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Bishop Gerard de Korte looks back on the Synod:
“Pope Francis’ thinking is process-oriented. The Synod (‘journeying together’) which has now ended was a moment on the way. The Church is on her way to a new Synod in October of 2015. In the meanwhile the thinking about sexuality, marriage and family continues in the worldwide community of faith.
Building bridges, not destroying them, as Church is in the spirit of Pope Francis and the Synod. Personally I advocate a ‘ministry of encounter’.
We can’t kick people with marriage problems or other relational worries when they’re down, but we should stand with and help them. In that way we follow in the footsteps of Christ who, as the Good Samaritan, seeks out and heals people who lie wounded on the side of the way of life. Catholic ministry will not repel or write off people but try and meet them in the places where they are. In that, the Catholic shepherd is called to manifest God’s unconditional love for imperfect people.
Media report that the Church wants to be more merciful but that doctrine is unchangeable. I think that is too simplistic. Life means growth and change. That is also true for the life of the Church. Christian teaching knows development (Cardinal John Henry Newman). When our thinking is historical-organical it becomes clear how important the hermeneutic questions are. The doctrine of the Church must continuously be interpreted and communicated. Of course, the spirit of the times can never be a deciding factor in that. He who marries the spirit of the times, is soon widowed. But we should wonder of we have sufficiently probed the wealth of Scripture and Catholic Tradition (Cardinal Reinhard Marx). In that sense the doctrine of the Church must always be actualised to stay close to life.
Going towards the Synod of October 2015, there are important questions on the Church’s agenda. How can we help young people to grow towards the sacrament of marriage? How do we help couples to strengthen and deepen their marriage bond? How do we stand with people who failed and were unable to fulfill their word of faithfulness?
An important questions, it seems to me, is also how love, friendship and affection can take shape for people who do not live within the bond of marriage. In our country millions of people live outside of marriage. The Church traditionally asks them to live in abstinence. But what does this mean in real situations, certainly when we realise that celibate life is a charisma, a gift from God, which few people receive. When we acknowledge that the questions of relationship ‘within the boundaries of Catholic morality become all the more exiting. In short, there is much work to do for the faith community.
Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte”
The bishop raises good questions, ones that certainly need answering. But not just theoretical answers. These questions instead need practical solutions, they need to become visible in how the Church acts and speaks, not just how she thinks. That’s what the Synod is about, too: the question of how teachings become reality for people living in the world.
The doctrine of the Church, the rich body of faith that she protects and communicates, is neither completely solid nor completely fluid. Comments about doctrine continuously needing to be interpreted, as made by Bishop de Korte above, are often understood to mean that what the Church once believed to be true, need not be believed anymore (not that am I saying that the bishop holds to this). That is quite simply wrong.
In his most recent blog post, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York writes:
“We Catholics pledge allegiance to what is called a “revealed religion”. That simply means that we believe that God has told us (“revealed”) certain things about Himself and ourselves through the Bible, through our own nature, especially through His Son, all celebrated and taught by His Church.”
We find this everywhere in the Bible. God reveals Himself to people and over the course of history we get to know Him more and more, and our relationship with Him develops. But at the start, there are certain truths which we know because they have been revealed. These divine truths are unchangeable, as they exist independent of us. So when we say that we must interpret or develop doctrine, we always have these revealed truths as our solid basis. Does that limit us? Perhaps it does, but only because it’s not only about us. God is the other party in the relationship and His contributions, His truth about Himself, creation and human nature and purpose, must equally be acknowledged.
Developing doctrine must be understood as increasing our knowledge and understanding of it, building on what we already know. That deeper understanding is one step, the communication and manifestation of it is another. And that, again, is what the Synod is intended to encourage.
But, as a final aside, not every doctrine is dogmatic (ie. held to be absolutely and unchanging true). Non-dogmatic teachings and practices, such as certain rituals and traditions of the Church, can certainly change. But if we want to change them, we must always ask ourselves: why do want them to change, and why do we have them in the first place? Perhaps then we’ll find that it is sometimes better to hold onto teachings, instead of doing away with them.
Today, it seemed as if the Church has turned a whole bundle of pages, made a full 180 on several high profile subjects and basically “got with the times”. Of course, reality is quite different, but you wouldn’t know it from certain sources, both left and right.
