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What's wrong with this Synod, III: First World problems

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 14, 2014

Perhaps now is as good a time as any for a reminder that the official topic for this extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops is: “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” During these last 10 days we have heard a great deal about divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, and cohabitation. We’ve heard much less about the Catholic vision for family life, and still less about evangelization.

To be fair, the relatio post disceptationem released on October 13 did devote some attention to the challenge of evangelizing people whose lives are at odds with the Christian vision of marriage and family life—gradually drawing them along, helping them to perceive the truth. But that interim document still focused on problems rather than solutions.

Equally important, the relatio—especially as it was filtered through the mass media—conveyed the impression to the general public that the Catholic Church is preparing to accept irregular living arrangements, to relax her opposition to various forms of sinful conduct. As that message spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult to proclaim the truth about human sexuality. Thus the first concrete product of the Synod may actually make evangelization more difficult.

During the past two pontificates, Popes John Paul lI and Benedict XVI spoke frequently about the “new evangelization”—the drive to revive interest in the faith in those societies where Christian influence was once dominant, but has now fallen into desuetude. Essentially the “new evangelization” is aimed at Europe and North America. In those countries of the affluent West, the statistics tell the story of decline in Catholicism: sharp declines in Mass attendance, in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, in church weddings, in baptisms.

And if you were asked to choose, from among all those nations of the Western world, the one where the decline of the Catholic Church is most evident, you might well choose Germany. There the massive exodus from the Church testifies to the dearth of evangelical impulse.

Why is it, then, that in the weeks leading up to this October session of the Synod—the Synod on the family in the context of evangelization--the public discussion was dominated by a proposal that had its impetus in Germany? Cardinal Walter Kasper introduced the proposal to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Cardinal Reinhard Marx testified that the Kasper proposal had the full support of the other Geman bishops.

Amy Welborn asked the right question about Cardinal Kasper’s proposal:

Well, first you should be wondering why the head of a national church that is dying should have this constantly-turned on microphone on this issue. Why are we even listening to him? Aren’t we supposed to be listening to the Church from places where it is actually alive and growing?

Where is the Church growing? Most conspicuously, these days, in Africa. You might say that Africa today is “the context of evangelization.” So a Synod dedicated to the family might profitably discuss the difficulties facing Christian families in Africa. There are many: the lingering influence of pagan customs, polygamy, staged and arranged marriages; poverty, lack of access to health care and education; civil wars; foreign aid that comes tied to anti-family ideology; and last but not least, Islamic extremism and religious persecution. These are real problems, touching the lives of millions of people. But they scarcely earned mention in our public discussions of the Synod’s agenda. Instead, the Western world concentrated on its own favorite problem: the discomfort of those relatively few Catholics who, having divorced and remarried, now wish to receive Communion.

I do not mean to dismiss the suffering of those divorced-and-remarried Catholics. I know that it is real, and I do not begrudge them the pastoral care that every Christian soul deserves. But at a time when hundreds of thousands of parents are struggling to save their children from starvation, or to find new homes where they will be safe for violence, it is difficult to explain how the Kasper proposal rose to the top of the agenda. And still more difficult to understand how, by resolving the situation of these divorced/remarried Catholics, the Church would ignite a new burst of evangelization.

This Synod has become fixated on first-world problems: on the problems of the Church in those regions where the spirit of evangelization is weakest. Having taken notice of that fact, Amy Welborn also supplies the obvious explanation for the German bishops’ fascination with the Kasper proposal. The German “church tax”—an outdated and outrageous piece of church-state entanglement—supplies lavish funding for the German hierarchy. But the flow of government cash is gradually drying up, as thousands of Germans formally renounce their affiliation with the Church in order to escape that surtax.

If the Church could regain popularity in Germany, the Catholic exodus might stop, the church-tax collections would firm up, and the hierarchy would be financially secure once again. So it’s easy to understand the German bishops’ interest in a proposal that would probably move public approval of the Church a few percentage-points up in German opinion surveys. But evangelization is not just a quest for popularity. The Synod should pay more attention to the needs and desires of Catholic families in societies where the Church is growing.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 15, 2014 12:30 AM ET USA

    It has always been suspected that there are any number of Cardinals and bishops who practice sin... I propose that those who "need to be evangelized" are within the assembly itself. JP

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 14, 2014 8:43 PM ET USA

    "...[Y]ou should be wondering why the head of a national church that is dying [i.e Kasper] should have this constantly-turned on microphone on this issue." This is THE key question here. The answer seems clearly to be because Pope Francis has permitted, perhaps encouraged, this to happen. The critical question now becomes, Why in the world would a pope do something this reckless?

  • Posted by: shrink - Oct. 14, 2014 7:22 PM ET USA

    Kasper is truly innovative. He's trying mightily to move the Church from message of Isaiah "Repent…. make straight the way of the Lord" to Monty Hall's "Let's make a deal."

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 14, 2014 7:20 PM ET USA

    The Lord had said, "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides."