Eric Hodgens. Will the Synod on the family work?

Sep 16, 2014

Pope Francis has changed the focus of the Catholic Church from doctrine and rules to care and compassion. If people are at odds with the rules they should be supported and encouraged rather than condemned.

Since many of the rules causing complications in today’s society are associated with marriage he has called a special Synod of Bishops to address “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. This meeting will take place in October 2014. The associated problems are many:

  • Prohibition of remarriage after divorce;
  • Prohibition of masturbation;
  • Prohibition of contraception;
  • Prohibition of sexual activity outside marriage;
  • Prohibition of marriage outside the Church;
  • Prohibition of IVF;
  • Condemnation of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered (a Ratzinger phrase);
  • Condemnation of de facto marriage;
  • Veneration of virginity;
  • Veneration of celibacy.

All of these entail a negative view of sexuality. Today’s western society – including many Catholics – rejects them all.

During the 20th century all of these have been presented by popes and bishops as the Church’s teachings. The bases of the argument are:

  • they are contrary to the Natural Law;
  • they are contrary to papal teaching and, therefore, contrary to the Church’s magisterium.

This is problematical because long tradition of the Church has been that the Church can define doctrine but not moral rules – precisely because they are inextricably intertwined with prevailing cultural values and, so, are constantly changing. Furthermore, while the Natural Law argument may hold in a world of unchangeable ideas it does not work in a world presumed to be evolving. Finally, the concept of “magisterium” – the accepted teaching of the Masters of Theology (magistri) – has shifted under recent popes from the Masters to the opinion of the pope. Historically this is a bridge too far.

The rejection of these opinions by so many Catholics means they are not “received” – a necessary component of true Catholic teaching. The rules need to be re-visited or forgotten.

Some of the above irregularities are of the Church’s own making.

  • In 1907 Pius X decreed that all Catholics had to marry in the presence of an authorised priest and two witnesses. Otherwise the marriage was invalid.
  • In 1930 Pius XI declared contraception to be mortally sinful.
  • In 1968 Paul VI rejected the advice of his own commission and reiterated Pius XI’s prohibition of contraception. This was immediately rejected by a large number of Catholics and has never been universally accepted since.

Western culture largely came to terms with the fact of divorce and re-marriage during the 20th century. So did Western Catholics. This led to heartburn in the Catholic Church because according to Church law re-married divorcees were living in sin. This meant they could not receive Holy Communion at Mass and, so, were effectively excommunicated. Those wanting a second marriage to be celebrated in the Church were rejected.

Some fell back on the Church’s claim to be able to annul marriages, but this was a messy, lengthy and painful process with doubtful outcomes. Some priests advised parishioners to get married civilly and come to Communion anyway. Other priests ignored the rules and married the couple in the Church.

Pope Francis has stressed the need for understanding pastoral care in these cases. This has led to a revival of the debate about the possibility of accepting second marriages. He has brought Cardinal Kasper in to foster the debate. This is one point worth watching during the coming Synod.

Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge” comment on homosexuals has firstly questioned how “disordered” homosexual orientation is. This in turn raises the issues of homosexual sexual activity and marriage. The debate goes on with new initiatives being raised – and with a vocal, hard-core opposition.

The pope knows he has raised all these issues. He continues to say he does not intend to change the Church’s teaching. What he means by that is unknown. Perhaps he expects that if you change the practice the teachings or formulation will follow.

When John XXIII opened the Vatican Council a strong, intelligent and historically aware group of bishops moved in at the start and stole the initiative from the Roman Curia who had biased the rules and documentary preparations for the council in favour of the status quo. It is hard to see that happening with this synod. The preparatory documents do not make for fully open discussion. Even more importantly Bishops who freely speak their mind are hard to find. For thirty five years John-Paul II and Benedict XVI have deliberately appointed Rome-compliant bishops. In any case none of the synod participants have had any personal experience of marriage or family.

Keep an eye on proceedings – but do not expect too much.

Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic Priest in Melbourne who ‘writes a bit’.

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