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!

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