Synodalia: Losing Perspective

A cold so far kept somewhat at bay decided last night to move its entire wagon train down my throat and into my chest. This is probably not a good moment to be writing. But prudence was never my forte.

One of the annoyances of the Synod of Bishops underway in Rome is that none of the speeches or interventions are being published. Rather, the Press Office is providing summaries. This is a real problem. The summaries raise as many questions as they answer. It would not be so worrying if some of its members had not conducted often vigorous media campaigns before the Synod began, preparing a type of Synod of the Media, reminiscent of the Council of the Media concurrent with Vatican II that Pope Benedict lamented before he left the papal office. This Media Council held the world’s attention and not the ecumenical Council itself. Many have likened the flurry of hopes and opinions expressed before the Synod to the situation before the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968: having set up an expectation of probable change, the reaffirmation of the Church’s teaching was experienced as a great disappointment by those whose hopes had been unreasonably raised.

Friends on Facebook posted a link to a blog of commentary by Catholic Voices. Yesterday’s post there by Austin Ivereigh was fascinating and disturbing. To quote,

[Archbishop] Fernández embodies the pastoral focus of this reformed synod, a focus which hasn’t been so evident in Rome since the Second Vatican Council.

The synod fathers have suggested, he said yesterday, that the light of Gospel truth be seen less as a spotlight or lighthouse — which remain fixed — as a torch which is carried and moves among the people, and especially among the poor, the suffering, and the sinners.

The first sentence is a gratuitous assertion of an ideological position that will stand little close inspection. But what it implies, and which is taken up in the second sentence, needs unpacking.

Yet again, “pastoral” is being distinguished from and opposed to “doctrinal”. Doctrine is “the light of Gospel truth” that is fixed, “like a spotlight or lighthouse”, whereas pastoral sensitivity  is a “torch” – do you get it?: not an artificial light but a living flame – which “moves among the people, and especially among the poor, the suffering, and the sinners.” Who are these sinners that are given especial focus? Is not the Church on earth composed entirely of sinners?

Archbishop Fernandez, Rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires
Archbishop Fernandez, Rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires

It seems Archbishop Fernandez tried to have it both ways and cover over the implication of his words by later saying “When we say it’s a pastoral synod that doesn’t mean we can’t deepen doctrine, otherwise it would suggest that the pastoral is some kind of second-tier theology, that doesn’t involve thinking.”

Yes, well, that sounds good. Yet just before this Mr Ivereigh says that Archbishop Fernandez maintained that as the torch of  Gospel truth moves among the people, especially the poor, suffering and sinners,

the pastors learn as well as teach. The greatest lessons about marriage and family are learned from people who live the Gospel in the love and mercy they show to each other yet who may never have read a single church document.

What lessons are these? Lessons in the truth of Christ’s teaching, or lessons in the messiness of human living, a messiness very often arising from people’s poor choices and sinfulness? The distinction is important.

The answer comes later when Mr Ivereigh turns his attention to Archbishop Durocher of Gatineau in Quebec. The bishop maintained that,

In the Church usually there is a deductive method, but in the synod we are trying a new inductive method. We’re learning to use the Harvard case study method in reflecting on peoples’ lives. This will take time for us to learn to do.

Archbishop Durocher of Gatineau (Canada)
Archbishop Durocher of Gatineau (Canada)

So, the Gospel torch is not so much to shine the truth on sinners that they might be enlightened and shown the path back to God. Rather, it is to reveal the reality of their lives as lived so that we can reflect on this reality in a doctrinal context and adapt the latter accordingly. Is this reading too much into it? Not really. Says Mr Ivereigh:

It’s an approach that says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, for example, of the divorced and remarried, and that what the Church needs is greater flexibility in applying solutions tailored to particular cases.

This sounds very much like situation ethics revived. Morality “tailored to particular cases” is in effect to say, Gospel truth edited to suit particular cases, presumably so as not to impose burdens, such as guilt, on people, and so make them feel even worse than they do already as they cope with the messiness of human life, their choices and their sins.

There is a lot more in this Catholic Voices blog post that deserves attention, but for now this dichotomy set up between pastoral and doctrinal needs to be considered carefully. To paraphrase a little, the pastoral approach does theology from below, starting with the people and their lived experience; the doctrinal approach does theology from above, from God and his revelation. The one is anthropocentric, the other theocentric.

