I’ve spent the better part of the week assuring non-Catholic friends and questioners that the Catholic Church has not surrendered on issues of marriage, life, and religious liberty.
The frenzy of hopes and fears – depending on where you were coming to it from – that surrounded news of a mid-synod draft made public earlier this week, missed a whole lot of context.
Largely overlooked, for instance: the controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae got a not-to-be-misssed (and yet it was!) name-drop in the draft, a little less than a week before its author, Pope Paul VI, would be beatified by Pope Francis. Somehow in all the world’s looking for messages in Pope Francis’s moves, this largely was left unexamined.
Now that a few days have passed, and synod work has continued, now largely in smaller working groups, this morning’s press conference about the synod was clarifying.
Remember, first, that this is a meeting about the family, which Pope Francis has made clear is in crisis — not that you needed to hear it from him. So what to do? This enormous and critical question is what the synod process was opened to discern.
“Do not judge, but accompany. This is the thought of Pope Francis, which is not relativism,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, a Dominican priest and archbishop of Vienna, stated frankly, addressing concerns he’s certainly heard, at a Vatican press conference Thursday morning
“Pope Francis wants that the reflection about the family be a journey,” he said, explaining the open discussion and debate and continued prayer and work over the next year in a particular way.
Schönborn went on to say “we must confront the new challenges with the same principles as before, we must only find new words,” (hitting on a theme of the work of Catholic Voices, an effort I’ve been involved with).
That does not mean poll testing Church teaching. It does mean paying some attention to how you’re being heard. Or if you’re even being heard.
Schönborn brought his personal experience in to illumine what’s going on at the synod, explaining “my parents were divorced and I know what this break is. It is not virtual but real.” He went on to say the “journey of faith has greatly helped our family to overcome the pain of separation.”
“How to combine the doctrine, the Gospel, and the mercy of Jesus is a constant challenge for pastors of the Church,” he said about the work of the synod.
Regarding the topics that have been subject of many press headlines and much commentary – same-sex attraction, cohabitation, among them — Schönborn made clear: “Every person has dignity beyond question. Respect for every human person does not mean respect for every human behavior.”
“We first look at the person and not their sexual orientation,” he said, re-articulating what the Church taught even before the synod and even before Pope Francis.
About language suggesting the synod wanted to accentuate the positive in irregular relationships, he said: “Critical situations are not only seen from the point of view of what is missing, but also what is positive.”
Let people see the good and that more is attainable, in other words, a theme the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville has long pointed to.
Also at this morning’s press conference was Pina De Simone, an Italian professor who has been participating in the synod along with her husband. She told those gathered: “We want to draw attention to the proclamation of the Gospel in everyday life of families in a new and realistic way.
“We want to begin from from life experience, not from the enunciation of certain theoretical principles,” she said.
(Credit to the Holy See Press Office for the quotes—I don’t speak Italian.)
How do you make the Catechism of the Catholic Church look practical and attainable and joyful, even with the work and sacrifice it requires? You can’t just talk, you have to show, and lead with an authentic knowledge of the obstacles to evangelization.
My friend Greg Erlandson at Our Sunday Visitor sums up what’s been going on this week, in particular, well:
Much of the news coverage leading up to the synod focused on a debate between cardinals regarding how best to minister to those who were divorced and remarried outside the Church but who desire the sacraments. That this is debated is not a problem for me. In fact, such debates provide a catechetical moment and do not need to be censored, although the filter of the news media may distort the issues (yet another reason for a strong Catholic press).
But with the release of the synod’s relatio Oct. 13, it seems that the fathers of the extraordinary synod are not simply lining up theses to argue about with modern world. Instead, they want the Church to confront the sufferings and confusion of her people in a way that does not diminish the teaching but allows the Church to “accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them …”
Or as the document said elsewhere, “Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God.”
The demands do not vanish. God does ask hard things of all of us.
But in this field hospital that is the Church in the modern world, the image that the synod document brings to mind is that of Simon of Cyrene. Simon could not free the Lord from his cross. He could simply walk with him and help him carry it. The synod fathers seem to be asking how the Church can do the same.
The doctrine does not change, nor the call to repentance. But the Lord does rebuff those who would “tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). Our challenge is to help families in their struggles to carry their crosses.
Don’t expect too many surprises when an enhanced document is expected to be released Saturday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan said on his radio show from Rome today. Doctrine isn’t changing.
The Catholic Church is still the Catholic Church.
UPDATE: My friend Fr. Steve Grunow from Word on Fire put it well tonight on a radio show (Thank you Sheila Liaugminas.) we were both on: How does the Church meet the world with the doctrine. We have the doctrine. What the synod is working on is the language of encounter. (Word on Fire’s Fr. Robert Barron had a wise column — have patience with the sausage making, he counseled – on the buzz about the synod earlier this week.)