“Lack of confidence in the family is the first cause of the crisis of the family”

Further thoughts on the Synod, reporting on the Synod, and having a long-term perspective

• “The Synod of Bishops on Friday entered its decisive second phase,” states a report from CNA/EWTN, “with the formation of small groups which are to come to decisions which will be synthesized into the synod’s concluding ‘relatio.'” That relatio will provide the basis for what will be discussed next year at the ordinary synod on the family; it will “be presented Oct. 13 by Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, who is serving as general rapporteur for the Synod of Bishops.”

John Thavis reports that “Pope Francis has named six additional prelates to help write the revised relatio for the Synod of Bishops, to be released Monday.” The six includes Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, DC; they “will assist Cardinal Peter Erdo, the primary drafter of the relatio, and two other synod officials, in the task of summing up the first week of spirited synod debate in a document that will form the basis for future discussion.”

Thavis adds: “At the risk of oversimplifying, they all seem to be on the pope’s wavelength when it comes to promoting pastoral mercy.” Because—wink, wink—there are a number of bishops who don’t really care about pastoral mercy. They choke on the word “mercy.” They hate mercy so much they refuse to dine in French restaurants, for fear they may have to say, “Merci,” which apparently sounds a lot like “mercy”.

• If that sounds like an overreaction to Thavis’ oversimplification, consider the veteran Vatican reporter also wrote, in another post today, that Cardinal Raymond Burke, “has become the ‘Dr. No’ of this synod…” How so? Because he had the audacity to express concern about how families might be put in positions where they are pressured to condone same-sex relationships and homosexuality. Thavis also takes a jab at some of the married couples, from various Catholic lay movements, who have addressed the synod: “They have endorsed church teachings, saying sexuality should reflect the ‘plan of God’ and not the consumerist and selfish model of the world. No one doubts their sincerity, but perhaps the synod might have invited some other voices as well.” Perhaps Andrew Sullivan? Good grief.

LifeSiteNews.com reports that Cardinal Burke said the following:

If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are — reason teaches us that and also our faith — then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living [in] a disordered relationship with another person?

Burke added, “we don’t want our children” to get the “impression” that sexual relationships outside God’s plan are alright, “by seeming to condone gravely sinful acts on the part of a family member.” 

“We wouldn’t, if it were another kind of relationship — something that was profoundly disordered and harmful — we wouldn’t expose our children to that relationship, to the direct experience of it. And neither should we do it in the context of a family member who not only suffers from same-sex attraction, but who has chosen to live out that attraction, to act upon it, committing acts which are always and everywhere wrong, evil.”

He added, however, that “families have to find a way to stay close to a child in this situation — to a son or grandson, or whatever it may be — in order to try to draw the person away from a relationship which is disordered.”

This sounds reasonable, fair, and informed by faith. Maybe that’s the problem, by which I mean that far too many Catholics talk about being reasonable, fair, and informed by faith—until it comes to a topic, such as homosexuality or contraception or abortion or remarriage, which renders them unreasonable, unfair, and unconcerned with faith. As I indicated yesterday, I don’t think most of us really appreciate how profound is the capitulation when it comes to these sort of issues. We talk about people “knowing” or “understanding” Church teaching, but in many cases, people do know the teaching—and they are invested in changing it, come hell or high water.

• Cardinal Burke’s recent interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo about these and other topics can be seen on the CWR blog.

• Speaking of knowing Church teaching, but not really knowing Church teaching, the Huff-and-Puff Post ran a piece yesterday titled, “How Reporting on Gay Marriage Made me Reevaluate my Catholic Identity”. As is often the case with material on that particular site, it was written by someone who is barely out of her teens (maybe) and exhibits almost no understanding of the real issues involved, ever mind the Real Presence involved in Communion:

In the Catholic Church, confirming your faith involves one small word and a whole lot to swallow. It’s a simple task, receiving communion, but in my religion class, it warranted a rehearsal. I practiced walking in line down my teacher’s lawn, my right hand beneath my left, in an obedient gang of beggars. At the end of the line, a simple “Amen” won me a Saltine, a kind substitution for the bland wafer I had yet to taste.

