Can we even have a meaningful debate?


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.

10 thoughts on “Can we even have a meaningful debate?”

  1. Jesus had a very meaningful debate with the Samaritan woman, and nowhere does rejection show its face.

    1. The woman is not rejected but the sin of adultery most certainly is when he tells her, post confession and absolution, to go and sin no more.

      1. I’m wondering, Father. A couple freely acknowledge the failure of their respective first marriage, and present themselves, penitent, but desirous of the life giving sacraments of the church? How does the church deal with that situation , taking into consideration the Samaritan woman scenerio?

  2. Thank you, Father, for this fine post. I am reluctant to say this, but I find it difficult to assess whether the Pope really understands the seriousness of what he has set in motion with this synod. I am thinking in particular of the prominence he has given to Cardinal Kasper. I find it somewhat reassuring that, according to Sandro Magister’s Settimo Cielo blog, many senior cardinals spoke out against Cardinal Kasper’s ideas at the recent consistory.

  3. Of course the Orthodox Church has a different approach to marriage breakdown and I understand that one “mistake” can be made. How would that fit in with “unity” talks

    1. Two. But the idea of divorce in the Orthodox Church cannot be taken in isolation: it is part of the concept of oikonomia, or the relaxation of the strictness of the law, in specific instances (precedent tends not to have much weight), for specific persons, because the burden of the law would be worse for the soul of the person than the relaxation of that burden. Oikonomia is practiced by all members of the Church, from the Laity to the Bishops.

      Any Theological rapprochement between Orthodox Christianity and RC Christianity would require Rome to develop an understanding and appreciation of the Theology and practice of oikonomia. This shouldn’t be insurmountable, since the ByzCath churches already have something like this, and Rome herself practised it for many centuries.

      Incidentally, the rite of a second marriage in the Orthodox Church omits some of the joyful hymns and replaces them with some penitential prayers. In some jurisdictions, the rite of a third marriage is positively funereal!

  4. It does seem very difficult to have a meaningful debate, as your title fears. I think liberals and traditionalists understand each other’s morality fairly well by now – but we simply see in each other the evil we believe Christ came to heal.

    There is some common ground however, or some overlap at least, between some liberals and some traditionalists. I support gay marriage for example, not because I want to open the floodgates to sexual immorality of every kind, but because I have a very high view of holy matrimony and would wish gay Christian partnerships to be as centred and rooted in Christ’s love for His Church as heterosexual marriage is. My motivation is holiness, not immorality, and on most issues I’d suggest we’d be on the same side – eg abortion, sex outside marriage, euthanasia. I would be just as distressed as you if the Church wavered in its teaching on adultery.

    Normally it might be possible to ease the conflict between us by trying to see things from each others’ perspective. However, in this case it would mean that I’d have to accept a world in which a same sex intimate relationship is considered dysfunctional, disordered and sinful rather than a God-given and life-giving vocation to be celebrated. And you’d have to accept, if only for a moment, that a gay marriage could be just as holy and loving as yours, rather than something which opens the gate to hell.

    I am not sure there is any way to square that circle. In the Church of England of course we’re about to have this two year period of ‘facilitated discussions’ to try to find a way forward that may or may not find a way to honour both views. It will be very hard since they are so diametrically opposed. Still, if the CofE can’t ‘hold the tension in unity’ then who can? :-)

    ps What does the Catholic Church do when a married gay couple comes to faith? Can they be baptised and remain married by the state (on the reasoning that they’re not actually married before God)? Would they never be allowed to receive the other Sacraments?

    May God bless your church and the Ordinariate (which I’ve always supported by the way – how wonderful for you to have found such a home!)

    1. Thanks Clare. Just to say I wouldn’t dream of holding my marriage up as a standard against anything due to my own shoddy working out of it. I think that paragraph suggests a sense of superiority I don’t feel comfortable with or worthy of.

      As to gay couple that is an interesting question. I guess the church would demand a renunciation of sorts just by nature of accepting Catholic teaching

  5. When a man marries a woman they become one body in the eyes of Christ. Only death can separate them. They can part company and go their own ways. They can re marry in the eyes of human law but not in the eyes of Christ – they are still one body joined for life with there spouse. Man may delude himself that he can change the law of God. The truth is he can never do this. All divorced souls that re-marry (under the eyes of human law) unless they live chaste lives, commit the sin of adultery. This can never change, it is Gods law. Not one dot of the law will change, ever! Of course one must always never forget the mercy of God for all of us.

  6. ‘For how can such thinking sit within a non-judgmental attitude?’

    Good question. But it seems that the present Pope did indeed on one occasion deliver himself of such a Jesus-like attitude, and precisely in relation to gays: ‘who am I to judge them?’ There was an ‘if’, but it didn’t seem – or didn’t obviously seem – to imply: give up all gay identity. For me (liberal Catholic/Protestant etc.), the ‘jury’ (how we ‘judge’ him) remains ‘out’ on this Pope (although he’s certainly a great improvement in all possible ways on the last one). Glad that you are at least registering anxiety about his trajectory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>