Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Synod on the Family Document Blows Open Minds, the Doors of the Church

If you haven't already heard, the Synod on the Family released a draft document yesterday, the fruit of its first week of discussions on issues related to family in the Catholic Church.

Normally, an event like this would not be a big fuss for anyone but maybe church insiders. And that would have seemed even more likely on this occasion, when those gathered--190 bishops plus 60 others (leaders of religious congregations, married people, theologians invited to participate in the conversation) were not in fact sharing decisions made but just the themes of their discussion so far, all of which is itself preparatory to another Synod to take place in 2015.

But then the document came out. (Here it is in full; it's not very long.)

Here's a couple things that it has to say:
It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. (I.11, emphasis mine)
Realizing the need, therefore, for spiritual discernment with regard to cohabitation, civil marriages and divorced and remarried persons, it is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries. Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings. (II. 20, emphasis mine)
Yes, rather than primarily condemning cohabitation or civil marriage as inadequate or incomplete, the document actually speaks of their "positive aspects", and imagines the Church as "the house of the Father, with doors always wide open […] where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems"(III.37). 

Whatever the couple's situation, they are "to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel. They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy." (III.39)

Welcome - that seems to be the key insight of the document. We start not as teachers lecturing people how to be Catholic (though of course all of that is still considered essential, too), but as hosts welcoming them as they are.

So in dealing with families dealing with separation or divorce, the Synod fathers call for "the art of accompaniment, which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Es 3,5)." (III.41) "What needs to be respected above all is the suffering of those who have endured separation and divorce unjustly." (III.42) And their children "must not become an 'object' to be fought over."

Perhaps most stunning is a brief section entitled "Welcoming homosexual persons":
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony? (III.50, emphasis mine)
...Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority. (III.52, emphasis mine)
Not only does the Church here indicate, as Pope Francis famously said, "Who am I to judge?"; it considers them as brothers and sisters. Gay men and women have gifts to offer the Church; their orientation is to be valued and accepted; and while gay marriage "cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman", still the Synod Fathers seem to acknowledge that it can be a blessing to those involved.

Even in some of its more traditional sections, such as its enumeration of the issues that adversely affect family, the document speaks with a striking pastoral care:
The most difficult test for families in our time is often solitude, which destroys and gives rise to a general sensation of impotence in relation to the socio-economic situation that often ends up crushing them. This is due to growing precariousness in the workplace that is often experienced as a nightmare, or due to heavy taxation that certainly does not encourage young people to marriage. (I.6)
Or in Part II, in discussing those whose marriages have failed or who are struggling, consider this amazing passage:   
Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm. (II.23)
What the Church needs to offer in the midst of the challenges people face, say the Synod Fathers, is first and foremost "a meaningful word of hope."And not just hope, but acceptance and mercy: "the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, [must] be proposed alongside with mercy."

There's still another week of conversation to be had; and even among the Synod fathers themselves there is question about the document, with some worrying that its emphasis on gradualness-- that is, that people's journey into full communion with the teaching of the Church is often gradual and its intermediate steps should be appreciated as such, rather than looked down upon as incomplete--may cause confusion.

And even in the document there's acknowledgment that on some issues -- such as whether Catholics remarried outside the Church should be able to receive Communion-- there's clear differences of opinion and more discussion and education needed.* 

*It's hard to appreciate why this remains such a clear stumbling block for so many, when the reality and vicissitudes of divorce and remarriage are so well known to so many today. But still, the bishops' approach is eminently pastoral, laying out respectfully some different points of view and the issues within each.

Still, it's hard to overstate what's been written here. Much like Vatican II, the document speaks with a care and a spirit that well captures the kindness and acceptance we believe are always waiting for us from God, and that we hope marriage can be all about. 

It's definitely been an interesting week!