America’s editorial on the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the Family rightly speaks of “a remarkable two-week period” (“Go in Peace,” 11/10). Anyone who followed the synod knows that it was characterized by passionate debate and even, in some instances, disagreement (which the final “Relatio Synodi,” or synod report, did not conceal). However, less noted than the more contentious issues was the common ground evident in confessing and celebrating the sacred nature and sanctifying gift of Christian marriage, as well as the acute awareness that it stands under growing threat in contemporary society.
After noting the drama that gave birth to the relatio, America’s editors rightly focus upon the task ahead. They write, “After this October opening, the time for the real work has come” and ask, “How shall that work be conducted?” Let me offer a preliminary response by saying that the work before us should transpire in a climate of profound prayer, respectful discussion and disinterested discernment. If that characterization of the climate needed for spiritual efficacy is given only notional assent or dismissed as merely pious rhetoric, then the likelihood of fruitful ecclesial discernment will be seriously diminished.
St. Ignatius Loyola places at the very beginning of his Spiritual Exercises a demanding “Presupposition.” He writes: “It should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love.”
Nothing could be more enervating to the task of discernment than attaching facile labels of “legalist” or “liberal” and using them as excuses for not engaging the considered perspectives and arguments of others. In the spirit of St. Ignatius, the following presumptions should govern the deliberations of the year ahead. All parties concerned should seek to read the contemporary ecclesial and cultural context guided by the light of Christ, the light of the Gospel, as the synod report reiterates time and again. All parties should be committed to a common pastoral concern: to preserve and strengthen the sacred gift of marriage in Christ that has been entrusted to the church. Sobriquets like “conservative Catholic” or “progressive Catholic” (even as a self-designation) should be placed in mothballs. As Pope Benedict XV said in the days of the Modernist crisis, “Catholic Christian” should suffice to express our common heritage and commitment. These presuppositions will not eliminate debate and disagreement, but they can make them productive and bearers of spiritual fruit.
There is legitimate concern about several issues that have monopolized the attention of the media. One is access to the Eucharist for Catholics who have divorced and remarried. Another is the welcome extended by the church to persons of homosexual tendencies. Clearly these are grave matters that require prayerful and careful discernment. But the synod report, which should form the basis of our ongoing discernment, treats much more. It would be a serious error to abstract from the whole to focus exclusively on one or another of the parts.
Thus, it is critical that we do justice to the overriding theme of the synod. It has been summoned to deliberate upon “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” (emphasis added). In the introduction to the relatio, the bishops declare, “the family takes on a particular importance for the church in the present time when all the faithful are urged to venture forth from self. The family needs to see itself as an essential agent in the task of evangelization” (No. 2). (I am amending at times, for the sake of greater accuracy, the English translation that was posted on the Vatican website shortly after the synod meeting concluded.) Then, at the beginning of Part III, which considers “Pastoral Perspectives,” the synod teaches, “Proclaiming the Gospel of the family constitutes an urgent need for the new evangelization” (No. 29).
What is at stake in this discernment is nothing less than the Christian family’s involvement in that new (or renewed) evangelization that the Second Vatican Council inaugurated, that St. John Paul II articulated so powerfully, that Benedict XVI promoted and that has received its most recent magisterial expression in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.” The synod has been summoned to explore the Christian family’s indispensable role in witnessing to and proclaiming the joy of the Gospel, which is the joy of Jesus Christ.
In pondering this overarching theme, the synod report organizes its reflections into three major parts. It first gives its attention to the contemporary context in which Christian marriage and family life must be lived. It turns second to the beauty of the church’s proclamation of the mystery of marriage and family life in Christ. Finally, it addresses urgent pastoral concerns in living out that mystery. I would like to highlight briefly some points from each part.
