The new Pope Francis has caught the eye of the world. Many people with Catholic friends know that there are two Catholic Churches in the world today – one of the popes and the Pells, the other of the rank and file Catholics and their priests. The first is doctrinaire. The second makes adjustments to doctrine and rules as required.
The Church’s central vision is one of life, forgiveness and hope. But in recent years this has been smothered by its pope and bishops’ preoccupation with today’s hot ethical issues – abortion, sexuality (including homosexuality), medical technology, divorce and gender. This has undermined the church’s credibility because all of these issues are in play – except within the ranks of a hierarchy. Then Pope Francis came along. He is aware that these issues are personal and pressing – and all under debate. He has changed the focus of the discussion from ideology to pastoral practice. We know the rules and doctrine, he says, but how do you handle the pastoral question in the lives of real people?
The pope’s practical answer is to call a synod (a representative group) of the world’s bishops to discuss the matter. The subject is to be The Church and The Family. In a new departure for such synods he wants the whole membership of the church to discuss the matter and report back before the synod convenes. The synod’s organizing committee has sent out a questionnaire for discussion. Its four major topics are:
- The teaching of the Church on the Family - and its reception;
- The place of Natural Law in the Church’s teachings - and its reception;
- The family’s place in evangelization;
- New cultural issues re marriage. These include:
- Extra-marital co-habitation and de facto marriages;
- Divorce and its implications;
- Marriage annulment;
- Same sex unions;
- Education of children of irregular unions.
The questionnaire is surprising. Public consultation is a new thing. Issues hitherto discussed at your peril are now open for review, seemingly at the Pope’s initiative. Furthermore, all these issues are regularly discussed within the Church – but not openly. Many issues have already been operationally resolved by concerned pastors ignoring restrictions or defying them.
Now to the points:
Firstly, there is no single “Teaching of the Church” on marriage. Over the two millennia of the Christian Church’s existence we have had a variety of approaches. The Church had little to do with marriage till the 13th century when it took legal control of marriage. Church registration followed. Since then control of the legalities of marriage was in Church hands until the secular state took over in the 19th century. All this applies only to Europe and the West. Other cultures have their own customs which have been problems for Christianity as it became more universal.
The 20th century teachings of the Catholic Church on Marriage can be summed up as restrictions on sex justified by Natural Law philosophy. Pope Paul VI’s decree “Humanae Vitae”, with its banning of contraception, is the poster child of this approach. He argued that contraception was against the “natural law”. His argument runs: if you study the nature of the human being you will deduce that sex is for procreation. To interfere with that is to violate the natural law.
Both aspects of this teaching are now culturally irrelevant due to cultural changes in attitudes to sex and the obsolescence of the Natural Law philosophy. These are facts. The dogged opposition of Church officials is a lost ideological cause.
Evangelization (spreading the gospel to newcomers) has never been a high priority of the Christian family. The passing of Christian affiliation from generation to generation has been a cultural phenomenon. The family might have indoctrinated, but evangelization was bypassed. Each new generation was inculturated into Catholicism – up till now. Evangelization has never been a serious issue even in the New Evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II. What he wanted was a return to the old mind set – an exercise in nostalgia.
The values that matter are justice in relationships and stability in partnerships – especially while children are involved. Taking restrictive stances on varieties of partnership and recreational sex and is moralistic ideology. The hierarchy may have missed the opportunity to deal realistically with today’s Western approach to sexuality, marriage and family by canonising a dull, wowserish past. They have alienated two generations.
Divorce is a punishing experience rendered double punishment by effectively excommunicating the remarried. Divorce in the West increased after World War II. Now at around 50%, it alone explains much of the post-War loss of affiliation.
Forget annulment. Fewer Catholics are using it because the Church’s rules are a mess and less and less socially relevant.
Contraception is a fairly reliable component of today’s living. So, either help people plan a family - or better – let them do it themselves and leave them alone.
Support all stable partnerships. Argue about what you call them if that is your thing.
Finally, give any support you can to partners doing their best to educate a new generation.
There is movement at the station but there is still a long way to go. How widely will bishops consult on the questionnaire? Will the responses to the questionnaire be filtered by conservative local bureaucracies? Will burning issues be addressed by the Synod Preparatory Committee? Will the conservative officials still pervading the Roman administration win this one as they won after Vatican II? What political colour will the Synod be when it convenes? Will it reflect the mind of the Church at large or just the hierarchy? If it does, will the resulting report be true or doctored? And will the result be consensus or division?
Past synods have been rubber stamps. How this one goes remains to be seen.