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Finding Hope & Not Despair in the Synod

I am troubled that otherwise orthodox Catholic critics are suggesting that the Synod on the Family in Rome will signal a fall into apostasy.  While there may be a number of wrong-thinking priests and bishops, I have confidence that nothing of the Church’s doctrinal integrity will be sacrificed to pastoral expediency.

While the deposit of faith is both fixed and develops, there can be no revocation of objective truths.  Those couples living in second marriages or irregular unions cannot be uncritically invited to receive Holy Communion.  They may come up without our invitation; but we cannot encourage people to commit either mortal sin or sacrilege against the Eucharist.  No degree of penance would suffice unless there is genuine repentance and a firm amendment of life.  Any projected change in discipline or a so-called pastoral provision cannot justify regularizing church life for recalcitrant adulterers.

Despite the derision by angry critics that many priests are spineless wimps, most men in ministry are dedicated and courageous in their service.  Priests who seem to turn a blind eye to scandalous behavior are often in the dark or uncertain about the marital status of others.  The opposite may also be true.  Their apparent passivity may consist of knowing too many facts about which they are duty bound to keep within professional secrecy and/or the seal of Confession.  A priest may do nothing by word or gesture or intimation based upon what he learns in the sacrament of Penance.  This is the case even when absolution is withheld.  Such a predicament does not prevent others from condemning faithful priests who are already suffering when they must treat adulterers, active homosexuals and child-murderers as if they are Catholics in perfectly good standing.

Of course, it is no wonder that many of the laity might expect churchmen to invite blasphemy against the Eucharist when ministers are generally forbidden by their bishops to refuse the sacrament to others for fear of negative publicity or scandal.  We have witnessed for many years the tension of various pro-life groups with certain U.S. Bishops demanding that they turn away from the altar pro-abortion politicians and others who enable the murder of the unborn.  This conflict has yet to be resolved and continues to alienate those who should be on the same side and working together.  In any case, there is a vast difference between a general passivity and a universal invitation.

The Holy See and the Church are servants of the Word, not its master.  The words of St. Paul about fornicators, homosexuals and adulterers cannot be stripped from Scripture or from the constant tradition of the Church.  Similarly, the notion of the “closed-table” finds it roots in St. Paul and the censures of the early Church:  “And therefore, if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be held to account for the Lord’s body and blood. A man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily, not recognizing the Lord’s body for what it is” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).  While there are different theologies in the Church, they must speak to the same doctrinal truths.  Disciplines and pastoral practices are not geared to circumvent doctrine but to help express and realize them.

What can we expect from the Synod on the Family in Rome?  Compromise would precipitate acceleration in the breakdown of marriages.  I foresee a reaffirmation of the timeless faith with suggestions to redouble our efforts to welcome and bring healing into the lives of our people.  Let us trust our bishops.  Let us work with our people and not against them.  Let us put aside the silly sensationalism in the news and give the living Church the opportunity to teach and minister as she should.  There will be discussion and debate in Rome.  But we have confidence in the Holy Spirit and the Magisterium.  The process can be messy but so is life.  The truth will prevail.

4 Responses

  1. Cardinal Kasper is indeed a first rank theologian. Indeed, many years ago he was marked as a magisterial theologian, one who supported the claims of the Pope and the bishops who taught in union with him. His standing is what propelled him from priest to bishop to cardinal.

    The Holy Father gave him a wonderful testimonial as one who did “theology on one’s knees.” This is not unique to him but expressive of a basic requirement for any Catholic theologian. Cardinal Ratzinger, i.e. Pope Benedict XVI spoke about it as the ingredient of humility. The late Karl Rahner spoke about it as well, although he added somewhat humorously the necessary ability to sit on one’s butt writing for hours at a time.

    The papal accolade would not mean that every supposition or theological argument was of the same weight. Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion for the regularization of divorced and remarried couples is derived in part from the practice of the Orthodox churches in the East. They permit a penitential second marriage. Many of us feel that this solution falls short in supporting the Church’s understanding that the bond of sacramental marriage is indissoluble.

