Synod and Sanity: A Reliably Catholic Priest Weighs In


No, I’m not referring to myself in the title, though I would bristle at the accusation of heresy, or even theological imprecision. The forthcoming (November/December 2014) edition of The Catholic Response magazine features this cool-headed commentary by its founder and editor, Father Peter Stravinskas, on the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family. Because it generates more light than heat, I enthusiastically share it (having obtained Father’s gracious permission).

I wish to offer some reflections on the Synod, given as “bullet points” in no particular priority order. I would also encourage readers to refer to my May/June editorial, in which I anticipated some of the problems that I thought might emerge and which, unfortunately, have emerged.

•  The shroud of secrecy surrounding the presentations by the bishops and various lay presenters was most regrettable and most unnecessary. Never before in the modern history of synods have the media and the Catholic faithful been shut off from the conversations occurring in the Synod Hall. It is passing strange that this should happen during the pontificate of Pope Francis who has consistently talked about the need for transparency and openness, causing none other than the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, to raise this very objection, noting that the Christian people have a right to know what their bishops think and say. If a bishop (or any other speaker) is afraid to attach his name to his intervention, that may be a sign that he shouldn’t be saying it, to begin with. Furthermore, the Church has consistently – and rightly – complained that the secular media hardly ever get Catholic stories right. This time around, the media had an honest reason for any failures in that regard. It would be less than forthright of me not to mention that media confusion has also been fed by inexact papal utterances and by not a few Vatican spin-doctors. UPDATE — See HERE and HERE ]

•  There was apparently significant concern raised that we should not employ “offensive” or harsh-sounding language to describe certain life-styles. While there is no need to go out of one’s way to be hurtful in discussing morally problematic matters – and it can even be counter-productive to do so – one cannot resort to sugar-coating behaviors which have eternal consequences (presuming we believe that). There is no easy, palatable way for an oncologist to inform a patient that he has a malignant tumor and what the remediation process involves. Similarly, people who engage in sexual intercourse outside the bounds of marriage – and especially those who do so habitually (whether heterosexual or homosexual) – face the prospect of eternal punishment, so say Jesus and Saint Paul and the entire Christian Tradition. The fact that there is no “nice” way to issue the wake-up call is proof positive of the seriousness of it all. The stark language is, as a matter of fact, an act of charity, saying, “I love you so much that I don’t want you to spend eternity in Hell.” The physician who would refrain from offering an honest and forthright diagnosis would be deemed a bad physician, derelict in his duty. No faithful believer – and surely no loving one – can stand by and watch those he loves head toward damnation.

•  Back in May, I warned our readers that this Synod had the real possibility to be hijacked by special interest groups, rather than being a presentation of the life- and love-affirming teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage and the family. Particularly neuralgic has been the push for admittance of the divorced-remarried to Holy Communion. As I noted in my earlier remarks, any sin can be forgiven; however, there must be repentance, which automatically means a firm resolve not to commit the sin again. Our Lord is eminently clear that one who marries a divorced person commits adultery. Therefore, every act of sexual intercourse in that relationship is adulterous and thus mortally sinful. How can such a person believe that he does not come under Saint Paul’s strong condemnation of those who “eat and drink” the Lord’s Body and Blood unworthily (1 Cor 11:27-29)? Yet again, the Church’s wise refusal of the sacraments to such people is a preeminent exercise of pastoral charity. As I shared with readers in my May editorial, my parents were in an invalid marriage; it was precisely the Church’s seriousness about their “living in sin” (yes, that’s what it is) and their inability to receive Holy Communion that moved them to commit themselves to live as brother and sister. And I have known many other couples who have embraced that noble mode of living – the very form of Christian heroism which Cardinal Kasper (who, incidentally, has just made some shockingly racist remarks about African bishops) has condescendingly said that the laity cannot embrace! It is also worth recalling that the Eastern Orthodox synod interventions indicated that even their praxis does not regard the second union as sacramental or valid.

•  Much vaunted by some at the Synod was the principle of “gradualism.” This is certainly a valid moral approach, but what does it entail? Gradualism is common sense put into a theological and spiritual framework. Rare is the person who can move instantaneously from habitual sin to perfect virtue. For example, someone who has become addicted to pornography can rarely go “cold turkey.” Such a person first comes to the conclusion that his reliance on pornography is sinful, that he sincerely wishes to give up this attachment, and so confesses his offenses against holy purity and resolves – as far as any human can do – not to commit that sin again. Being human, however, he may lapse from time to time on his way to recovery. If the person using pornography ten times a week has gotten it down to twice a week, genuine moral progress is being made, which rejoices the loving Heart of Christ. On the other hand, the contracepting couple, the divorced-remarried couple, or the same-sex couple who do not intend to give up the sinful behavior are not engaging in moral gradualism since they lack repentance, as well as even the attempt to reform their lives.

•  There is also an interfaith/ecumenical dimension to this entire concern. Many Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Evangelicals look to the Catholic Church for support for traditional family values. Not a few of my acquaintances in those communities feel let down by what looks like the abandonment of the fight. Their logic is simple: If the worldwide Catholic Church of over a billion members is acquiescing, is there any hope at all for the struggle? Ironically enough, while some of “our own” are turned off by our adherence to the natural law and Divine Revelation, innumerable Evangelicals have come into full communion with the Catholic Church, precisely because of our proclamation of Gospel morality.

•  We have also heard a good amount of talk about mercy. Mercy means that something wrong has been done, meriting a just punishment. If a husband has hurt his wife, his request for mercy rings hollow and is impertinent if he shows no sign of repentance and does not promise never to offend in that way again. God’s justice is offended by sin and the clarion call of Jesus at the outset of His public ministry was very direct: “Repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). There can be no legitimate claim to the good news of the Gospel without a prior commitment to repentance – and it is a particular duty of Christ’s ministers to call all the faithful incessantly to such repentance. Only then does mercy mean anything.