The Relatio post disceptationem, which was presented today by Cardinal Péter Erdö, summarises the discussions and presentations of the first week of the Synod, and tries to paint a picture of the major topics discussed and field of further study and development identified. As such there is nothing conclusive in it, nothing authoritative, nothing but a update on where the discussion now stand.
In order to understand what the contents of the document mean, it is always good to read all of it. Not just part 3, which outlines the pastoral areas that the discussion will focus on, but also part 1 (the challenges of the family in our modern world) and part 2 (the Biblical and traditional basis of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family). Only when read together can each part be understood fully and flights of fancy and wishful thinking be avoided.
We must never forget the theme of this assembly of the Synod: The pastoral challenges of the family on the context of evangelisation. There are several keywords here: The Synod participants will deal with pastoral challenges, not dogmatic. The teachings of the Church are not under discussion. It is about the family: their challenges, not the teachings, are what dictate the discussions. The context is that of evangelisation: pastoral care for families, the ways of facing their challenges, has evangelisation as its goal.
The outlines, which are not recommendations, and certainly not changes in the Church’s teaching, deal with people, and the Church has never ceased encouraging the innate dignity of human beings and the respect we are obliged to have for it. That is regardless of their gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, language or whatever element of their being you’d care to mention. It’s in the catechism, so anyone displaying surprise as the Relatio‘s emphasis on respect for all people, has some reading up to do.
The Relatio post disceptationem is interesting, worth reading and studying, and a good reminder of the importance of mercy, but it is not the earthquake some have made it out to be.
Read it, all of it. Don’t be satisfied with headlines.
Photo credit: Franco Origlia/Getty Images Europe
Serious and solemn faces this morning in St. Peter’s Basilica – solemn for Mass and serious in the face of the duties lying ahead for the participants in the Synod, among them Cardinal Wim Eijk (sixth from the left, next to Italian Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco).
The actual discussions will start tomorrow, but as ever, the Synod really began at the source and the summit: Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.
In his brief homily, Pope Francis reminded all present about what the Synod participants are to do (or, as the case may be, not do):
“We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod Assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.
We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can “thwart” God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.
My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). In this way our thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).”
Cardinal Péter Erdö, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in Hungary, Relator General of the upcoming Synod of Bishops, but today in the first place president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE) had some choice words to say in order to describe the need for Christ in Europe. The full text of his greeting to Pope Francis is available here.
“Holy Father, Europe needs Christ! Today when a lot is said about the economic crisis, we know that even before Europe was suffering a crisis of humanity and the lack of hope and a perspective on life, which only God can give.
Our very aged society, which focuses more on individualism than on the family, which looks to the world just with the eyes of the economy, reducing everything to profit and usefulness, which has difficulty in welcoming nascent life, the elderly or the disabled, this our European society studded with so many existential margins and disorientated in the search for what is good, true and beautiful, needs Jesus. Our compatriots, even when they are not aware of this, need to find the living and vibrant Jesus Christ in the life of the Church, His Body and His Family.
How many times is the Church really the only reality which remains present and close to the poor, to the elderly, to the pregnant and abandoned mothers, to the young people who are perhaps seeking, but without great hope, meaning for their lives? And we want to be more present! But if faith is lacking, on what will our presence be based? (Cfr. Matt 5:13-14)”
In the run-up to the Synod, the presidents of the European bishops’ conferences are in Rome for their plenary meeting, which has “the family and the future of Europe” as its theme. Most conference presidents were present, although some had sent delegates. For some reason Cardinal Wim Eijk did not attend, nor was a delegate of his listed among the participants. Cardinal Eijk will, however, be in Rome for the Synod. But a permanent Dutch presence in the CCEE is assured by its Vice Secretary General, Father Michel Remery, a priest of the Diocese of Rotterdam.
My own bishop, Msgr. Gerard de Korte, has also released a short statement about the Synod. His hopes and expectations are realistic and, I think, what we should expect from the Synod. Bishop de Korte holds the portfolio for Church and society in the bishops’ conference.
“In the media there has, rightly, been much attention for the tension between current Church teachings about sexuality, marriage and the family, and the concrete realities of stubborn life. For many modern Catholics much of the teaching about marriage and family have become incomprehensible and petrified.
