Updates from the Synod

After all of the strum und drang, we finally have some concrete product from the Synod on the Family being held at the Vatican.  Released this morning, the document is essentially a summary or survey of the comments that various speakers have given.  It is the most preliminary of preliminary documents, so I think it is a mistake to put too much weight on it.  Nevertheless, it is notable on a couple of levels.

First, it represents a significant change in tone from the preparatory document that was produced by Vatican insiders prior to the Synod.  There is still a great deal of talk about how modern culture is terrible and the Church needs to evangelize that culture to save it from itself, but there is also talk about how the Church needs to listen to people and try to find where God is working in their life.  Indeed, the very first section of the document was about listening.  One might dismiss this listening talk as pro forma, and maybe that's right, but at least it is encouraging.

Along those lines, the document seemed to reflect a focus on what a couple of the bishops at the Synod have called "gradualism."  This is somewhat of an amorphous concept (which its critics have pointed out), but it seems to mean acknowledging and accepting that folks are going to be in various places along the continuum of the "correct" family set up, and trying to support people where they are, as opposed to taking an all-or-nothing position.  For example, you have statements like this:

 Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.  (Paragraph 20).

Or this:

Indeed, when a [non-marital] union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage. (Paragraph 22).
Third, it seems like the annulment process is going to be paired down to a summary decision by some person in the diocesan tribunal.  I have serious conceptual problems with using greater annulments as the solution to the divorced and remarried issue (which I hope to talk about in my next post), but I recognize that this will be a vehicle for lots of otherwise excluded people to get back to Communion. 

Fourth, there is at least some recognition that LGBT relationships have some value that should be respected.  "Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners."  (Paragraph 52).  This is not nearly sufficient, but one has to recognize the attempt, however weak, to move away from the jihad against gay folks.

A couple of concluding thoughts.  First, traditionalist Catholics are in full melt-down.  The ever-reliable Rorate-Caeli website has already taken the position that any acknowledgement that there is something salutary about gay relationships is "a new Gospel." and that this document is a back-door repudiation of Humanae Vitae (note:  I don't get that at all from reading the birth control section).  Despite their hysterics, I think they have reason to be concerned.  It is hard to read this document and not conclude that the playbook from the Synod (and, I suspect very strongly, Pope Francis) is to shut down the gatekeeper model of Church governance.  If one takes the notion of "gradualism" seriously, then it is hard to justify a priori excluding anyone from participation in Church life, as everyone is somewhere on a continuum toward the ideal.  What this will mean in practice, in all likelihood, is a return to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" model of Catholicism that predominated in the 80s and 90s in most places.  In other words, lots of folks will do what they believe is right on, say, birth control,  and if anyone complains, then they can be shouted down under the rubric that those folks need to be welcomed and embraced in their gradualism.

In theory, this is a workable solution.  In practice, I'm not sure the toothpaste can be put back in the tube.  The theory requires that pastors and bishops tacitly agree to this modus operandi, and I think it is clear that the hard-core culture warriors have little interest in such an accommodation.  Moreover, gradualism is such a vague concept that it is difficult to imagine any sort of rules or guidelines to enforce it.  So, if one is stuck with a culture warrior priest or bishop, all of this talk of gradualism is going to be empty rhetoric.  While there is no question that the priest and bishop in Montana felt empowered by the tone of the Vatican in the last 10-20 years to kick out Mr. Huff and Mr. Wojtowick, it is not clear to me how the implementation of these ideas would protect, or have protected, these men. As long as clergy can point to official doctrinal statements that justify their actions, no amount of tweaks to the tone of the rhetoric is going to protect folks in the pews.

This is an encouraging start.  But it is not enough. 


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