ROME — Given the blindingly obvious fact that there are deep divisions at the 2015 Synod of Bishops, various ways of analyzing those fault lines have been proposed. Some see them in terms of the difference between a deductive and inductive approach, some between meeting the world halfway versus not being swallowed up by it, and so on.
As the synod rolls into its second week, yet another way of understanding the fundamental divide is coming into focus: The gap between those who believe the demands of classic Catholic teaching on sex, marriage, and the family may be unrealistic or inappropriate for some share of the contemporary population, and those convinced that it’s widely attainable in the here-and-now.
Perhaps one could call the latter position the “Yes We Can!’ brigade at the 2015 synod.
(Presumably, the irony of applying Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan to a bloc of folks who would generally be seen as cultural conservatives isn’t lost on anyone.)
Many in this camp suspect that advocates of a more “pastoral” approach on matters such as homosexuality and divorce have quietly thrown in the towel on the idea that it’s reasonable to expect lifelong faithful marriage to be the norm, or that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics shouldn’t be sexually intimate, and so on.
The “Yes We Can!” faction wouldn’t deny that many people don’t actually live those teachings, but they insist that it can be done, and fear that by not encouraging people to do so, the Church clearly risks selling them short.
We caught an early glimpse of this position in the first cycle of reports from the synod’s small working groups, which were released last Friday.
The base text for the synod, known as the Instrumentum Laboris, came in for fairly withering criticism in those reports — as a colleague in the press corps put it, had this been a college term paper, the kid who wrote it would have flunked.
A key point was the assertion by several groups that the document portrays an overly negative assessment of the situation facing the contemporary family, seemingly more focused on where families break down than where they flourish.
“More attention needs to be given to theological reflection on the faithful, loving, married couple and family, who, so often heroically, live an authentic witness,” said one English-language group led by Australian Cardinal George Pell.
The group led by Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto arrived at a similar conclusion.
“Most of our group felt the Instrumentum Laboris should begin with hope rather than failures, because a great many people already do successfully live the Gospel’s good news about marriage,” it said.
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On Monday night, I attended an event organized by one of the participants in the synod featuring a couple of well-known Roman experts on issues pertaining to marriage and sexual ethics, where the refrain was much the same.
One of the evening’s most powerful moments came when a speaker complained that in its debate over the issue of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried — known in shorthand fashion as the “Kasper proposal,” since its leading advocate is German Cardinal Walter Kasper — the synod risks treating such believers as “second-class” Catholics, incapable of living out what the Church asks.
Those expectations were laid out in the opening speech of the synod delivered by Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, the synod’s relator.
Quoting Familiaris Consortio, a 1981 document of St. John Paul II, Erdő said it is possible for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, but only on the condition that “they practice continence with the help of grace, living a relationship of mutual help and friendship.”
In other words, Catholics in such a situation are called to refrain from sex, because in the eyes of the Church, they’re still married to their first partner.
The speaker at Monday night’s gathering insisted that the synod shouldn’t act as if people aren’t capable of complying, but should instead focus on offering them the help and support needed to make it possible.
No one in the synod would deny that there are Catholics out there, perhaps more than one might imagine, who do accept the full version of Church teaching. Virtually everyone could probably agree that such folks deserve whatever pastoral backup the Church can muster.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who’s also at the synod, posted a blog item on Monday suggesting that these people form a “new minority” in the contemporary world, writing that “they are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement.”
The question is, how should the Church treat people who can’t, or don’t want to, make those choices?
For one side of the synod’s debates, it might be time for the Church to honestly acknowledge that such folks are likely to be the majority, and often for understandable and morally defensible reasons.
Without giving up on the ideal, this group would say the Church needs to make better accommodations for those who fall short.
The “Yes We Can!” camp, however, believes Church teaching isn’t just an ideal, but a practical way of life, though without minimizing the sacrifices it may entail. As they see it, the synod’s message ought to be, “You’re called to this, and we’re going to have your back in pulling it off.”
How those two instincts might be reconciled, and whether that’s even possible, will help shape the drama of the synod during the two weeks left on its calendar.
By John L. Allen Jr.