As confused as the piece is, some clues about the underlying problems do emerge:

I don’t go to church every Sunday. My knowledge of the Bible is largely based off of the television series of the same name. I don’t say grace before I eat, and I don’t want to be married in a church.

I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ, his son. I believe in the healing power of faith. I was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, though my faith has never been put to the test. Before attending Northwestern University, I had never met a gay man or woman. I have never been invited to a same-sex wedding. But within minutes of meeting Lisa and Maria, I knew I would have attended theirs. I would choose witnessing their happiness over adhering to my faith.

Her “faith”, in other words, is a product, and she is a consumer; the question, then, is: does the product provide her with what she wants and desires at any particular moment? Not: are the teachings of the Church about human nature, sexuality, and love true? Everything is backwards; the subjective tail wags the objective dog. But that is how expressive individualism works in this age of authenticity, which is almost completely unmoored from the wisdom won by time and history, the traditions gained by family and culture, and the revelation granted by Christ and his Church.

• Compare that with a remarkable essay, “I’m a divorced Catholic. And I’m sure it would be a mortal sin for me to take Communion”, published last week in The Spectator:

It has never occurred to me to present myself for Communion when I have not sought — for various reasons that I won’t discuss here — to have my first marriage annulled. I know I am not a good Catholic, and I am living a life that the Church considers to be adulterous. Yet I am in good spirits, as I hope in God’s mercy. But I do not presume upon it. My Catechism says that is a further mortal sin, as would be the unworthy reception of Holy Communion.

People in my state are explicitly encouraged, in the Catechism, to attend church, and to make a spiritual communion, as I do each week. I have the hope that one day I will be in a state of grace and able to receive Holy Communion again. I hope that, despite my ongoing sin, God nonetheless hides me in the shadow of his wings; that Mary, hope of sinners, has her cloak of mercy cast about me. I am a poor Catholic but I am also a believing Catholic. Yet there is a faction within the Church that evidently considers ‘believing Catholic’ to be a hopelessly old-fashioned clique that they must get shot of, alongside lace mantillas and kneeling at the Communion rail.

Do read it. Share it.

• Alessandra Nucci, an Italian journalist who contributes to Catholic World Report, sent me this note earlier today about how the synod is handling various aspects of communication:

In prior Synods the press was handed two daily bulletins in many languages, with summaries of all the speeches written by the speakers themselves.

This time all that is provided is the daily aural summary by Fr. Lombardi, with no mention of who said what.

Further, although the participants handed in their speeches in writing by September 8th, the Secretary General, Cardinal Baldisseri, has forbidden them to divulge their content publicly, as this has become the property of the Synod. This too is different from the freedom of prior Synods.

Nonetheless every member is free to say whatever he pleases, and there is a blog dedicated to this purpose by the Holy See’s press office. This was, as I see it, the numbers don’t count, only the sensation created by what is said.

Edward Pentin expressed some of the same concerns in National Catholic Register:

According to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the atmosphere has been lighthearted, enjoyable and conducive to the free and open debates desired by Pope Francis.

But the material, disseminated by the Holy See press office, is causing some concern: many of the interventions, for example, appear to seek reconciliation with the way the world sees the Church (one speaker reportedly said the Church should “show friendship towards the world”) rather than holding up dogmatic truths or acknowledging that the Church will always be counter-cultural.

Another questionable element of the assembly has been that only a lengthy, general summary of each congregation is being distributed. The synod secretariat, unlike past ones, is neither disclosing extensive summaries of most individual interventions, nor revealing who is giving them. This is in order to free up discussion; it’s also due to the relative brevity of this synod and its “extraordinary” nature. But the downside is that the limited information leads to more generalizations than normal, and offers few clues as to whether one or more participants might be sharing any particular opinion.

More seriously, it makes disclosure of the synod’s discussions susceptible to the whims of the reporting press secretaries and the Vatican press office. There’s no knowing what is being filtered out, nor what is being given undue attention.

