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Instrumentum laboris: Second impressions

Yesterday, I gave some initial impressions of the Instrumentum laboris for the forthcoming Synod on the Family, highlighting different strengths and weaknesses in the document. Today, I propose to take a step back and look at the document as a whole and what it portends both for the synod and for the Church in this privileged, albeit challenging, moment.

My colleague Fr. Tom Reese, SJ, correctly notes that the document is “joyless.” And, so it is. But, unlike my colleague, I do not discern any fault in this fact. First, this is a working document, designed to compile the responses to the questionnaire sent out last autumn, and to highlight the issues to be discussed at the synod. And, this synod aims to look at the “state of the question,” and a synod the following year will discuss the Church’s response. If there is no joy coming from the text of that second synod, we will be in trouble, to be sure. Second, sometimes “joy talk” obfuscates difficult issues. I grew up in and belong to a family that was equal parts blessings and curses. Joy talk never captures, for me, the whole story.

More importantly, the most important thing about this forthcoming synod will be its methodology. Will it be, like previous synods, a series of canned speeches which, after the first five, are enormously repetitive and uninspiring? Will there be real dialogue, time to question assertions, explanations of different cultural realities faced by the particular churches throughout the world? Ours is a universal Church, and so whatever pastoral programs the synod devises must account for wildly different cultural situations. Was anyone else surprised to see polygamy get so many mentions in this document?

As noted yesterday, the Instrumentum laboris does not pre-judge the issues involved, which is the documents greatest strength. This leads me to conclude that the Holy Father and organizers of the synod intend for there to be a real discussion of the issues. In the documents discussion of divorced and remarried Catholics, a variety of approaches were raised, but if they drafters had found joy in one, and not in all, you would know how the eventual synod document would read.

Of course, changing the methodology of the synods is not just a matter of adopting a different debating protocol. If there is to be genuine discussion, the martinets among the hierarchy will have a hard time. Those bishops, and there are some out there, who invoke slogans rather than reasons, who reduce all reality to a natural law syllogism and encourage the lay faithful to be docile in accepting the “hard truths” the Church teaches, they will have to explain their slogans, and think beyond their syllogisms. At several points in the text, bishops’ conferences are said to be seeking pastoral solutions from Rome for the situations they face. Why look to Rome? How much fuller the discussion would be if the bishops gathering in Rome this autumn were discussing the pastoral solutions they have already begun? If, as we can hope, the synod’s new format exposes martinets, it will be obvious to all, including the Holy Father, that we need to be more discerning in recommending candidates for the episcopacy.

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One paragraph in the document has garnered a great deal of attention. Paragraph 75 reads:

75. Responses from almost every part of the world frequently refer to the sexual scandals within the Church (pedophilia, in particular) and, in general, to a negative experience with the clergy and other persons. Sex scandals significantly weaken the Church’s moral credibility, above all in North America and northern Europe. In addition, a conspicuously lavish lifestyle by some of the clergy shows an inconsistency between their teaching and their conduct. Some lay faithful live and practice their faith in a “showy manner,” failing to display the truth and humility required by the Gospel spirit. The responses lament that persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities, that some clergy are uncompromising and insensitive in their behavior; and, generally speaking, that the Church, in many ways, is perceived as exclusive, and not sufficiently present and supportive. In this sense, an open and positive pastoral approach is needed, one which can restore confidence in the institution through a credible witness by all her members.

Rocco Palmo calls this graph “truly stunning” and, given the context, he is right, but the paragraph only states what has long been obvious, if unspoken in official Church texts, to anyone with a discerning eye. The inclusion of this paragraph does bring joy to my heart because it holds out the hope that the bishops will begin their discernment by looking at themselves. This willingness to examine the clergy’s culpability in the difficult situations the Church faces is not only more honest, it is more Christian. Simul justus et peccator, and all that. And, when future synods look at other issues facing the Church, such as secularization, this willingness to begin with self-examination will get very interesting. Those U.S. bishops who have bought into the conservative cultural meme of reducing religion to ethics will have some explaining to do.