•  Christians today in most parts of the world find themselves in a world much like the one inhabited by the first Christians – rampant sexual license, abortion, contraception, family break-down. Those early Christians took a counter-cultural stance, echoing Gideon: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!” (Josh 24:15). The Church’s pastoral workers – teachers, preachers, counselors – have the grave responsibility to provide families with the encouragement to live counter-culturally, never succumbing to the decadence and depravity which surround us. Caving in to the moral degradation harms the people we should be serving and likewise deprives society of an antidote to the negative spiral into oblivion. From the dungheap of ancient Rome rose, Phoenix-like, a glorious Christian civilization, which flowered in a most impressive way in the Middle Ages – often dubbed the “Age of Faith.” How did that happen? By believers saying “no” to the “mainstream” culture (or anti-culture) and saying “yes” to genuine love and life.

•  While Pope Saint Pius X’s encouragement for frequent reception of Holy Communion was a welcome development to counter the Jansenists, Catholic practice has now gone to the opposite extreme, so that it is presumed that everyone will receive Communion all the time, often resulting in unprepared, unreflective and even grossly unworthy receptions of the Blessed Sacrament. Something mentioned at the Synod was the revival of an appreciation for “spiritual Communion,” whereby one acknowledges his unworthiness to approach the Holy of Holies and has recourse to prayerful sentiments of adoration, contrition and longing. This mode of communion brings grace and, where needed, the actual grace to turn one’s life around so as to accord with genuine Gospel living. Several years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger suggested that even those properly disposed to receive Holy Communion abstain on occasion from Eucharistic Communion as a way of standing in solidarity with those who cannot properly receive for any number of reasons (lest such a person be the only one left in the pew as everyone else goes forward to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood); this practice would also aid in catching a person from falling into an unthinking or rote manner of coming to the Sacred Mysteries.

•  A tendency seemed to be reflected in some of the synodal interventions to collapse the “normal” (in the sense of commonplace) into the “normative.” As a young seminarian working in an inner-city parish school, I had to learn how to negotiate that minefield. Most of our children did not come from intact families, and most never knew their fathers. That was the “normal” pastoral situation in which we worked, but we had to make sure that our students never got the notion that their experience of family life was “normal” in the sense of correct or normative. Although never condemning their mothers or fathers, we made it clear that God’s plan for human flourishing was something other than what they knew and lived. The abnormal (from both a human and Gospel perspective) can never be conflated into acceptable life-styles. Presenting the beauty of a Christian understanding of marriage and the family is challenging, no doubt, but it is also enlightening, invigorating and uplifting. Truth be told, no one living an unevangelical existence is truly happy.

•  Cicero warned us two millennia ago that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Although the holy tag-team of Pius IX and Pius X took on “modernism,” it never really died and reared its head again at the dawn of the Second Vatican Council. For the past three and a half decades, the equally holy tag-team of John Paul II and Benedict XVI worked feverishly to rout out the resurgence of modernism which came in the guise of “the spirit of Vatican II.” Now we find Synod participants appealing exactly to that elusive and damaging “spirit.” Some of us are also old enough to remember the lead-up and follow-up to Humanae Vitae. With all the good will in the world, Pope John XXIII sought out wise counsel on how the Church should respond to the then-new phenomenon of “the pill.” Pope Paul VI expanded that commission, again with good will. The result, however, was ten years of doubt about just what the Church thought and taught about the regulation of birth. When Paul VI issued his brave and prophetic document in 1968, the world was stunned, for the very reason that the vast time-lag had given the impression that a change in doctrine was in the offing. Many Catholics of a certain generation – both clergy and laity – are still reeling from that period of doubt, confusion and ultimate disappointment. We cannot afford to have such a crisis occur today. Which means, at a practical level, doubts raised during the Synod cannot be allowed to germinate for a whole year until the Ordinary Synod of 2015. Clear, unequivocal teaching must be offered immediately, starting from the Pope.

•  Some of the faithful have expressed shock and dismay over statements of dubious orthodoxy being made by some of the Synod Fathers. Once more, a knowledge of history is useful and salutary. At every council and synod in history, there have been bishops who were not on the side of the angels – from Nicea to Vatican II and all the local synods in between. Individual bishops and even groups of bishops with aberrant opinions do not constitute the living Magisterium of the Church. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are the unfailing guides for the Christian faithful. Furthermore, we must never fail to recall – and to lay hold of – Christ’s promise that “the gates of Hell will not prevail” against His holy Church. It is also important to recognize with deep gratitude the strong stances on behalf of Catholic truth taken by key cardinals like Carlo Caffarra, George Pell, Gerhard Müller, Christoph Schönborn, Angelo Scola and Raymond Burke. In this regard, I want to thank Ignatius Press for publishing the block-buster book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church.

Our cover art is Lorenzo Lotto’s depiction of the Holy Family’s rest on the flight into Egypt. Mary and Joseph had to take the Christ Child out of their homeland into a foreign land to assure His safety. In many parts of the world – and especially in the moribund and decadent West – the Christian family (the domestic church) must have the confidence that the Church, which is the household and family of God, will provide it with a safe haven. The Church – at her highest levels – must take seriously the warning uttered by Saint Paul: “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor 14:8). The truth, spoken out of and in love, is what is needed at this moment.

The lay faithful need to inform their shepherds of their intense desire to live the Gospel message with fidelity and to beg their shepherds to assist them in doing just that. We all must also pray that our priests, bishops and Pope have the faith and courage to give a clear signal and unflagging support. If you do this, you will duc in altum.


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