    The Catholic Church was willing to allow a whole nation to depart under King Henry VIII rather than to compromise this teaching. The Orthodox churches tend to be nationalistic churches like the Anglicans, and were thus more prone to manipulation regarding the status of marriage. The international character of Catholicism helped to shield the Church from errors either from the churches of the Eastern schism or from the churches of the Reformation. Neither the breakaway Eastern nor Western churches or ecclesial communities offer a sufficient resolution to the place of public adulterers in the worship life of the Church.

  2. Elements that did not get the two-thirds consensus were nonetheless added to the agenda for the October Synod on the Family. This alone is bothersome— but then add the “coming out” and dismissal of a priest from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and I am left wondering if the issue of men and women in irregular unions might be a Trojan Horse for those who advocate the ecclesial normalization of homosexuality.

    Doctrine is what doctrine is. It cannot be changed in any way that would signify a rupture with tradition. Teachings can develop and grow but they cannot be reversed or transformed into something new that conflicts with what came before. The Pope is not God. He cannot cross out apostolic teachings or produce new revelation. Human nature has not changed and many of the fads of modernity closely resemble the heresies of old and the immorality of classic paganism. Homosexuality was practiced and even flaunted by the ancient Greeks. St. Paul lists it among the sins that forfeit the kingdom of heaven.

    Contraception might be more sophisticated than how the ancients used crocodile dung, but it still negates the marital union in terms of providence and fruitfulness. The Romans permitted divorce and the Mosaic writ allowed Jewish men to divorce their wives. Jesus was emphatic that this was not the way it was supposed to be and he spelled out the immediate link to adultery.

    The proposal from Cardinal Kasper feigns leaving the doctrine intact while it corrupts the truth behind deceptive jargon. He argues that Church teaching would remain what it is and yet his “pastoral provision” would give hope and compassion to those in “irregular unions.” While it is true that the Church embraces various “theologies,” they usually reflect the same core truths and do not render “different summations.” Part of the problem is that we should start with certain and revealed teachings, not with the brokenness of people’s lives. Revelation gives reliable answers. Depending upon their choices, some people have placed themselves into situations that cannot be amiably or easily repaired on this side of the grave. Not all perspectives are Christian and no word games can ever make it otherwise.

    Sinful unions need not be ugly or harsh. Indeed, there are many fornicators and adulterers who find deep intimacy and love with their partners. They may be faithful to each other and good parents. They may be the best of neighbors and good friends. But short of an annulment (if possible) and/or a marriage recognized by the Church, they still live in serious sin. Similarly same-sex couples might be very courteous and sacrificial in their love for each other. However, there has been no cosmic retraction of divine revelation. God has not suddenly rewritten natural law. We hope and pray for divine mercy for God’s wounded children but often that may be all we can do. If they should suffer hell, a prospect that might seem unfathomable, we have to bow to the divine judgment. Perhaps as in Dante, the outskirts of hell might not be as without consolation as the frozen depths?

    Compromise would cost us the truth. Many marriages that would otherwise prevail might fail if the Church were to stumble in her proclamation. The cry for repentance should never be silenced. Repent and believe! The admonition of John the Baptist reaches past his cell where he would be beheaded. He wants to save Herod. “It is not lawful for you to take your brother’s wife!” Do we hear his cry today or are we still planning to silence him? Jesus would not open his mouth before Herod. It was too late. He would not listen to the Baptizer and so our Lord will not spare him even one saving word. Judgment is real. False compassion would surrender the ancient cry and invite souls into hell thinking they might be saved. We cannot do this.

  3. Most encouraging. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for offering this voice (if still aware and cautious) of hope and trust in the midst of so many ‘chicken littles’. The popular rhetoric has seemed to me even more of a scandal than many of the ideas being floated in and around the Synod itself.
    I do, however, fear the mass media coverage no matter what the actual results are.

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