Within the next year we are about to see a good deal of discussion both inside and outside the Catholic Church on the subject of morality. Pope Francis convoked an extraordinary synod of the world’s bishops last fall, in preparation for the regular Synod of Bishops on October 4-25, 2015. The official subject matter is evangelization and the family, but as you may recall from the first meeting, some significant pastoral and moral issues received a great deal of attention, namely the status of divorced and remarried Catholics, and the widespread use of artificial birth control. As I interpreted the results, a number of bishops from Western Europe, notably Germany, argued that under current Church teaching and practice a large number of Catholic families are at odds with the Church. Some bishops have called for a change in the Church’s teachings on artificial birth control and the indissoluble bond of a sacramental marriage. While the bishops of the United States did not go this far, there is considerable popular sentiment here for serious reexamination of the status quo.
I have to state upfront that for me it would be critical that we keep our eye on the original pastoral goal established by the pope, the health of the family unit and its spiritual revitalization as key to the rebirth of evangelical renewal in the church. Put another way, this is the first time there has ever been a Synod whose expressed target is the one most of you anguish over constantly—the minors in your faith formation programs whose families we never see at Sunday Mass. I had a most informative discussion recently with my own diocese’s director of faith formation who explained that there appears to be a consensus developing between bishops and professional catechists around family based faith formation, in whatever forms that would take. When we consider that the late Christiane Brusselmans and other liturgical/catechetical pioneers were already producing books and pastoral guides for family based faith initiation as early as 1970, it is remarkable that it has taken nearly half a century for such insight to “trickle upward.” So, regardless of what you read in the New York Times or the Huffington Post, the thrust of this Synod is faith and the family.
That said, you are public people in the Church and you want to be well-informed to communicate effectively with your fellow parishioners who regard you as “insiders,” so to speak. Most will ask about the high visibility issues. So how do you respond? Rule number one for catechists is integrity: as a commissioned catechist, you cannot speak against the Apostolic Tradition. You cannot publicly deride or disparage teachings with which you have difficulty yourself.
Along this line, I do not expect to see change in either teaching. Francis himself has recently reaffirmed Paul VI’s 1968 teaching on artificial birth control, and the teaching on marital indissolubility dates back to the Gospel (though with some New Testament shading in Matthew and Paul). Something to consider: the call for change in the teachings is not universal; it is coming from the “industrialized West” and thus does not carry the sensus fidelium or “sense of all the faithful.” Change in the moral core would devastate the Church in Asia and Africa whose people depend upon the moral power of the Church in the face of real persecution and hostile culture.
All the same, moral teaching is addressed to fallible believers. What I suspect may happen (and this is my opinion only) is that bishops may address pastoral care for those who in good faith have significant practical difficulty with moral teachings regarding the family. Pope Francis hinted as much in his “rabbits” remark last week. Both St Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Church combine moral teaching with spiritual virtue; there are holy people among us who are called to the married state but whose first spouses were sociopaths who successfully torpedoed the annulment attempt out of spite. There are holy couples who by reason of health have found periodic abstinence unworkable and yet live a sacrament whose matter is doctrinally defined as unitive conjugal expression.
As a foot note, let me recommend an excellent discussion of Catholic moral fidelity, “Following Faithfully” from the February 2, 2015 issue of America Magazine. If nothing else, the article gives a fine overview of the role of conscience in moral decision making.
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