What could go wrong with that arrangement?
• Dr. Jeff Mirus of Catholic Culture provides some good commentary and food for thought:
It is very difficult to assess what is in the minds of most bishops as they work behind the scenes at the current Synod on the Family. The reports of the proceedings are very scanty, and often couched in terms that can be interpreted in multiple ways. A perceived lack of direction may be more apparent than real, of course, but there are three very good reasons why it is likely to be more real than apparent: (1) The nature of large synods; (2) The fundamental dilemma faced by the modern Church; and (3) The intrinsically anti-modern nature of marriage itself. …

Because of the nature of the beast, it is quite likely that we are witnessing a gigantic manifestation of bishops beating through the wilderness in search of a clear path. I do not mean a destination; I mean a particular path. The point of the Synod is not to reiterate the Church’s vision of marriage; the point is to figure out what the best and most important steps are to actualize that vision in the cultures and societies over which the bishops individually preside. Or it may prove that the point is to figure out the best way to inspire the bishops themselves to be tireless, fearless and creative exponents of the Gospel—teaching, ruling and sanctifying for an ever more complete conversion to the Gospel of Christ, to the immense benefit of each local church.

It ought to be clear that mere osmosis, while it will bear some fruit, is not going to be enough without the catalyzing action of Pope Francis, who said at the outset that ultimately it would be the synod’s work “cum Petro et sub Petro” (with and under Peter) which would provide protection against choosing the wrong path. Thus the Pope himself will eventually have to impart a direction, relying on the zealous to lead by example while actively prodding the confused and the tepid.

The reader might ask if I expect a miracle. I do not, but I do recognize that Pope Francis couples a genuine openness with a kind of simple decisiveness which we have not seen in the papacy for a considerable period of time. This can be upsetting. It is possible that, as the saying goes, there is no “there” there.

In other words, take a deep breath, keep a level head, and settle in for the long haul. Come to think of it, that’s been the Catholic approach to life in the Church and life in this world for a couple of thousand years.
• Pat Archbold, whose writing I’ve long enjoyed, is not taking a deep breath:
I think it is high time that we talk frankly about what is truly happening in the Church. It is quite probable that we are approaching the denouement of this horrible play, a century in the telling, in which the Synod on the Family, currently playing out in Rome, may be the opening scene of the final act.
We endlessly speculate and debate over who is with Cardinal Kasper and who is not, who will stand up and who will be quiet, and where does doctrine end and pastoral praxis begin.  Meanwhile, a “dark and false Church,” as foreseen by Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, which has grown within the Church for a century, continues its unhindered progress.
We have many Cardinals and Bishops of the Holy Catholic Church who publicly put God’s law in opposition to God’s mercy! We have Cardinals and Bishops who say that the very words of Jesus, the same second person of the Trinity who suffered and died so that we might live, insufficiently express love!
Yes, we do. And I would never make light of that sad fact. But I would point out that such has always been the case. The Church, in a very real sense, has always been “in crisis,” for she is in the world but not of the world, and she must constantly contend with the prince of the world, the temptations of this world, the sins committed by her sons and daughters, as well as the failings of leaders and laity, clergy and “ordinary” Catholics.

My main criticism of Archbold’s piece, however, is of this particular remark: “And while some well-meaning Catholics, desperate to believe all is well, try to mask the cracks in the façade of St. Peter’s with layer upon layer of ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ spackle, the furious work of destruction continues unabated within its walls.” He should note that two of those “well-meaning Catholics” who vigorously explained and defended a hermeneutic of continuity (sometimes using different words, but with the same intent) were St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It’s not “spackle,” but simply a correct (if rather academic) way of pointing out the deep errors that Archbold rightly criticizes. (See “Veritatis Splendor”, par. 56, for example). In other words, be careful with the friendly fire. In a time of crisis, it’s imperative to keep one’s wits and not simply fire madly at anything that moves. In reference to a specific and front-and-center issue, we shouldn’t start blasting at everyone who talks of “mercy” just because some people are trying to co-opt that term for ends that are both contrary to Church teaching and true mercy. Part of the ongoing, perpetual crisis is the fight for truth and clarity, and that means fighting for words and what they really mean—and what that means, in turn, for the daily lives of Catholics everywhere.