That is why I very much hope that the Synod will choose a third way. Not a repetition of words which no longer express anything, but neither an adaptation to modern liberal culture. It will have to be about putting the Catholic wisdom about marriage and family into comprehensible words. For without a clear teaching which is near to life, many (young) Catholics receive no spiritual guidance in the fields of sexuality and forming families. They very easily go along with the ethics as shown in movies, video clips and soap operas. Those are often ethics of brief pleasure and fleeting relationships. The Church faces the challenge of speaking clearly about the importance of faithful love, especially for the happiness of people. Within marriage the Golden Rule is of great import: treat your neighbour as you would want to be treated.
The Synod will undoubtedly maintain the indissolubility of marriage. The teaching of Christ on this point is clear. Marriage is a covenant for life: not a temporary contract. But we can’t close our eyes to the enormous marriage crisis in our modern (western) world. In our country one in every three marriages ends in divorce. Against that background the Synod will probably and rightly plead for a more intense marriage preparation.
For the many people who fail in marital fidelity the Synod will hopefully choose a ‘ministry of mercy’. Like the youngest son in the parable, God is also a father for people who divorce, a father who watches for and embraces with unconditional love. That may hopefully be a source of comfort for people in a relationship crisis. God remains faithful, also for failing and sinful people.”
Msgr. Dr. Gerard de Korte
The Dutch bishops have not yet spoken much in public about the upcoming Synod, but today Bishop Rob Mutsaerts, auxiliary of ‘s Hertogenbosch, does. And he makes a point that has been emphasised before by both Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Burke: the Synod is not about divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist. The question is a bigger one, as Bishop Mutsaerts explains:
“With the extraordinary Synod of the Family which opens on 5 October, Pope Francis mostly aims for a greater appreciation of the Christian marriage as a sacrament. It is clear that in today’s culture the Biblical vision on marriage and family is considered to be virtually unattainable, and is seen more as a burden than as good news. Perhaps that is the reason for Pope Francis to have scheduled the beatification of Paul VI at the end of the Synod, as a closing statement.
Paul VI was a staunch defender of Christian marriage. His famed and infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae, however, achieved the opposite according to public opinion. The Biblical ideal was almost completely forgotten. It is to be hoped that October’s Synod will not result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. Expectations, after all, are high. Some fervently hope that the Pope will change the Church’s teaching about divorced and remarried people; others fear he will. That would result in a repetition of Humanae Vitae. And that is exactly what Pope Francis is afraid of: “I have not been happy that so many people – even church people, priests – have said: “Ah, the Synod will be about giving communion to the divorced”, and went straight to that point”, the Pope told reporters on the return flight from Israel.
The questions is much broader. The family is in crisis. Young people rarely choose marriage. They choose others ways of living together. The family is in crisis because marriage is in crisis, according to the firm opinion of Francis.
I hope that the Pope will get the Synod he has in mind, and not the Synod which is mainly concerned with the single question of divorced and remarried faithful. That is certainly a genuine problem, but a far more complex problem lies at its root: few understand marriage as a Christian vocation, strengthened by sacramental mercy. Not without reason did the Pope give it “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelisation” as title, and he placed it as such emphatically within the context of evangelisation. Evangelisation is without meaning if we consider it without the Gospel. The words of Jesus to both the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery was hard to accept for those who heard it then and those who hear it now. Don’t forget that the Apostles thought that Jesus’ teachings about marriage were so difficult that it would be better not to marry. If the Synod is true to the Gospel – can she be otherwise? – she can expect the same response, and it will be her duty to inspire confidence that the Christian marriage is still recommendable.
Pope Francis is keen to emphasise that Christian marriage is a sacrament. Much of the confusion surrounding marriage and divorce arises when we lose sight of the fact that marriage is a sacrament. Marriage is not indissoluble because two people make a promise for life. The Church can dispense people from their promises. That is een true for the vows of religious. But the Church can’t undo a sacrament. Marriage is indissoluble for the same reason that we have tabernacles: a consecrated host can’t be ‘deconsecrated’, just like Baptism or the ordination of a priest can’t be undone. Even a priest who has ben laicised remains a priest, even though he can’t exercise the office of priest (although he can hear confessions in emergencies). Nobody, no Synod and also no Pope, can undo a valid sacrament. That’s simply how it is. We shouldn’t therefore expect a relaxation of rules regarding divorced and remarried people in regard to their receiving Holy Communion. Those who do expect this will be disappointed from the outset.
