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A ‘Pastoral Earthquake’ at the Rome Synod

Hang on to your birettas, Catholics; it's going to be a bumpy ride

Blockbuster news out of Rome today, from the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family. John Thavis calls it a “pastoral earthquake.” More:

The relatio post disceptationem read aloud in the synod hall, while defending fundamental doctrine, calls for the church to build on positive values in unions that the church has always considered “irregular,” including cohabitating couples, second marriages undertaken without annulments and even homosexual unions.

Regarding homosexuals, it went so far as to pose the question whether the church could accept and value their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine.

While defending the traditional teachings that reject divorce and gay marriage, the synod said the modern church must focus more on the “positive elements” in such relationships, rather than their shortcomings, and open a patient and merciful dialogue with the people involved. The ultimate aim, it said, is to use these “seeds” of goodness to bring people more fully into the church.

It summed up the pastoral challenge for the church in this way:

“It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.”

More, on the pushback from some bishops:

— At least one bishop asked what happened to the concept of sin. The word “sin” appears only rarely in the 5,000-word relatio.

Read the whole thing.

Here’s Elizabeth Scalia’s take. She says that everything hinges on what the Synod means by “gradualism.” If it’s a matter of meeting people where they are, in their imperfection and sin, and leading them humanely into full communion with the Truth, then it’s pastorally admirable and wise. But if it’s an excuse for moral indifference, then it’s disastrous. She writes:

Do people have a point when they worry about “gradualism” assisting in the degradation of the sacraments and our understanding of them? Is there a possibility of it being misunderstood and misused? Oh, yes, and that’s worth being concerned about, particularly given the church’s poor catechetical transmission over the past five decades — when it has most desperately been needed — and the Curia’s self-destructive habit of not controlling its message but allowing important teachings, documents and exhortations to be filtered through the secular press, and thereby reduced to the least-helpful soundbites.

Father Dwight Longenecker is concerned about the seeming double-speak on co-habitation, and I get that, but then again. . .the thing about Calah’s story is that Calah and her husband were taking the church on its own terms, while still trying to extricate themselves from their sins, and were therefore willing to work within the discipline, willing to withhold themselves and (so to speak) “take their medicine” of refraining from Communion, until they were in a state of grace.

It seems to me this is where things fall apart and gradualism becomes scary for people; precisely at the line where people place their sense of entitlement before their willingness to try something as radical as obedience, which is strong, strong medicine, and must be taken with an IV of humility.

Yes, I get the scary part. But I also get the humane part that evangelizes people back into church by seeing them in their totality and walking with them. Gradualism is a time-consuming and one-on-one sort of pastoring, and we have so few priests well-trained to it, and so many Catholics or potential Catholics, in great need: how can shall we manage this?

Here is Calah’s story. It’s the tale of a woman who gave birth to a child out of wedlock, at a time when she was addicted to crystal meth. A patient Cistercian priest worked with her and her boyfriend, even when many others criticized him for being too lax. Excerpt:

I believe with all my heart that any path other than the one our priest set us on would have ended disastrously for our family. “Scorched earth” is a pretty apt term for what would have been left of the three of us if the Ogre and I had been pressured and brow-beaten into attempting to correct our lives at once. I believe that because even being on the slowest path possible out of mortal sin was almost too much for us. There were so many close calls, so many narrowly averted crises. We almost didn’t make it to a place of relative stability, and we wouldn’t have if weren’t for God’s infinite patience, mercy, love, and grace. He let us move slowly, and he loved us in spite of it.

I’ve heard many people soundly denounce couples who are in the situation we were in, people who don’t know the details of the situation, who don’t know what roadblocks the couple is up against, and some who don’t even know the couple at all. It hurts to hear other people judged so easily and with so much confidence, and I often wonder if those doing the judging would think twice if they knew even a fraction of the long-term suffering, pain, and humiliation that accompanies an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the subsequent attempt to right the wrong. A few people have even insisted that our priest was wrong, that we should have been ordered to bring ourselves away from mortal sin no matter the cost, that God’s grace would surely have been sufficient to save us both if we had only made the effort.

I can’t say that God’s grace would have been insufficient if we had chosen a different path. I can say, though, that I do not believe that either of us were capable of choosing a different path at the time.

Elizabeth Scalia says Calah Alexander and her husband are now fully in communion with the Catholic Church, and have six children. If their Cistercian priest had given them a full dose of medicine, it would likely have killed them spiritually. But he nurtured them back to health. This is very, very important for rigorists like me to understand. At the same time, as Elizabeth says, we know far too many priests who would use pastoral mercy (“economia,” as it is called in Orthodoxy) as an excuse to confirm sinners in their sinfulness. There is no one size fits all formula, because people are people, not machines.

An Orthodox priest once told me that there are two types of confessions: the kind that are of the “I drank milk on a fast day” sort, and the serious ones — that is, the ones involving deep, complicated sins and sinful dispositions. Those, he said, are quite challenging for the confessor, because his task is to try to understand the nature of the penitent, and why this sin became so rooted in him. The confessor is a spiritual doctor who is trying to wean the penitent off of the sin — and that is more of an art than a science.



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