An editorial in the 18th October edition of The Tablet was an interesting commentary on the now concluded Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.
True to its name, the synod of bishops in Rome has been extraordinary. By this weekend, the meeting of senior church leaders in Rome will be reaching its end, but whatever happens, things can never be the same. What has been said cannot be unsaid. There are broadly two possible outcomes. The first is that the remarkable openness of the discussion summarised in the half-time document, the draft relatio, will be preserved or even developed further in the final report. The second is that the conservative backlash that the document has clearly triggered will prevail. What is much less likely, though it may be the result Pope Francis would prefer, is some sort of synthesis that would make everybody happy. The gap between the two sides does seem unbridgeable. Metaphorically at least, there will be blood on the carpet.
Take homosexuality, which in the West is a primary indicator of whether the Catholic Church is or is not in touch with contemporary mores. Several speakers had called upon the Church to act towards gay men and women as loving families do, embracing them unconditionally and recognising that their relationships could be as admirable and fulfilling – and sacrificial – as any other kind. The draft relatio, reflecting such a positive view, was bitterly attacked by Cardinal Raymond Burke as suggesting there could be some good in “unchaste” sexual acts. This traditionalist critique also applies to the relatio‘s sympathetic treatment of couples who cohabit, and of Catholics in second marriages after divorce where a first marriage has not been annulled.
Cardinal Burke, a canon lawyer who heads the Vatican supreme court, cannot be dismissed as having painted himself into a corner, as there are many bishops at the synod, including senior cardinals, who agree with him. Even if the majority progressive view prevails, it is clear the Church is seriously divided. But the picture is not uniform. Some African church leaders, for instance, have not liked the softer tone that the synod seems to be moving towards regarding homosexuality. But they may welcome a more pastoral approach to polygamy, especially regarding the wives and children of polygamous relationships.
Underneath the controversy is a process of remodelling how the Church sees the modern world, the families within it and the sexual relationships in those families. It is rediscovering “the signs of the times”. This remodelling does not necessarily mean a change of doctrine, but it does mean a new approach to applying it. Gradualism is emerging as a useful tool for addressing family structures that fall short of the ideal. It would mean the Church does not dismiss as unholy all patterns of family life which are by its standards imperfect, but asks the people involved to take what steps they can towards perfection – which they may never reach for reasons they cannot control.
Gradualism is then a tool of evangelisation, seen as a process towards holiness rather than as a goal. But it is difficult to recommend gradualism while keeping the language of sin, as some have insisted. And it fails to answer the question: what is the ideal relationship towards which gay people, for instance, are bring urged – gradually – to move? Ideally, must they be celibate? If that is all the synod has to say on the matter, it is not very much. On the other hand, gradualism can help with the pastoral challenges of polygamy. It may be too harsh to insist a man dismiss all his wives but the last one, but it could be a step towards having only one – towards the monogamous ideal – if he could be persuaded not to take on any more.
There is not much doubt that the progress made in the two weeks of the synod is in the direction Pope Francis was hoping for. In the homily he preached as the second week began, he asked why “the doctors of the law”, who criticised Jesus so fiercely, had failed to see the signs of the times. It was because “they were closed within their system, they had perfectly systematised the law, it was a masterpiece. The Jews knew what they could do and what they could not do, how far they could go. It was all systematised. And they were safe there.” But Jesus kept springing surprises, things that did not fit into this tidy, rule-bound world.
Francis could almost have asked, pointing a finger at Cardinal Burke, “and if the cap fits, wear it.” There is a lot more to come of this story, and the only thing guaranteed is that it will be messy. An earthquake it may be, but the sort of shape the Church will be left in is by no means settled.
A very succinct summary, I feel, of the situation at the end of the Synod.
From the Office of Readings for Saturday of the 29th Week in Ordinary Time:
Now reborn after the pattern of our Lord, as I have said, let us bear the full and complete image of our maker: not in majesty, in which he is alone, but in innocence, simplicity, meekness, patience, humility, mercy and concord – in which he deigned to become and to be one with us.
From the sermons of St Peter Chrysologus.
From the Office of Readings for Friday of the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
So there is in us a kind of learned ignorance, so to speak, taught by the Spirit of God who helps our weakness. When the apostle had said, ‘If we hope for what we do not see, we await it with patience’, he then added, ‘Likewise the Spirit helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with ineffable groaning. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’
From the letter of St Augustine to Proba.
From the Office of Readings for Thursday of the 29th Week in Ordinary Time:
So in these afflictions that can both benefit and do harm, we do not know how to pray as we ought. Yet because they are difficult and troublesome, annoying our sense of our own weakness, we pray with all our human will for them to be taken away from us. But we owe this much trust to our Lord God, that if he does not take them away, we should not suppose ourselves to be neglected by him, but should rather hope with devout patience for good things greater than the evils. For in this way virtue is made perfect in weakness. These things are written to stop a man thinking highly of himself if his prayer is heard when he asks impatiently for something it would be better for him not to obtain; on the other hand, should his prayer not be heard, he may become utterly depressed, despairing of the divine mercy towards himself, though it may be what he is asking could cause much more terrible afflictions if granted or else bring good fortune which might corrupt and ruin him. In such cases, then, we do not know to pray as we ought.
From the letter of St Augustine to Proba.
With regret, I announce the demise of the Semper Quaerens Journal.
The end of this ‘publication’ comes about as part of a general renovation of the Semper Quaerens website, and a was a result of both cost and lack of usage.
My apologies go o the one or two regular ‘subscribers’ to the Journal, who will no longer have access to the service.