Most Catholics are unaware of the sacramental character of their marriage. Marriage, by the way, is the only of the seven sacrament which is not administered by a priest or deacon, but by lay people, by husband and wife when they say yes to each other. This is the sacrament that gives strength and mercy to be able to keep promises. That is what it is about for the Pope.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper has come increasingly under fire from fellow cardinals and others in the Church for his comments about marriage, divorce and Communion. While some are concerned by these visible disagreements, and Cardinal Kasper himself having even suggested that his critics are personally attacking him and Pope Francis, this really is simply what Pope Francis has said he wanted: open and free discussion about the topics that the Synod will devote its time to next month. And while I usually don’t want to commit myself to stark distinctions between left and right, orthodox and liberal, in this discussion it really does seem that those who want the Church to change or loosen up her teachings are honestly insulted by those who disagree.
In an interview for Vatican Radio, Cardinal Kasper commented on the situation. I have translated some of his answer which I think are most interesting in this context.
“Of course everyone has the right to publicly state their opinion. Nothing can be brought against that. But I wonder if the entire Synod is not being reduced to a single point. It is about the pastoral challenges in the context of the new evangelisation. That is far broader field. An insider problem is being place at the centre here. What matters is to be able to speak again and discuss the beauty and the Christian understanding of the family, which many today no longer know – it is about far more fundamental problems than simply this one. And secondly: what sort of understanding of the Gospel is this? It is the Good News. One can’t turn it into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not. The Pope wants an open discussion, and that should be held. Then, in the Synod, to listen quietly to one another, in an atmosphere of prayer, and the in the end make a decision for the good of the faithful. I will not enter into polemics.”
“Without doubt the family is the cell of society and the cell of the life of the Church. In the family, in marriage and family, life and faith come closest together. It is an essential reality of life which has been raised to the glory of a sacrament. In that way it is a very vital and central issue for the Church to stand for marriage and family and offer solutions for the crisis that exists today. It is about these pastoral challenges, which is the theme of the Synod, not a war of doctrine. Of course, pastoral care is impossible without being oriented on the truth. But the truth is not an abstract system, but in the end it is Jesus Christ in person, and we need to bring the people close to Christ. In that sense the Synod must be oriented on the truth and understand Tradition as a living and bubbling spring and not as a rigid system.”
“I have posed a question, not simply suggested a solution. And I posed that question in agreement with the Pope. That’s very important for me. I asked, “When a marriage has failed one should do everything to repair it. But when there is no way back, when someone has entered into a new relationship which is, humanly speaking, a happy one, lived in a Christian fashion, when there are children, one can’t give up this new relationship without serious consequence. And we must also see how God offers new chances – and God does. That is His mercy, that He does not let go of anyone of good will. And everyone does what he can in their situation. And I think that this should be pastorally clarified in every individual case, after a period of orientation. That is called the ‘Via poenitentialis’ – but those involved suffer enough already without it. They do not need to perform great acts of penance. But a new orientation is necessary. That should be the sacrament of penance – that is why we have it – and the sacrament of penance also means re-admission to the Eucharist. But as I said, that is not the solution for all cases, presumably for a minority of all people who live in our communities, who suffer from it and have an honest desire for the sacraments, who urgently need the sacraments to deal with their difficult situations.”
In general it is hard to disagree with much of what the cardinal says. He is very right that the entire Synod is indeed being reduced this single topic (and his perceived opponent Cardinal Burke recently said the exact same thing). His words about the importance of family and the Church’s defense of and communication about it are also very important, as are his concerns for those who are involved in a good, Christian, loving second relationship while their first marriage is still canonically valid. There is a problem there, but not with the quality of the second relationship.
And that’s were the problem of the discussion lies. Too many people shift the focus to those second relationships and how the mean Church wants to destroy them and the happiness of those involved. That is a clear untruth. The fact remains that a marriage is a sacrament, and therefore something that can’t be broken by human hands (we simply need to listen to Christ’s words: “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9)). So when a marriage exists (we’re looking at pure existence here, not quality), there can’t be a second marriage next to it. This is, in essence the basis of the argument. All discussion and, indeed, pastoral care needs to be built on it. And at the latter the Synod will look in detail.