The document begins with a brief review of the biblical and Church teaching on the family. It is easy to overlook these paragraphs and move on to the contentious issues of divorced and remarried Catholics and same-sex unions and contraception. But, starting with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is where the Church must always start. Yesterday, a friend complained that the document, like other official texts, is the work of a bunch of old, celibate males talking about something they have never experienced. In one sense that is true. But, the synod is not a sociology seminar. The Church does not have some novel theory about family structures to bring to this discussion. The Church, when she teaches, brings Christ. What else (who else?) can we bring? The complaint about old, celibate males rings hollow when you reflect on this fact, that it is the truth about the human person revealed in Jesus Christ which must enlighten the discussion.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Fr. Robert Imbelli’s book Rekindling the Christic Imagination. As I noted, Imbelli begins his book by fashioning a dialogue between Pope Benedict and Charles Taylor and notes the points of convergence between the two great Christian thinkers. Here is what I wrote about that section of Imbelli’s book:

The first of the points of convergence is a point well known to regular readers of this column. "First, both concur that Christianity cannot be reduced to moralism, but that it opens upon an apprehension of transcendent reality." For both men, "experience" is not mere subjectivism, but relational and profoundly so. "Second, the heart of that vision is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ." Both Taylor and Benedict asked: What does the Incarnation mean? And as Imbelli writes, "I think it is right to say that the whole of Pope Benedict's pastoral-theological program was an intense effort to recover, for contemporary men and women, 'a sense of what the Incarnation can mean.'" Imbelli closes the paragraph, as he closes many paragraphs, with a literary illusion: "T.S. Eliot, in a memorable verse, reminds us that incarnation is 'the hint half guessed, the gift half understood.' " Imbelli points out that whatever else happened at the Second Vatican Council, the four principal documents, or constitutions, to issue from that council were "Christologically charged, fresh realizations and celebrations of the church's Lord and the world's Savior."

If the synod is to succeed, and if future synods and papal teachings are to be in anyway helpful to the building up of the Kingdom of God, they must rekindle this Christic imagination, for themselves and for the rest of us. We who will not be at the synod need to do this too, and not just one month in the autumn. It is too easy to start with the world, seen through a secular lens, and wonder what, if anything, Jesus Christ has to say about it all, and then fashion out of the teachings of the Church a stance that allows us to be comfortable with the times and cultures in which we live. The rule of faith governs us if we are to think and feel and act as Catholic Christians.

None of this conflicts with a section of the document, paragraph 31, which I cited yesterday. The relevant parts states:

Real-life situations, stories and multiple trials demonstrate that the family is experiencing very difficult times, requiring the Church’s compassion and understanding in offering guidance to families “as they are” and, from this point of departure, proclaim the Gospel of the Family in response to their specific needs.

This sentence is found in section entitled, “The Family and Vocation of the Person in Christ.” As Catholic Christians, our “point of departure” must be the real-life situations of the world in which we live, but we depart as Catholic Christians, we accompany as Catholic Christians, and our task is to help the people of God, and ourselves, be faithful to what we have received. The self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ is not something we fashioned for ourselves. It was given to us. And, whether they be celibate old males or not, the bishops have a privileged place in interpreting the gift of revelation. More importantly, that gift is what we bring to the discussion of family life. For us, that gift is normative. For us, that gift is what makes us distinctive. For us, it is that gift which saves and redeems and liberates. The liberation of the modern family from all the ills of the age can only be achieved through a communion in Jesus Christ. If we do not believe that, we do not really believe at all, we have stepped outside the rule of faith, we have become more interested in our own gifts rather than God’s great gift.

When the bishops gather in Rome for this synod, they will meet in the presence of the Holy Father. This pope, in a little more than a year, has brought new life and energy to the Church. He has done so mostly through powerful gestures of humility and human compassion. These gestures are powerful not because they are carefully crafted like an actor’s performance in a play. They are powerful because they touch that part of our hearts that yearns to be in communion with Jesus Christ. Pope Francis has a gift for calling our attention to the gift we have received in Jesus Christ. We all find ourselves a little giddy about Pope Francis because he has reminded us that Christians can be joyful, that the way of discipleship, of being followers of Jesus, is more liberating than anything proffered by this self-assertive age in which we live. If the bishops catch some of Pope Francis’ Spirit-filled approach to the real-life situations families face, there will be plenty of joy in the end. Call me naïve. Call me foolish. But, however uneven this Instrumentum laboris seems, I still think that Pentecost is in the air and that the synod this document is designed to prepare will yet see a flowering of the Spirit’s gifts.  

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