The relatio admits with sober realism that there are aspects of contemporary society and culture that are not favorable to, or supportive of, committed Christian marriage. Economic factors like unemployment and poverty adversely affect family life, leading at times to family breakup and even emigration. The synod report also considers psychological factors, like rampant individualism and reluctance to enter into binding commitments, especially in the Western world. The synod laments the threats to affective maturity represented by a growing indulgence in Internet pornography and denounces the sexual exploitation of women and children.
In such a brief document, the synod can do no more than signal some of these negative signs of the times that need to be read and addressed by local communities in the light of the Gospel. But it is important to note that the synod’s recognition of these signs derives from an integral evangelical vision of man and woman created in the image and likeness of God, and that threats to that dignity arise from multiple social, cultural, political and individual factors. A comprehensive and catholic discernment must attend to all that frays and unravels the bonds of families and communities.
Beyond these pressing issues, the bishops raise another concern that must be faced and taken to heart. They speak of “the crisis of faith that has touched many Catholics, and that often lies at the origin of the crises of marriage and family” (Nos. 5 and 32). One can suggest numerous reasons for the precipitous decline, in the 50 years since Vatican II, in Mass attendance, sacramental marriages and infant baptisms, especially in North America and Europe. Revulsion at the sexual abuse scandals and the lack of accountability among some church leaders, along with disagreements over specific church teaching or discipline, doubtless played a role. Yet the bishops’ perception of a profound crisis of faith cannot be dismissed. Indeed, it corresponds to a haunting word of Jesus himself: “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8).
The Measure of the Fullness of Christ
Part II of the synod report is titled “Gazing upon Christ: The Gospel of the Family.” It is significant that the very first paragraph of this section quotes the talk that Pope Francis gave on Oct. 4, during the prayer vigil, in preparation for the opening of the synod: “In order to navigate our way among these contemporary challenges, the essential condition is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, to linger in contemplation and adoration of his face.... Indeed, every time we return to the source of Christian experience, new paths and possibilities open.” The text of Scripture evoked here is the striking passage in the Letter to the Hebrews where the author exhorts the Christian community: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us put away every burden of sin that holds us tightly and run with patient endurance the race that lies before us, our gaze fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:1-2).
Thus, both pope and synod urge the Christian community to renewed contemplation and adoration of him who is our only Savior. I believe the practice of eucharistic adoration to be integral to the process of discernment we will undertake in the course of the next year. Indeed, where but at the Eucharist did Ignatius himself draw insight for his ongoing discernment, with regard to both his own spiritual state and his guidance of others?
Developing further its teaching on the mystery of Christian marriage, the synod situates it within the history of salvation culminating in Christ. For Christian faith, the order of creation, with its climax in the creation of man and woman in the image of God, is oriented from the beginning to its fulfillment in and through Jesus Christ. The “divine pedagogy,” which the synod report extols, builds upon the primordial relation of man and woman and leads it to its consummation in Christian marriage, wherein it sacramentalizes the spousal covenant between Christ and his beloved, the church.
Such is the radical newness of Christian marriage that the church’s doctrinal tradition celebrates and serves. Hence, it would be a grave error to dissociate “doctrine” and “pastoral practice.” The latter must be rooted in the former and find its meaning and justification there. Of course, Christian doctrine is not reducible to propositions, since doctrine only seeks to illumine the mystery of Christ. Doctrines are, of their very nature, “mystagogic”: leading into the mystery of Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).
It is instructive here to consider two of the writings of the New Testament most explicitly concerned with pondering the intimate and indissoluble union of Christ and the church: the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians. They can serve well as lectio divina for this year of discernment. Each sets forth a wonder-filled vision of God’s plan of salvation that has been realized in Christ Jesus. The Letter to the Ephesians celebrates the full revelation of God’s will: “to recapitulate all things in Christ” (Eph 1:10). And the Letter to the Colossians, in its great Christological hymn, confesses God’s purpose: “to reconcile to himself all things through Christ, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).
