Today saw the first two sessions (“congregations” in Vatican-speak) of the two-week-long extraordinary bishops' Synod on the family, and I would just like to pick out a couple what I saw as their highlights. First, however, it is worth going back to yesterday's opening mass of the Synod, when Pope Francis had some warnings for his brother bishops, that clearly set the tone that he expects from the next two weeks' work:
“The temptation to greed is ever present. [...] Greed for money and power. And to satisfy this greed, evil pastors lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others, which they themselves do not lift a finger to move (cf. Mt 23:4)This morning, more along good cop lines, his brief opening remarks then presented the method he would like participants to follow, which builds on clarity, openness, boldness (parrhesia) and tranquility:
We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.
We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can “thwart” God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.”
“A basic general condition is this: to speak clearly. No one must say: “This can’t be said; he will think of me this way or that …” It is necessary to say everything that is felt with parrhesia. After the last Consistory (February 2014), in which there was talk of the family, a Cardinal wrote to me saying: too bad that some Cardinals didn’t have the courage to say some things out of respect for the Pope, thinking, perhaps, that the Pope thought something different. This is not good; this is not synodality, because it is necessary to say everything that in the Lord one feels should be said, with human respect, without fear. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and receive with an open heart what the brothers say. Synodality will be exercised with these two attitudes.The first session then saw Cardinal Erdő present a 7.5K-word opening document - the "relatio ante disceptationem" - that is effectively the first follow-up to the “Instrumentum Laboris” in which the results of the preceding worldwide questionnaire were summarised. Erdő’s report is based on the written contributions made by the Synod Fathers ahead of the Synod's opening and, together with the discussions that will last all this week and then in smaller groups next week, it will contribute to the final document that will be submitted to Pope Francis at the conclusion of this process.
Therefore, I ask you, please, for these attitudes of brothers in the Lord: to speak with parrhesia and to listen with humility.
And do so with much tranquillity and peace, because the Synod always unfolds cum Petro et sub Petro, and the Pope’s presence is the guarantee for all and protection of the faith.”
As you'd expect, Erdő's report broadly follows the structure of the Instrumentum Laboris, kicking off with an assessment of the challenges faced today on an individual level:
Many people today have difficulty in thinking in a logical manner and reading lengthy documents. We live in an audio-visual culture, a culture of feelings, emotional experiences and symbols. [...]How this general disposition (which would not have come as a surprise to Aristippus or Epicurus some 2400 years ago) impacts the position and perception of marriage is addressed next, where there is a balance between challenges and the persistent beauty of the Church's central teaching:
Many look upon their lives not as a life-long endeavour but a series of moments in which great value is placed on feeling good and enjoying good health. From this vantage point, any firm commitment seems insurmountable and the future appears threatening, because it may happen that in the future we will feel worse. Even social relationships may appear as limitations and obstacles. Respect and “seeking the good” of another person can even call for sacrifice. Isolation is oftentimes linked, therefore, with this cult of a momentary well-being.
Avoiding marriage is seen as not only a sign of individualism but also a symptom of the crisis of a society already burdened by formalisms, obligations and bureaucracy. [...]Homosexuality, gender-based discrimination and gender theory get covered next, with a refreshing degree of frankness:
The obligations arising from marriage must not be forgotten, but seen as the demands of the gift which the gift itself makes possible. [...]
[The Church's] teaching [on the family] enjoys a broad consensus among practicing Catholics. This is the case, particularly with regard to the indissolubility of marriage and its sacramental nature among those who are baptized. The teaching on the indissolubility of marriage as such is not questioned. Indeed, it is unchallenged and for the most part observed also in the pastoral practice of the Church with persons who have failed in their marriage and seek a new beginning.
[T]here is a broad consensus that people with a homosexual orientation should not be discriminated against, as reiterated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357-2359). Secondly, it is quite clear that the majority of the baptized — and all episcopal conferences — do not expect that these relationships be equated with marriage between a man and a woman, nor is there a consensus among a vast majority of Catholics on the ideology of gender theories. [...]The focus is then broadened to a societal level and an acute analysis of the external pressures incident on the family is presented:
[M]any want to see a change in the traditional roles in society which are culturally conditioned and in discrimination against women, which continues to be present, without denying, in the process, the differences by nature between the sexes and their reciprocity and complementarity.
