The recent Synod of Bishops on the Family.
You know, the one that got everyone either freaked-out or excited about how the Catholic Church was going to finally join the 19th Century regarding sexuality. The interim message from the bishops seemed clear: Homosexuality is maybe ok, Divorce is not as bad as we thought, and maybe it’s time to modernize a bit. This conclusion was reported in nearly every paper and every broadcast around the world.
This wasn’t the first time the general media got a church story terribly wrong and it won’t be the last. But as the Synod’s final and official report came out recently, it was largely ignored. One would have to dig deep and wide to find any substantive report on. Why? Probably because it is unspectacular, affirming a thoroughly Catholic and biblically faithful sexual, marital and familial ethic. Dashed hopes of the puffed-up elites who possess the prescience to know what the Church needs.
The bishops and Pope Francis proclaim clearly in the final report: “Throughout the centuries, the Church has maintained her constant teaching on marriage the family” which is that,
God consecrates the love of husband and wife and confirms the indissoluble character of their love, offering them assistance to live their faithfulness, mutual complementarity and openness to new life. Therefore, the Church looks to married couples as the heart of the entire family, which, in turn, looks to Jesus.
The Fathers note and systematically commend how this teaching has been consistently and unmistakably amplified in the Church through the recent decades from Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (47-52) to Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and Familiaris Consortio concluding with Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est. A clear voice which they want us to know is intended to be continued through this Synod’s work.
Section 55 addresses the white-hot issue of homosexuality and a proper pastoral perspective regarding it. Equivocation or any hint of change in Catholic thinking is just not there. Regarding families with members “who have homosexual tendencies” the report explains that “the synod father asked themselves what attention might be appropriate for them in accordance with the Church teaching…” The answer is crisp regarding a foundational Christian sexual and familial ethic that can animate pastoral work here:
There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.
But regarding the same-sex attracted person, the Church’s pastoral stance is gracious:
Nevertheless, men and women with homosexual tendencies ought to be received with respect and sensitivity…. and…every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.
The human person – regardless of their story, struggles or sins – should always be treated with dignity and respect as a divine image-bearer. No exceptions or qualifications. No one is better or worse than another. Classic Catholic anthropology.
The Fathers add that exerting political pressure upon pastors and the Church to fall in line with the current cultural tide and mores on the issue of same-sex identity and ethics is “totally unacceptable.” They add that “international organizations who link their financial assistance to poorer countries” based on their acceptance of laws allowing same-sex ‘marriage’ is also equally unacceptable. Clearly the Bishops and the Pope are aware of the relentless political pressures brought to bear upon Christians in so many countries and they reject it, saying it has no authority or influence upon the Church.
There are a few curiously unclear statements though and they relate to cohabitation. While being very clear about God’s absolute design for sexual and domestic relationships – life-long marital union of husband and wife – and elevates “this type of family as the basic, necessary and fruitful unit of humanity’s life together” it also addresses the pastoral challenges present in those who live together outside of marriage. The report explains,
A new element in today’s pastoral activity is a sensitivity to the positive aspects of civilly celebrated marriage and, with obvious differences, cohabitation. While clearly presenting the Christian message, the Church also needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations which do not yet or no longer correspond with it.
While this is a clear call to teach Christian orthodoxy regarding sexual and domestic relationships, it is unclear – to me at least – what the references to cohabitation actually mean. Can a Christian pastor really hold “a sensitivity to the positive aspects of…cohabitation”? Don’t think so.
Or is the report referring to the “positive aspects” and “constructive elements” of both civil marriage and cohabitation that could be seen as the steps toward moving the couple along the road to an authentic sacramental marriage? Perhaps, but who knows? Clarity matters.
But as studious Catholics know, this is not or ever was a strictly theologically or prescriptive gathering or document. It is pastoral, addressing how the bishops of the world, and their priests, should pastorally navigate the current and ever changing world in fidelity to the historic and biblical teachings of the Church as well as for the dignity and slow pilgrimage of every member of their flock into a fuller life in Christ. This pastoral task is certainly not precise work. It is messy because people are messy. All of us. And this document is generally helpful in assisting our pastors on keeping their eye on the ball regarding orthodox belief and pastoral practice.
Breathe easy, the Church is on track.