As the Catholic Church nears the much anticipated Synod on the Family (October 5-19) an increasing number of bishops are playing a dangerous game of expectations setting. In a largely unprecedented manner, prelates are utilizing the media to promote their views, seeking to drive a progressive agenda through interviews and pastoral statements. Those bishops who are espousing some of the more radical changes to the traditional teachings and practices of the Church appear to be growing ever more emboldened in their statements.
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp is one such prelate. In language that is as disheartening as it is shocking, his excellency released a letter for the faithful earlier this month entitled, “Synod on the Family, Expectations of a Diocesan Bishop.” Bishop Bonny’s words speak for themselves.
When discussing the matter of “regular” and “irregular” situations within Christian families, Bishop Bonny notes:
“In the same context, I have often been forced to observe how offensive the language of the Church can come across with respect to certain individuals and situations. Those who want to enter into dialogue with others must guard against the use of ethical qualifications that do not square with lived reality and as a result sound extremely humiliating. Many of our Church documents are in urgent need of revision in this regard…”
What comes next, however, is truly shocking. Invoking a secular reasoning and emotive language of a contemporary culture which rejects natural law, moral theology and absolute truth, Bishop Bonny offers the following three scenarios:
K and P have been married for thirty years and have four children, roughly three times the average number of children in a Belgian family. After the birth of their fourth child they had reached their limit and decided to use birth control to prevent further conceptions. Can we say without nuance of these parents with four children that because of their method of birth control they are falsifying conjugal love, that they have ruptured the essential bond between marriage and fertility and that they no longer give themselves to one another completely? Or might we not value their generosity as parents, encourage them in the attention they devote to their relationship and to the further development of a welcoming home for their children?
In other words, because the average Belgian family has only 1.3 children today due to the near collapse of the faith in Belgium, the Catholic Church should now accept contraception within marriage. This would of course immediately undermine the meaning and purpose of marriage as it has always been understood by Holy Mother Church, and was most notably restated by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae.
The bishop’s second scenario:
A and L did everything they could to have a baby. As L approached her 40th the situation became more urgent. Their desire to have a child was genuine and generous, and supported moreover by a deep Christian faith. Medical problems led them to opt for homologous in vitro fertilisation. Can we say in general terms of this couple that because of their medical option they open a door to the domination of technology over the destiny of the human person, that their deeds are in conflict with the common dignity of parents and children, and that they see their child as a piece of property? Or might we not try to understand their profound desire to keep love and fertility conjoined, and hope that their desire to have a child will be fulfilled with the help of skilled and meticulous medical experts?
A diocesan bishop actually asking the question, “Why not IVF?”
Bishop Bonny presents his final example, suggesting that the Church may actually wish to encourage younger people to seek cohabitation before marriage:
J and M are both in their mid-twenties and both university graduates; they both have a job and they live together unmarried; they plan to stay together and to start a family. Their parents and entire family, moreover, have confidence in the way they are making their way in life as a couple. Can we say a priori of these young people that because they are living together unmarried they have opted for a trial marriage, that human reason points to the unacceptability of their choice and that they are treating one another in a way that runs counter to their personal dignity and against the purpose of love? Or might we not encourage them in the choice they have made for one another in the hope that their relationship might evolve towards civil marriage and sacramental marriage?
He concludes by declaring:
There can be little doubt that such situations deserve more respect and a more nuanced evaluation than the language of certain Church documents appear to prescribe.
In the end it is important to understand what exactly so many are looking toward the synod for: nothing less than the redefinition of marriage and the family.
Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.