Among the many masterful moments in J. F. Powers’s 1962 novel Morte D’Urban is a Sunday afternoon party where the protagonist, Father Urban, tries to interrupt an argument between two businessmen about the parable of the unjust steward (Lk 16:1-13). Father Urban steps in: “I’ll grant it’s a difficult text, but rightly understood....” But he has nowhere to go from there. In fact, he himself finds Jesus’ teaching rather hard to stomach. “It had even entered Father Urban’s mind that Our Lord, who, after all, knew what people were like, may have been a little tired on the day he spoke this parable. Sometimes, too, when you were trying to get through to a cold congregation, it was a case of any port in a storm. You’d say things that wouldn’t stand up very well in print.”
In discussing the church’s approach to issues like divorce and homosexual partnerships, the recent Synod on the Family (held in Rome during the first half of October) brought focus to other contentious Scripture passages that often cause similar strife in our attempts to parse pastoral meaning from what sound like hard words.
Jesus’ strictures against divorce seem harsh in light of his mercy elsewhere; St. Paul’s notions of sexuality and gender relations are in even the most panglossian interpretation a puzzle to the modern Catholic mind. That these sayings are often used as rhetorical weapons by those who seem to delight in binding up heavy burdens on the troubled and the vulnerable makes them even harder for many to accept in their traditional interpretations.
Our own lives as Christians, we all know, require much more compassion for the gray areas of life. The synod made it clear that those teachings cannot and will not be swept under the rug (as other teachings are: Where’s the synod on “the laborer deserves his wage”?), but it also allowed the bishops to discuss them frankly and openly.
By the explicit decree of Pope Francis, traditional Vatican secrecy is history; no longer are synods stage-managed pageants that simply ratify the pope’s decisions. Pope John Paul II openly read his breviary during the proceedings of many synods, a less than subtle expression of his opinion of collegiality. This time around, pretty much everything was open to the public, no topic was verboten, and we all got a glimpse of the sometimes very colorful characters involved. A veritable soap opera ensued, complete with fancy outfits and accusations of infidelity from every corner. And, like a soap opera, the juiciest bits were about divorce and the love that dares not speak its name.
Mercy meets doctrine; teaching meets practice; the rubber meets the road. Remind you of your parish? And pageantry aside, that’s more or less what this synod resembled. Except the fights were a bit meaner, which just means the stakes were a bit higher. The church looked bad in the eyes of those who want a uniform message and a united front; the church never looked better to those who have longed for decades for this kind of openness.
The sturm und drang reminds me of a conversation I was privy to during a graduate course at Fordham in the opening weeks of the papacy of Benedict XVI. “You must find it scandalous,” one of the Catholics said to a Protestant in the class, “the way Catholics fight with one another.” Her response was a surprise. No, she said, not at all. In fact, she admired Catholics for their unity. “If my congregation had the sort of nasty fights you people have,” she continued, “half of us would just leave and start a new one.”
Another county needs to be heard from. For all our fractious negotiations and dramatic gestures and accusations of disloyalty, the vast majority of us tend to stick together in the Catholic Church. The crazies notwithstanding, no one truly thinks a change in the church’s pastoral practice on divorce or homosexuality would produce a schism; similarly, a robust endorsement of the current teaching probably wouldn’t result in a mass exodus either.
That being said, it’s O.K. to be a little snarky on occasion, too, something J. F. Powers knew well. In Morte D’Urban he has Father Urban leave the party described above with a curious flourish: the annoyed priest signs the guestbook “Pope John XXIII.”