While the lives of sinners, for example, may have much to teach us about earthly human reality, they have much less to teach us about divinely-revealed truth. God has revealed his will and his commandments with a precisely pastoral purpose, to show us how to live in a fallen world in which we make fallible, selfish even sinful choices; to live in a way that will allow us to share in His life both here and now, and in eternity. The way to God is determined by God and has been revealed by Him above all in Christ, for us and for our salvation.

Given the once-modish mantra “What would Jesus do?” is still repeated occasionally, we look with profit to Jesus’ teachings and actions. Jesus, who mixed with the sinners and the outcast, gave them some hard truths. One was to reaffirm the permanence and indissolubility of marriage in the Christian dispensation. Divorce in Mosaic law had been a provisional concession, taught Jesus, that he was now bringing to an end:

Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  (Mark 10:5-12)

Is Jesus somehow not being pastoral? Or might it not rather be that he is teaching the full truth, and not resiling from it, precisely because this is God’s truth, and the way to reach Him and all that He has promised us? Who are mere humans to change God’s revelation? If these questions can be answered in another way I would really like to hear it.

Perhaps now we can deduce the best conception of what is pastoral: the presence of the Church among sinners, holding the fixed light of Gospel truth to reveal to them a way out of self and onto the path to God, and thus to true consolation and lasting joy.

When it comes to morality, perspective is all important. If morality starts with humanity, and becomes primarily a tool to ease human discomfort then we tread a dangerous path indeed, that very path Christ warned us against. If morality, instead, starts with God and is seen as the means by we live as God intends us to live, we are on much safer ground. And it is about safety. Our eternal life depends on it. It is this eternal perspective that seems too often absent in the current debates.

Mr Ivereigh quoted Cardinal Pell in his blog piece, and that quotation bears repeating:

Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn’t. And I’m sticking with him.

4 thoughts on “Synodalia: Losing Perspective

  1. First of all Father, I’ve noticed you tend to always get sick this time of year—just as I did during my teaching days, always every Fall. I picked up everything from the kids—My prayers for relief and healing will waft Heavenward on your behalf as I know how hard it is to carry on sick and feeling like crap—plus some Vitamin C will help!!
    Secondly I want you to know that I greatly appreciate your insight into the Synod of Bishops—as a non catholic who certainly hangs on the coat tails of her catholic Christian heritage, there is little in the news concerning the Synod except what tidbits appearing in the BBC with their comments being that it appears as if Francis is to be the modernizer pope…just great. . . (the last two words are to be read with sarcasm and disappointment)
    I believe that the key in what you have deduced from these titilating snippets of disseminated information from the Synod itself is that — “Jesus mixed with the sinners and the outcasts, gave them some hard truths. . .”
    The key word here is “hard”
    As we, the egocentric sinners we are, do not like to hear the word hard. Hard equates to work and effort and at times failure and many retries—–we, as a people are never keen on the whole effort, failure, retires—preferring easy, soft, catered to, comfortable—–and this impart eats at the root problem the Church is facing—it’s easier to capitulate and acquiesce and appease the belly aching masses who do not want to hear the hard truth or live the hard truth of failings, sins and the realization of not living under the covenants set forth by a Father who is just that. . .a Father who love yes, but set rules for “his kids” to follow and live by” as He is indeed the Father who knows best!!
    Prayers for the Bishops, the Church, the Pope, our Christian faith, our realization that we are sinful children in need of healing and Grace and to a truthful kind monk who needs to feel better soon—
    Hugs and blessings Father—
    Julie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Julie. Yes, I am prone this time of year to the sudden temperature change and other people’s bugs. All my preventives come to naught. Oh well…

      You are right to focus on the human aversion to “hard”. It is understandable that we shy away from the difficult and the painful. But while the Church recognizes that tendency in us and gives us help to overcome it, it can never be canonized or legitimized. That would be to give us a Christianity without the Cross, which is no Christianity at all.

      Pain is sad but often necessary. If we accidentally put our hand on a hotplate, the searing pain tells us to get our hand off it quick-smart! The principle holds true for our spirits as much as our bodies.

      Peace upon you.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Well said again Fr. Hugh, and I hope your lurgy gets better soon.

    The more that comes out of the Synod, the more I am amazed that it is possible to be sacramentalized and, to some extent, even catechized without ever having been evangelized – including some of those who hold high office in the Church. Do they even ponder how God views divorce? Are they even aware that the purpose of pastoring is to bring the sheep closer to God, not abandon them to a field of ragwort?

    Like

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