I am increasingly concerned about the Synod on the Family. Not because I am worried Catholic teaching will be changed- that is an impossibility. The manner in which the Catholic church is set up ensures such innovation is impossible and that nothing can or will contradict the faith of the ages.
What I fear is that the entire debate will be misunderstood because a shift in language now causes a serious disconnect between the thinking of the world and that of the church. I speak of terms such as “charity” or “mercy”.
Within the modern world charity’s meaning has now morphed. It is understood as a benign non-judgmental attitude, that which ensures the ‘live and let live’ policy of the secular world. Faith belongs in the privacy of the home not the public square. Truth is for each to work out for themselves. None is to ever be offended or insulted.
So for the Church to be charitable in the eyes of the secular world, she needs to stop making moral judgements altogether. She has no business interfering in people’s lives. All affirmed no matter their history or actions. So the divorcee must be treated the same as the first time bride. The person wanting to enter a same sex relationship the same as the one asking for marriage as traditionally understood. They must be left to do as they will.
But the problem is that “do as thou wilt” has never been the motto of Christians. (In fact it is the motto of Satanism!) For Christians believe in a universe of action and consequence, in a heaven and hell. They are duty bound to proclaim God’s word as contained in scripture and as revealed by God in history. It is about service of Him not choice of self. That we might help people make the right decisions in life – those that do not endanger their souls or the souls of other people.
Furthermore we consider the bigger picture. We understand that life is not self contained or simple, so as to allow indiscriminate blessing of choice. Meaning that before we can delight in Mrs. Miggins decision to leave a dull husband for a better model- we must first consider the needs of the dull husband and also those of their vulnerable children. Which is the more charitable- providing her sexual liberty or holding the family together in love?
Charity for the Catholic then is this. A theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. At least that is how the Catechism puts it. And this manifestly does not centre on that philosophy of self interest, so rampant in our culture, but on a responsibility for the other. Something society so often overlooks.
For how can such thinking sit within a non-judgmental attitude? No this philosophy requires a different understanding of charity. That which dares challenge and call us to responsibility in life. That which dares speak truth to the world no matter the cost. And because people’s hearts are often set on sin it has historically made us less than popular. But be that as it may -love is the motivator. A desire to save souls and order society to its best end – the driving factor.
So to the forthcoming Synod and we begin to see what a perilous path the poor Pontiff plods. It is like a re-run of the days leading up to Humanae Vitae when a different (but similar) Pope was expected to change Church teaching as regards contraception. He could and did not, of course, and was then vilified in the extreme.
Should Pope Francis use the Synod to re-affirm church teaching on the sanctity of marriage and the impossibility of re-marriage following divorce (without nullity) then he faces hostility in the extreme. The crowd waving palms of approval today will quickly change and go on the offensive. For this would signal his refusal to go where the world is currently attempting to push him.
But should he acquiesce to the world, by allowing a shift in church discipline (he can’t change the teaching remember) and give a nod to the “pastoral” turning of blind eyes, then the entire edifice of Catholic moral teaching will be thrown into crisis. For where else might humanity delight and insist on keeping the teaching “officially” but not actually opting to enforce it? Sex before marriage? Abortion?
One sees the mess that could ensue and it is worth remembering that a decision to acquiesce within other denominations has tended to lead to terrible strife, in-fighting and loss of Christian orthodoxy. It is no exaggeration to state the ground for schism would be set. Which is perturbing given that Catholicism has not yet dealt definitively with the thorny modern issues of liberalism and dissent.
So we need to pray for Pope Francis and for the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit. The Church not being in a good position to speak to the world at present about marriage and sex due to this contradictory use of language and understanding.
What we really need is not so much an exploration of Church teaching but a reminder to the world of what mercy, love, charity and responsibility actually mean. For until the world stops viewing all in terms of self any understanding of family life, the ultimate sacrifice of self for other, will be enormously tricky.