• Finally, Sandro Magister, another longtime Vatican journalist, has a piece about the Polish philosophers, Ludmila and Stanislaw Grygiel, who were friends of Karol Wojtyla as priest, bishop, and pope, and who teach at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Magister wonders why the Grygiels were not invited to be part of the Synod, which is a good question; in fact, no professors of that pontifical institute were invited, which seems strange. But I simply wanted to quote from recent addresses from each of them; first from Ludmila:
Chesterton said that we do not want a Church that will move with the world, but a Church that will move the world. Paraphrasing his words, we could say that families today, those in crisis and those that are happy, do not need pastoral care suited for the world, but pastoral care suited for He who knows what the heart of man desires.

I see the evangelical paradigm of this pastoral care in the dialogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman, from which emerge all the elements that characterize the current situation of difficulties both of spouses and of priests involved in pastoral care.

Christ agrees to speak with a woman who is living in sin. Christ is not capable of hating, he is capable only of loving, and therefore he does not condemn the Samaritan woman but reawakens the original desire of her heart, which is obfuscated by the experiences of a disordered life. He forgives her only after the woman has confessed that she does not have a husband.

In this way the Gospel passage recalls that God does not make a gift of his mercy to one who does not ask for it, and that recognition of sin and the desire for conversion are the rule of mercy. Mercy is never a gift offered to someone who does not want it, it is not a product on sale because it is not in demand. Pastoral care requires a profound and convinced adherence of pastors to the truth of the sacrament.

In the private diary of John Paul II, we find this note written in 1981, the third year of his pontificate: “Lack of confidence in the family is the first cause of the crisis of the family.”

Perhaps we think that everyone shares the same basic idea of “family” and “marriage.” If so, we are fooling ourselves. The Christian understanding is increasingly foreign to many people; it needs to be revived by a full embrace of it, not by cutting corners and looking at fixes that reflect the failed understandings that have come to dominate the West in recent decades. Now, from Stanislaw:
A “merciful” indulgence, requested by some theologians, is not capable of stopping the advancement of the hardness of hearts that do not remember how things are “from the beginning.” The Marxist assumption according to which philosophy must change the world rather than contemplating it has made inroads into the thinking of certain theologians such that these, more or less deliberately, instead of looking at man and the world in the light of the eternal Word of the living God, look at this Word from the perspective of ephemeral sociological tendencies. As a result they justify the actions of “hard hearts” according to the circumstances, and speak of the mercy of God as if this were a matter of tolerance tinged with commiseration.

A theology constituted in this way demonstrates a disregard for man. For these theologians man is no longer mature enough to look with courage, in the light of divine mercy, at the truth of his own becoming love, just as this truth itself is “from the beginning” (Mt 19:8). Not knowing “the gift of God,” they conform the divine Word to the desires of sclerotic hearts. It is possible that they do not realize that they are unconsciously proposing to God the pastoral practice that they have elaborated, as a way that could bring him to the people. […]

John Paul II approached every marriage, even broken ones, as Moses approached the burning bush on Mount Horeb. He did not enter into their homes without first taking the sandals from his feet, because he saw present in them the “center of history and of the universe.” […] This is why he did not bend himself to their circumstances and adapt his pastoral practice to them. […] At the risk of being criticized, he insisted on the fact that it is not circumstances that give form to marriage and the family, but it is instead these that give form to circumstances. First he accepted the truth, and only afterward the circumstances. He never allowed the truth to be left out waiting in the wings. He cultivated the soil of humanity not for ephemeral successes, but for an imperishable victory. He was seeking the culture of the “gift of God,” meaning the culture of love forever.

We must have a view of eternity and an understanding of what we are meant for in order to truly address the wounds of this world and the deepest longings of the human heart. Otherwise, we are going to offering band-aids to people who are bleeding and battered and losing hope. 

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.