Cardinal Kasper’s mistake, in my opinion, is that he sweeps aside this basis when he says, “One can’t turn [the Gospel] into just a legal codex alone and then say that there can be no discussion about this point anymore. That makes the Synod a joke. Nobody has the right to say in advance what is possible and what is not.” There must be discussion, certainly, for the good of the faithful. But there are also parameters, which are set by Christ. If we want to follow Him, we must accept and work within His parameters. The Codex of Canon Law is the result of centuries of understanding these parameters and translating them for a host of situations, places and times. There must always be such development, and in that sense the law can change. But it can not be overwritten, swept aside or corrected as if what was once true no longer is. In the end it reflects the Truth that is its founder, Jesus Christ.
The Synod will certainly look at the law, but not in order to change it. No, it will concern itself with translation and communication. How can the pastoral care that the Church now offers be improved, so that what she asks the faithful is also possible for them to achieve. In a recent interview Cardinal Burke said, “It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth. How can that be merciful?” He’s right. Truth and mercy are not separate. How is it merciful to encourage someone to move further away from the truth that he or she wants to follow? And how are we true to what Christ’s asks of us if we show false mercy?
Bishop Johan Bonny has been making headlines in Catholic media, first in Germany but today also in his native Belgium. In an extensive note the bishop of Antwerp outlines his thoughts and expectations for this autumn’s Synod of Bishops. Various media have presented this as an attack on Popes Paul VI and St. John Paul II and their documents on difficult subjects related to marriage, family and morality. But reality is somewhat different. Bishop Bonny does not exclusively discuss the contents of various magisterial pronouncements, but does offer strong criticism on how they came about, and how they are put it into practice.
In this post, I will summarise the text and offer my opinion here and there. As it is a fairly long text, this post is a work in progress. Expect updates over the coming days.
In the first part of his document, the bishops explains that he sees the development of an ecclesiastical question within the discussion about marriage and family, which he traces back to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on contraception and sexuality, Humanae vitae. The way in which the Pope developed this text, apparently ignoring the advice of experts he had appointed himself, stands in stark contrast with how the Second Vatican Council went about matters: in strong collegiality which led to a virtually unanimous passing of documents.
This lack of collegiality in such an important matter has led, so the bishop explains, to a gap between the Church’s moral teaching and the moral understanding of the faithful. And we do see this happening: statements, decrees, encyclicals and the like do not play much of a role in the lives of the faithful, even though they can be important for properly living as Catholic faithful. Of course, a perceived lack of collegiality can not be the only explanation for this, as Bishop Bonny admits. I would even go so far as wondering if many faithful are even aware of how documents are developed, at least not in our time.
Among bishops, Curia and Pope, more collegiality can have positive results (and also negative), since we should not be afraid of talking about such important matters. But the Church is no democracy. The very nature of the papacy, of the body of apostles and disciples that Christ established, is at odds with that. The Pope has magisterial primacy, and he must be free to exercise it. But of course it is good to do everything to avoid needless division and even opposition, although that can probably never be rooted out completely.
According to EWTN, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri has confirmed what I have been saying since an interview two weeks ago caused some fear and confusion about the goals and focus of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family.
In the earlier interview the cardinal seemed to be hinting at possible changes in the Church doctrine on marriage. While I did not share that conclusion, many others did. I already wrote that Cardinal Baldisseri’s comments did, in my opinion, not so much deal with doctrine but with pastoral practice, which, I still think, will also be the focus of the Synod. In the EWTN interview, the cardinal emphasised the following:
“Regarding the possibility for the synod of bishops of changing the doctrine of the Church, I underscore that the First Vatican Council’s document Dei Filius affirmed that “understanding of its sacred dogmas must be perpetually retained, which Holy Mother Church has once declared; and there must never be recession from that meaning under the specious name of a deeper understanding.”
And I also remind you that John XXIII said in the inaugural speech of the Second Vatican Council that “authentic doctrine … should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.””
Whether these comments come in response to the fears mentioned above, are a form of “backtracking”, or are simply a timely reminder about the nature of doctrine in the Church, they should go some way in clearing up misconceptions about the upcoming Synod. The Church will not be changing the truth. That is the same in the past, now and the future. What she can – and should – look at it how that truth can be communicated, shared, explained and lived most effectively. So no, divorce will not suddenly become an option for validly married couples, and the very nature of marriage will also not change. The sacraments will not be devalued, and we should still be properly disposed to encounter the Lord in them. Objective obstacles will remain so. The Synod will not change the ‘what’, but will look at the ‘how’.