If you have not been following the news about the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis to study the crisis in marriage and family life, let us inform you that there has been quite a bit of heat behind closed doors, so much that some of it has made its way out into the public. Having to watch such “sausage making” can be unappetizing and perhaps even distressing for some. What is it all about? The reports, of course, necessarily try to simplify issues but with simplification comes erroneous interpretations.
There are really many nuanced positions and it would be a mistake to say that there are but two sides. Yet, in some ways, the manifold different concerns tend to coalesce into two general coalitions (at least at this point). One coalition has decided that the only chance for successfully helping marriages and families in such a confused society is to innovate in order to help particularly the lost to hear the Good News of marriage and family life. The innovation would be some change to the Church’s pastoral approach that avoids causing those in irregular situations from turning away from the Church before we have had a chance to engage with them. The other position agrees with this goal, but sees the innovations being proposed as implicitly and in some cases, explicitly contradicting the Church’s teaching. Unfortunately, some have caricatured this as a fight of “doctrine versus mercy.” It is no such thing; mercy is an application of doctrine, that is, of truth (see our article The New Evangelization, Apostolic Action, and Truth).
So whose fault is it that this blow up has happened. Well, in a way it is ours, the laity…at least in part. You see, the widespread and deeply ingrained problems in Western society (which is the primary concern of the innovators) can be traced to Catholics failing to live the faith, to witness to it, and to engage in public life according to the dictates of the faith. If each and every one of us were out welcoming the stranger, helping to make the outcast feel welcome, forming young ones in ways that prepare them for the attacks on their faith, preparing young couples for understanding authentic marriage, stop patronizing media and voting for politicians who promote socially destructive products and policies, etc., this would go a long way toward resolving the problems that the Bishops are trying to address as a Universal Church.
This is a problem of subsidiarity. The Universal Church is a sign and witness of our mutual solidarity as the People of God, but it cannot at the level of the Universal Church (or the Diocese, or even the parish) bring the lost, the wounded or the disaffected into a loving, personal encounter with Jesus Christ in such a way as to make them feel welcome and loved. This can only be done one-on-one, that is our job as the laity. Only we have the numbers and the reach into the breadth of the various sectors of society.
To be effective, we must recognize the phenomenology of sin. Those of us who find ourselves in sinful situations are aware at some level that there is a problem. Usually, for the malformed (morally) this is an unarticulated, unsettledness, some strange interior disharmony. Others (usually those with some moral formation) who begin to understand the reason for their discomfort can be led into different degrees of self-condemnation. Those in both situations are always looking at others very closely, first for any sign of rejection or judgment, and lacking this, then affirmation. As the level of anxiety increases, the need for repeated, even continual affirmation is solicited and often even demanded. Those who suffer from such debilitating conditions as same sex attraction disorder are saddled with even more challenges. This affective disorder has prevented them from gaining self-mastery over their emotions. Their mis-attraction is also experienced as their personal identity. For the lost and wounded, words of correction about sinful lifestyles to which they are deeply committed will necessarily be received as a personal attack. This is even more severe with the extra challenges of same sex attraction. Only a deep relationship of trust and love will permit the relationship to survive and the faithful Catholic to be around when the lost soul is ready to consider other possibilities.
The challenge is two fold here. How does one express unconditional acceptance of the person who identifies himself with his sin, without simultaneously seeming to accept his sinful lifestyle? The answer is that you cannot. Herein lies the problem with addressing this problem at the level of the Universal Church. The Church must not only seek the lost, it must guard the faith, especially for those weak in it. This is why these issues must be addressed on a personal, one-on-one basis. The lost need to develop deep relationships of trust and love with those whose fidelity to the Church is unquestioned. Such a relationship is a sine qua non before there is any attempt at presenting them with the beauty of truth, before other life’s options are discussed, before the damage being caused by the sinful situation is broached. To attempt such an approach at the level of the Universal Church is to neglect, indeed, to abandon the responsibility to defend the faith. Bishops doing such would fall under the censure of St Boniface, Apostle to Germany who wrote to shepherds of souls:
Let us neither be dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf. Instead let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ’s flock. Let us preach the whole of God’s plan to the powerful and to the humble, to rich and to poor, to men of every rank and age, as far as God gives us the strength, in season and out of season…
The laity needs to take up the slack and help our bishops to be able to move away from the precarious situation they will be considering before they meet again next October. We must make no mistake; there are very serious issues at stake here. The wrong decisions can do as much damage to the lost and wounded as the very serious problems the bishops are trying to address. We must pray for our bishops, but we must also get involved. This is the mission of the Mother of the Americas Institute, to help all of us to be better prepared to assist in the New Evangelization.