Love, Sin, and the Synod

Thoughts on the instrumentum laboris and the challenge facing the bishops this October

The recently released instrumentum laboris, published by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in preparation for this October’s Extraordinary General Assembly of Bishops, presents a compelling and often illuminating synopsis of the state of the family in various and diverse cultures.

Catholics in American can easily forget the global perspective the hierarchy must bring to evangelization, seeing papal and hierarchical initiatives through a prism of First-World materialism not predominant in many parts of the world. The document presents Third-World issues such as the difficulties of war and violence and the pastoral challenges of what the document calls “disparity of cult” (a marriage in which one spouse is Catholic while the other is of a non-Christian religion) with a thoroughness that should temper the American tendency to grow impatient with a hierarchy seemingly slow and distracted in its response to issues including “same-sex marriage,” religious liberty vis-a-vis governmental health care mandates, and so forth.

At the same time, it is difficult not to be impressed by the thoughtfulness of the document. When it was first announced that preparations for the synod would include a survey of the various churches regarding their particular situations in ministering to families, there was giddy speculation from the progressive elements within the Church that the process would force to the fore the issues—contraceptives and Communion for the divorced and remarried—most dear to their hearts. Nothing of the kind resulted. Instead of the factionalizing, ideologizing (and, frankly, infantilizing) First-World tendency to reduce deep spiritual issues to shallow political bromides, the instrumentum instead proved to be a gently meticulous yet mystically reflective compendium of challenges and opportunities for pastoral action on the part of the synod. Certainly, contraception and Communion for the divorced and remarried are discussed, but both are placed in a proper and orthodox context and given attention commensurate to their importance within the panoply of other areas needing the bishops’ attention.

However, there are two areas—indeed just two words—used in the document that cut to the heart of the myriad challenges it presents. One word, “love,” is used 95 times in the main text of the document. The other, “sin,” appears just four times. And it is in the proposals coming out of the synod addressing the need for catechesis in these two areas and on these two words that the fruitfulness of the bishops’ work this October may ultimately rest.

The instrumentum makes an extremely cogent point about love in paragraph 85. In a section on “Special Situations,” under the umbrella of “Pastoral Challenges of the Family,” there is a discussion of the growing tendency—particularly in the West—for young people to believe marriage cannot be a source of real and lasting fulfillment:

In this regard, any possible response to this situation through pastoral care must assist young people (to) overcome an overly romantic idea that love is only an intense feeling towards each other…

In journalism this is called “burying the lead.”

From Phillip Rieff’s now-classic 1966 book Triumph of the Therapeutic to Benedict XVI’s encyclicals (especially Deus Caritas Est), numerous social commentators have documented the exaltation of emotion over reason in our modern culture. This has resulted in the exaltation of the “I” over the “You,” thus obfuscating, even obviating, the proper definition of the word “love.” In our modern culture love only exists when “I feel it.” Love no longer connotes its classical meaning of a decision of the will wanting and working for the best of the other, for the sake of the other. Instead, it has been reduced largely to a “warm, fuzzy” feeling.

Self-sacrifice, redemptive suffering, the Cross, have little meaning in such a cultural milieu. Given the family is both a school of love and a community of love, it follows that the family will struggle in a culture which has lost the most basic understanding of what love even is. And virtually every difficulty and challenge faced by the family as documented in the instrumentum finds its source in some violation of this classical definition of love.

The instrumentum proposes “education in human love and emotions which begins already in childhood,” and extending through marriage and adulthood, as the remedy to this problem—and rightly so. A proper catechesis on love must begin early and be continually stressed both in the classroom and at the ambo to overcome our culture’s overwhelming message that “love” is nothing more than emotional self-exaltation.

Yet, it’s difficult to imagine how such a recapturing of the word “love,” properly defined, is possible without a concomitant recapture of the word used only four times in the document: sin. Sin is the violation of love, it is those actions, words, and/or inactions which exalt the Self over the love of God and others. “Sin,” states the Catechism, “sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it” (par 1850). In today’s dominant culture, “sin” connotes the violation of some arbitrary rule set down by a distant (or made-up) God just to spoil our good time. In reality sin is the negation of love and at some point, as much as we may wish to avoid the word “sin,” the Church has to at least communicate the idea behind the word to the culture if it truly wishes to build societies supportive of families.

Indeed, it may seem a dramatic oversimplification, but it can be argued that the New Evangelization, at base, consists primarily of presenting to our culture a creative catechesis on the proper definitions of these two words—love and sin—coupled with a persuasive vision of the worth, the joy, the sheer nobility of the call of Christ that exists even here on earth, but most particularly in the world to come, for those who choose to accept it and live accordingly.

There is, however, an obstacle to the success of this New Evangelization, at least in its First World iteration—an obstacle perhaps more difficult to overcome than in years past and an obstacle illustrated by the much-discussed imbroglio which recently occurred at a Catholic high school in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Recall that a sister of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia gave a presentation to the student body at Charlotte Catholic High School on the topic of “Masculinity and Femininity, Difference and Gift.” Exactly what Sister said and how she said it remains open to debate, as there is apparently no recording of the talk. Frankly, though, what Sister said, or how she said it, really is irrelevant to the point here. Rather, what is of interest is the petition launched against her presentation and the mindset it evinces. The petition, itself, has been taken down, but one of the resolutions of the petition still survives in the numerous news accounts which pepper the Internet.

Those opposed to Sister’s talk stated, in their signature proposition:

As rational people, we know that most homosexual people lead healthy, normal, and productive lives like their heterosexual counterparts…

The second part of this proposition alone is highly contestable. Are even most “heterosexuals” really living “healthy, normal, and productive lives?” Are even “most” Catholics truly living “healthy, normal, and productive lives?” Or, instead, are the signers of this petition, some 4,000 in all, like many in our culture, simply discounting “spiritual health” from their definition of “healthy,” the presence of sin from their definition of “normal,” and progress toward sanctity from their definition of “productive”? Certainly, given the precipitous drop in Mass attendance over the last generation and the just-as-disconcerting withdrawal on the part of many Catholics from the Sacrament of Penance, it seems the latter is the obvious case.

In his much-discussed, September 30, 2013 interview with America magazine, Pope Francis offered his view of the Church as “a field hospital after battle.”

It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds….

It’s a beautiful image of the Body of Christ, calling to mind as it does Christ as the Divine Physician.

The problem is that even within the “field hospital” many people, as the Charlotte Catholic High example illustrates, either are unaware or refuse to admit they are wounded in the first place. And they seem to resent mightily anyone who suggests otherwise—even a well-educated Sister! They are high on the morphine of Modernism—wealth, unconstrained sexuality, liberal opportunities for mindless pleasures and entertainments—and seem to seek from the Church only another injection, reassuring them that everything they are doing is perfectly fine, even commendable.

This, then, is the challenge faced by the synod. It is the challenge underlying almost all of the pastoral problems so eloquently delineated in the instrumentum. Our Holy Father’s perception of the Church as a field hospital is beautiful, yet the members of the field hospital staff, the bishops, should (and undoubtedly do) recognize that many of the severely wounded they seek to treat—being drugged up on the anodynes of our technologically advanced yet spiritually barbaric culture—do not realize they are, in fact, severely wounded. Recapturing the definitions of the words “love” and “sin” should be the first step toward making them aware of this condition.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Alan L. Anderson 17 Articles
Alan L. Anderson teaches theology at the Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart in Peoria, Ill.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Umbrella Shop

Comments are closed.