We are not dealing with only problems involving individual behaviour but the structures of sin hostile to the family, in a world of inequality and social injustice, of consumerism, on the one hand, and poverty, on the other. Rapid cultural change in every sphere is distorting families, which are the basic unit of society, and putting into question the traditional family culture and oftentimes destroying it. On the other hand, the family is fast becoming the last welcoming human reality in a world determined almost exclusively by finance and technology. A new culture of the family can be the starting point for a renewed human civilization. [...]Then comes one of my favourite part, where the need for accompanying, for inclusion and for the proclamation of God's fatherhood and the Church's motherhood follows:
The widespread difficulty in creating a serene atmosphere of communication in some families is due to multiple factors: business and economic worries; differing views on the upbringing of children from various models of parenting; a reduction in time for dialogue and relaxation. In addition, there are disruptive factors like separation and divorce, with the consequences of a blended family, and, conversely, single parenting, where a relationship with the other parent is confused or limited, if not totally absent. Finally, this lack of communication can result from a widespread selfish mentality that closes in upon itself, with the disturbing consequence of the practice of abortion. The same selfishness can lead to the false idea of parents that children are objects or their property, who can be produced by them as they desire.
[T]hought needs to be given on how best to accompany people who find themselves in these situations [of marriage difficulty], so they do not feel excluded from the life of the Church. Finally, forms and suitable language needs to be devised to proclaim that all are and remain God’s children and are loved by God the Father and the Church as Mother. [...]
Indeed, God never tires of forgiving the sinner who repents and he does not tire of giving him this possibility again and again. This mercy is not a justification to sin but rather the sinner's justification, to the extent that he converts and aims to sin no more.
Mercy then gets the central place is requires, with a beautifully succinct paragraph:
Mercy, the central theme of the God’s revelation, is highly important as a hermeneutic for the Church’s actions (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 193 ff.). Certainly, she does not do away with truth nor relativize it, but seeks to interpret it correctly in the hierarchy of truths (cf. Unitatis redintegratio, 11; Evangelii gaudium, 36-37). Nor does she do away with the demands of justice. Consequently, mercy does not take away the commitments which arise from the demands of the marriage bond. They will continue to exist even when human love is weakened or has ceased. This means that, in the case of a (consummated) sacramental marriage, after a divorce, a second marriage recognized by the Church is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.Another highlight then is the following section, where the good that is there in civil marriages and even in some forms of cohabitation is called out. This is very much in the spirit of Evangelii Gaudium, where Pope Francis calls for a discernment of what there is of God in every context:
[A] new dimension of pastoral care of the family today reveals itself through considering the reality of civil marriages and, despite the differences, even cohabitation. Consequently, when these relationships are obviously stable in a publicly recognized legal bond, they are characterized by deep affection, display a parental responsibility towards their offspring and an ability to withstand trials and they can be seen as a seed to be nurtured on the path towards celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage. [...] The Church cannot fail to take advantage of an opportunity, even in situations which, at first sight, are far from satisfying the criteria of the Gospel, and to draw close to people in order to bring them to a conscious, true and right decision about their relationship.After an extensive coverage of how the challenges facing those who got divorced and civilly remarried, the report says something that I find tremendously positive and a great example of how we, Catholics, can also look to other Christian churches for inspiration:
The Instrumentum laboris relates that some responses suggest further examining the practice of some of the Orthodox Churches, which allows the possibility of a second or third marriage, marked by a penitential character (cf. 95). Examining this matter is necessary to avoid any questionable interpretations and conclusions which are not sufficiently well-founded. In this regard, studying the history of the discipline of the Churches in the East and West is important. Possible contributions might also come from considering the disciplinary, liturgical and doctrinal traditions of the Eastern Churches.Finally, Cardinal Erdő's report concludes with a crescendo:
If we look at the origins of Christianity, we see how it has managed — despite rejection and cultural diversity — to be accepted and welcomed for the depth and intrinsic force of its message. Indeed, Christian revelation has manifested the dignity of the person, not to mention love, sexuality and the family.
The challenge for this synod is to try to bring back to today’s world, which in some way resembles that of the early days of the Church, the attractiveness of the Christian message about marriage and the family, highlighting the joy which they give, but, at the same time, respond, in a true and charitable way (cf. Eph 4:15), to the many problems which have a special impact on the family today and emphasizing that true moral freedom does not consists in doing what one feels or living only by one’s feelings but is realized only in acquiring the true good.
In a real way, we are called upon, above all, to put ourselves alongside our sisters and our brothers in the spirit of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10: 25-37): being attentive to their lives and being especially close to those who have been “wounded” by life and expect a word of hope, which we know only Christ can give us (cf. Jn 6:68).