Each epistle meditates upon the mystery of Christ and then explores the consequences that flow from faith-filled appropriation of Christ’s mystery. Christ’s paschal mystery gives rise to a new order of relationships for all is now being transformed in Christ. Thus Ephesians exhorts Christians to put off the old self, corrupted by deceitful desires, and to put on the new self recreated in righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22–24). Colossians, too, insists that the old self of impurity and covetousness must yield to the new Christic self, for Christ is all and in all (Col 3:9-11).
At the heart of the good news, the joyful newness of the Gospel, is this passover from the old self to the new self that Christ’s paschal mystery makes possible, whether lived out in married or celibate life. This is the de-centering and re-centering so often referred to by Pope Francis since his homily to the cardinals the day after his election: Unless Christ and his cross stands at the center, the church becomes only “a charitable N.G.O.” In the context of the journey of discernment that lies ahead, let me parse the pope’s words. If our discernment regarding marriage and family is not deeply rooted in the mystery of Christ and the new life he inaugurates, pastoral accommodation risks becoming merely cultural capitulation.
Accompanying on the Journey
The theme of “accompaniment” on the Christian journey surfaced often in the deliberations of the synod. It is indeed a pastoral imperative, as the New Testament letters make abundantly clear. But, as they also insist, authentic accompaniment on the spiritual journey requires that the goal, the telos, of the journey be luminous: our eyes fixed on Christ. In a memorable passage in the Letter to the Philippians, Paul, having been “laid hold of by Christ Jesus,” strives to achieve the goal, “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12-14). And Ephesians, in a verse cited in the synod report, urges Christians to “speak the truth in love and thus grow in every way into him who is our Head, Christ” (Eph 4:15). The true growth of the body is always measured by the standard of Christ and the new life that flows from the Head to the members.
In this light, I conclude with a brief reference to two of the issues raised in the third section, “Pastoral Perspectives.” The synod report recognizes the urgent pastoral need both to prepare couples for the vocation of marriage and to support young couples in the early years of their marriage. It calls for “a greater effort on the part of the whole Christian community” in this regard (Nos. 39 and 40). It will require generosity and creativity on the part of the whole community to meet this challenge. Yet it is a clear imperative if the family is to fulfill its role in the task of evangelization.
An example of one creative initiative is the attractive catechetical aid for the World Meeting of Families that will take place in Philadelphia in September 2015. This 120-page booklet, prepared by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Pontifical Council for the Family, is titled Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive. Its 10 chapters, each enhanced by a work of art, offer a succinct but comprehensive and captivating overview of the Catholic understanding of marriage and family. It can serve well in marriage preparation sessions and parish discussion groups.
A second area calling for careful discernment concerns the process and grounds for annulment. Pope Francis, in a recent address to the Roman Rota, echoed the concerns in the synod report (No. 48) for a more expedited and less expensive process to discern the validity of a marriage of two baptized persons. A particularly delicate question is whether, besides the usual criteria bearing upon validity, one ought, in a highly secularized society, take into account the Christian faith (or lack thereof) of those who entered into the marriage covenant. Even though baptized, was one of the parties, in effect, a nonbeliever, lacking even implicit faith? Does this affect the marriage’s validity, and how can faith’s presence or absence be ascertained?
We embark, then, upon a year of concrete discernment concerning the great mystery and vocation of marriage and family, revealed fully in the experience of Christ’s spousal love for his church (Eph 5:31-32). As we seek to appropriate anew the beauty of God’s purpose for the human race, prayer and the Eucharist, as the synod insists in its “Message to Families,” must provide the indispensable setting and sustenance for our journey.
In the Missal, besides the familiar four eucharistic prayers, there are four additional “Eucharistic Prayers for Various Needs” that are less known and used. The third of these bears the title “Jesus, the Way to the Father.” In it, we offer petitions that might well accompany us through this year of discernment:
O Lord, grant that all the faithful of the Church, looking into the signs of the times by the light of faith, may constantly devote themselves to the service of the Gospel. Keep us attentive to the needs of all that, sharing their grief and pain, their joy and hope, we may faithfully bring them the good news of salvation and go forward with them along the way of your Kingdom.