The world wide Church will discuss the proposals of the recent extraordinary Synod on the Family over the next year. At this time a general Synod of all the bishops will convene to discuss the matter further.
The following article by David Quinn of the Iona Institute is a reflection of my views on the matter todate. I have bolded sections that I think are particularly relevant.
The Church has a set of moral standards it cannot compromise without compromising the Gospel itself. The Church is not Christian unless it conforms to the vision of life Christ has set out for us. If we start second-guessing Christ, or if we think we know better than him, then we are no longer really Christian because we are no longer really his disciples.
At the same time, those moral standards have to be applied in a way that actually works. Being merely condemnatory does not work. Nor does pretending the moral standards are simply ‘ideals’ that don’t really apply in the ‘real’ world.
The Synod on the Family taking place in Rome (and ending this weekend) is looking at the situation of Catholics who are living together outside marriage, or who have had children outside marriage, or who are divorced and remarried, as well as those who are actively homosexual.
In the West in particular, the Church’s teaching that sexual relations belong only within marriage could not be more out of step with the way most people live today.
The Church looks at all those couples who are cohabiting or whose marriages have broken down and wonders what it is to
At the end of its first week of deliberations, the synod issued a document summarising those deliberations.
One of the things it has focused on is something called ‘gradualness’ as that applies to the moral law. ‘Gradualness’ in this context does not mean that the moral law changes gradually, rather that people are brought into the full moral life bit by bit, that is, gradually.
Just as it is unrealistic to expect people to run the 1,500 metres on their first day, it is unrealistic to expect someone to live life in full accordance with the Church’s teaching (that is, with Christ’s teaching) on marriage and the family when he or she is currently very far removed from that teaching.
It is absolutely plain that Pope Francis believes that the Church’s current pastoral approach at the moment is all wrong. He seems to believe that the Church has put too much emphasis on its moral standards which has left anyone who doesn’t live up to those standards feeling left out in the cold.
Actually, in many ways the problem is worse than this because many people either don’t know what those moral standards are, or they do (or at least think they do), and believe them to be ridiculous.
So the Church has to respond to this at two levels. It needs a proper pastoral approach towards those who believe in the standards, and it needs a different approach to those who don’t believe in the standards to begin with. People who don’t believe in the standards at all aren’t even attempting to conform their life to the moral life as Jesus taught it. So they need convincing of its wisdom.
In a way, the Church has already been taking the pastoral approach Pope Francis seems to want of it for several decades as it is.
It has already softened its moral tone to a huge extent. If and when it speaks about divorce (and it very rarely does), it does not speak in harsh or condemnatory tones.
If and when it speaks about cohabitation or having children outside of marriage (and it very rarely does), again it does not speak in harsh or condemnatory tones.
The bishops themselves rarely address these matters and priests in their parishes are even less likely to do so. (Ask yourself, when is the last time you heard a sermon about divorce or cohabitation?)
But clearly, this softer pastoral approach isn’t working as well as it should because the amount of marriage breakdown keeps on increasing, as does the amount of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births.
Other Churches have been trying the same approach and some have also weakened the moral standards they preach, and this has been to little or no avail either.
In fact, it is has probably been counter-productive.
So what is to be done? What has to be done is that a proper programme of pastoral care has to be matched by a proper programme of teaching.
Many people simply don’t know or appreciate the Christian teaching on marriage and the family and how this is much more compatible with human flourishing than the current approach of Western societies, which is hugely individualistic and massively erodes an ethic of commitment.
If we take cohabitation, for example, there is no society where cohabitation is widely practised and children or adults benefit as a result.
Widespread cohabitation is always associated with greater relationship instability. Cohabiting couples are more likely to go their separate ways than married couples, and if they have children, the children are much less likely to live with both of their parents throughout their childhood.
This is very bad and is only compounded when rates of marital breakdown are also high and when a high percentage of children are born outside of marriage. When a child is born outside marriage, the father is much less likely to be properly committed to the mother, or vice versa, and the child is much more likely to grow up without an active and engaged father in his or her life.
None of this is being judgmental per se, it is simply factual. The Church is accused of being out of step with modern society when it points out these things, but the truth of the matter is that the way many of us live today is out of step with what we really need for human flourishing.
The danger coming out of this synod is that what looks like a new pastoral approach (but isn’t really) will be interpreted by the broader society as a weakening and lowering of the standards we need for our own good, and for the common good.
That is why any new pastoral approach, such as it is, has to be tied to good teaching. If it is not, then it won’t be a good pastoral approach at all and can only backfire.