponents of casual dating would argue that it's purpose is to allow men and women to get to know one another in a low pressure environment and so facilitate a connection that runs deeper than biology.  But this is not the point.  Just as the Church opposes many forms of fertility treatments such as IVF because every person has the dignity of deserving to come from the loving union of mother and father, every woman (or man) has the dignity of deserving to be pursued - even at the outset! - because of an attraction to the unique, unrepeatable person that they are.  No matter how we might try to look at it, being asked on a date because you meet the bare minimum requirements is demeaning.

Second, casual dating does not provide nearly the opportunity to get to know a person that normal dating after a period of acquaintanceship does.  I went on the first date with my now fiancee after having known her for about two and a half months.  In that time, I got to know some of her personality, her history and her interests just as any two friends or acquaintances do.  In short, I got to know her.  Having done so, something of her mystery called me to pursue her and now 10 months later, we are set to be married.  If I had asked her out without getting to know her at least a little bit first, I doubt things would have taken us to this point.

For one thing, the settings and course of discussion that two people can have over the course of a few dates - casual or not - are incredibly limited compared to just getting to know a person naturally.  There's only so much time, and short of going through a mechanical list of topics you are simply never going to be exposed to as much of a person in this way. Moreover, dating is awkward, no matter how much a person tries to think of it as "just a date."  At the end of the day, whether a person is seeing one individual for the next month or has dates with 3 different people over the course of a fortnight, the ultimate purpose is to find a spouse, and that is going to affect people.  Even having known Natalie for nearly 3 months before our first date, it was still awkward and a bit intimidating because even though we knew one date didn't mean we were committed to even "going steady" let alone marrying, marriage was still the ultimate purpose of that date.

Third, one of the central claims in support of casual dating, that it is lower pressure because its "just a date" is simply false.  As I mentioned above, marriage is the ultimate goal in dating, whether casual, "standard," or through courtship.  The knowledge that one has no commitment to a date on Tuesday and an upcoming evening with somebody else on Friday does nothing to change the fact that the purpose of the date on Tuesday is to help find a spouse.  Aaker puts it this way: "our attitude from the beginning should be, “Let’s just get to know each other and have fun..." but you're getting to know each other because you're looking for a spouse, not because you are looking for a new friend!  Put another way, casual dating proponents insist that it is lower pressure because people are not thinking specifically of marriage but only whether or not they wish to "pursue a relationship" with somebody.  Ahh, of course.  In regular dating, there's a lot of pressure because you're discerning marriage, but in casual dating, you're only discerning whether or not you want to discern marriage.  Much different!

To be frank, this argument reminds me a great deal of the kinds that scientific materialists make in asserting that astrophysics or some other such thing has eliminated the need for belief in God.  First its, "The big bag theory explains the origin of the universe, and so we have no more need for God."  When its pointed out that the big bang theory has only pushed the question back a step to what caused the big bang, they may cite string theory.  When it's pointed out that they have just pushed the question back a step again to what caused certain movements on the level of strings to occur, they may cite M-theory, pushing the question back again.  Ultimately, casual dating does the same thing.  The claim that a casual date has less pressure than a "regular" date is really just pushing the "question" of marriage back a step; the question is still there, it's just covered under another layer of pretense.  The important thing is that anyone on a casual date knows that the question is still there - and so the pressure remains the same.

In fact, it might even be worse in many cases.  On a "normal" date there's some established interest between the two parties and there is normally some previous knowledge of one another.  The boy already knows that the girl has some interest in him, and vice versa.  The girl already knows a bit about the boy, and vice versa.  When I went on my first date with Natalie, I had some idea that she was interested in me and I wasn't concerned with laying out who I was - and so I was able to, largely, just be myself.  On a casual date each person knows that they may only have that one meeting to get to know another person or, perhaps more importantly, to show the other person who they are.  As I have seen from the firsthand experience of friends, the experience of going on dates with anyone who seems eligible can also lead to an incredible amount of pressure over time.  No matter how much one tries to tell oneself that it's "no big deal" if a casual date doesn't work out, those "no big deals" begin to pile up quickly into one very big deal of a sense of self-doubt, frustration, or even despairing of one's desirability or lovability.  This brings us to the incredibly important fourth point.

Fourth, casual dating is extremely dangerous to those seeking to guard their hearts.  Some years ago I learned an incredibly important lesson.  I had a female friend - a strong proponent of casual dating, though it's not particularly relevant to this point - who was incredibly rational, preeminently concerned with ceding to the Holy Spirit's guidance about all things in life, patient, and very committed to viewing dating as "no big deal."  Everything about her proclaimed that she was a woman who viewed the world objectively, and so I carelessly offered a thought about her romantic life which I believed would be taken well.  The reaction was immediate, and a deep pain showed itself forth in her eyes.  I realized at that moment in a very close to home and visceral way something which I had seen in St. John Paul II's theology and heard in some Catholic discussion of relationships: for all that made her seem different, she was still a woman, with the heart of a woman.  She still desired to be loved, accepted, respected, and treated tenderly  It is a lesson that I took to heart and have applied well since I met my fiancee, who, though it is in many ways entirely hidden from the world's view, has a  heart seeking love and tenderness.

Women are women, and have the hearts of women.  Men are men, and have the hearts of men.  This is true no matter how much we might try to tell ourselves "this is no big deal," or, "it's just a date," or, "it's casual!"  A young man who takes a woman out on a casual date, only to have it not work out will still feel rejected - a great fear and weakness in men's hearts.  A young woman's experience of casual dating will go similarly.  We can tell ourselves "its no big deal" all we want, but when things do not go well it is a big deal.

This is especially true if both parties are not on the same page.  Consider a man who has developed an interest in a particular woman over the course of a month and asks her out.  As a "casual dater," she may agree even though she has no particular interest.  After "a date or two," as Ms. Aaker puts it, she tells him she is no longer interested and moves on with no trouble.  He will not.  Consider a woman who has been waiting for a particular man to invite her out for two months.  After reading an article like the one I linked above, her decides he should ask her out because, even though he has never felt too much interest, "it might go somewhere," She will be excited, and then wounded - perhaps deeply - when his initial lack of interest proves to be accurate.  This is why I think that it is strongly advisable that we date those that we know at least to some degree and have interest in at least to some degree.  It fits much more properly into the spirit of guarding the heart.

In fact, I dare say in what may be the most controversial thing in my post that the danger to our hearts from the emotional side of casual dating may be just as large as the danger to our hearts posed by the physical side of hooking up.

Fifth and last, I put forth what is admittedly the limited value of my experience.  In nearly 8 years of heavy involvement with the Catholic young adult community of Boston, I have known many casual daters, many standard daters, many who tried both, many couples, and and many who indeed found their spouses and got married.  I am not personally aware of any marriages that were borne out of casual dating.  In every case that I am aware of - including my own - two people who had known one another for a few weeks to a few months recognized a mutual interest in one another, began to date, and eventually discerned marriage together.  Some years ago, I asked another Catholic friend heavily involved in both the young adult communities that I was as well as others of her experience, and she was somewhat surprised to find the same was true for her.  It is not scientific, but it is my (our) experience: getting to know people, recognizing their unique mystery, and the choosing to pursue it with all of one's heart produces faithful Christian marriages.

And hey, it's also the teaching of St. John Paul II, a man who will possibly - nay, almost certainly - one day be declared a Doctor of the Church because of his teachings on human relationships and marriage. For what that's worth!