Saturday, 13 September 2014

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family: some thoughts

I recall an observation to the effect that there were two Vatican II's, one being the Council as it took place within the Vatican Basilica and the various meetings associated with the Council itself, and the second being that which took place in the news media. One might perhaps add a third: the one which, again making use of the news media, looks back to the Council through its own slanted perspective. I have found it quite an eye-opener, for example, to read the text of some of the addresses given by Cardinal Augustin Bea, Pope John XXIII's right hand man in developing the Catholic Church's ecumenical engagement at the time of the Council. What they portray as the principles of ecumenical activity on the part of the Catholic Church would now be seen as decidedly "conservative", though ecumenical endeavour was one of the "liberal" motivations to emerge from the Council. The point, though, is that they probably represent rather better than much else a genuine understanding of where the Catholic Church stands on ecumenism.

Likewise the Synod on the Family. There is the "real" Synod and the "media" Synod, the Synod that recognises that, in the world wide preparatory questionnaire there was not one single question asking for views about the truth or otherwise of Catholic teaching, and the Synod that calls for change or "dialogue" about the Church's teaching on the grounds of responses to the questionnaire that show that many Catholics do not follow the teaching. And there is also the focus of media discussion on the question of the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion.

My first thought is that the question of marriage and family life is indeed a major pastoral priority/concern for the Catholic Church. Many years ago now, I was part of a conversation reflecting on what it was that enabled some families to successfully hand on the practice of the Catholic faith to their children as those children moved into adult life and what it was that meant that other families did not succeed in that. Irregularity in marriage situations was a clear part of the latter experience of some taking part in that conversation, with the marriage situation leading to loss of practice of the faith.

My second thought is that the concerns that will be brought to the Synod in October will differ according to the part of the world that the Bishops come from. The concerns of the developed nations are not going to be the same as the concerns of the African nations, for example. Isabelle de Gaulmyn reflected on this on the site of La Croix, commenting on a visit to Benin in West Africa:
D’une certaine manière, les sujets abordés en Afrique sont plus graves, plus urgents, touchent les problématiques économiques et culturelles de la société. On ne se polarise pas sur les divorcés remariés.
Mais il est question des femmes, de leur dignité, du mariage forcé, des enfants esclaves, de la polygamie, largement admise : que doit dire le pasteur, sur le terrain ? Quelle attitude ? Jusqu’où condamner ? Comment accompagner ? Plus généralement, l’Église est partagée entre une vision plus « moderne » et individualiste du couple et de la famille, revendiquée d’ailleurs par les jeunes générations, et des traditions de solidarité familiale qui peuvent parfois involontairement étouffer les personnes.
[In a certain way, the subjects arising in Africa are more serious, more urgent, touching on the economic and cultural problems of society. People do not divide over the divorced and remarried.
But it is a question of women, of their dignity, of forced marriage, of child slavery, of polygamy, largely accepted. What must the pastor say, on the ground? What attitude should be taken? Only as far as condemning? How should they accompany? More generally, the Church is caught between a more "modern"  and individualistic vision of the couple and of the family, shared moreover by the young generations, and traditions of family solidarity which can sometimes by accident repress persons.]
Certainly, it will not be the case that the only voice to be heard at the Synod is that of the news media calling for change in the Church's teaching.

I suspect that the address that Bishop Egan gave to SPUC's annual conference recently will not have been everything that those of a traditionalist frame of mind would have wished to hear, with its suggestion that outcomes from the Synod might and should represent development in doctrine in Newman's sense. Bishop Egan's address gives a useful account of what Pope Francis has said about the origins of the themes for the extraordinary synod due this October and the ordinary synod that will follow next year, in particular pointing out that there is a much wider context to the synods than just the question of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. At the end of his address, Bishop Egan indicates the situation of the person who wishes to be received into the Catholic Church but who, at that point, encounters something irregular in their marital situation that becomes a barrier to their entry into the Church. It seems to me that the question of admitting remarried persons to Communion is not a question that refers to one single narrative; there are a whole range of different situations that might admit of different pastoral resolutions with due reference to the truth of Catholic teaching and the demand of mercy.

My fourth thought arises from the legislation in a number of countries in favour of marriage for same-sex persons. In the UK, the campaign against this development used the idea of "redefining marriage" as its strapline; in France, it was instead the right of the child to a mother and father and resistance to gender ideology. But what I think emerges from the discussions about Holy Communion for the remarried prompted by the theme of the Synod is that for many people in wider society, and therefore for many Catholics who are not immune to the influences of wider society, marriage had already been re-defined almost out of existence. Do we, for example, recognise that the understanding of marriage represented by celebrities who divorce and remarry, with their second and third marriages gaining high profile media coverage, is far distant from what Catholic teaching understands by marriage? And if we do recognise that, what do we really believe we are doing when we ourselves get married, with all the implications of the answer to that question for the nature of the consent that is given and is necessary for he validity of the marriage? There is certainly a pastoral challenge to be faced here, both in terms of the quality if marriage preparation and in terms of the care towards those who are remarried. The terms in which Gaudium et Spes analyses the situation of marriage in its introduction to its treatment of marriage are strikingly prescient (cf n.47):
Yet the excellence of [marriage] is not everywhere reflected with equal brilliance, since polygamy, the plague of divorce, so-called free love and other disfigurements have an obscuring effect. In addition, married love is too often profaned by excessive self-love, the worship of pleasure and illicit practices against human generation. Moreover, serious disturbances are caused in families by modern economic conditions, by influences at once social and psychological, and by the demands of civil society. Finally, in certain parts of the world problems resulting from population growth are generating concern.
One can almost suggest that the situation faced by the Synods in 2014 and 2015 was foreseen by the Council in 1965. We can share Bishop Egan's hope that the Synods will enable the brilliance of marriage to shine forth more beautifully in the world.

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