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At the Synod, truths of Christ are worth a fight

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 20, 2015

The heated debates of this year’s Synod, which seem so dramatic to us today, are mild, bloodless affairs in comparison with the controversies in the early Church. During the first centuries of Christianity, if a reporter said that bishops were “fighting” over doctrinal questions, he was probably speaking literally: punches were being thrown.

In those contentious councils, the most impassioned debates involved questions of Christology. Recognizing the pivotal importance of the Incarnation for Christian belief, the Church fathers were determined to root out errors regarding the nature(s), mission, and Person of Jesus Christ. Blood was shed during those debates; friendships were severed and anathemas were hurled. But to this day we are still reaping the benefits of the doctrinal clarity forged in those fiery councils. If you understand Jesus aright, the rest of Church teaching follows logically; if you do not understand Jesus, a whole shelf of theological texts will not overcome that deficiency.

So in any discussion of the Catholic faith we should begin with Jesus, set a firm foundation in the Gospel, and build out from there. This is especially true insofar as the mission of the Church is a mission of evangelization. The “good news” that we are charged to spread throughout the world is the news of Christ and his Kingdom. Jesus is (if you will forgive an impious figure of speech) the “product” that we are “selling”—and we know that this product sells!

Now recall that the topic originally assigned for the Synod last year was: “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization” [emphasis added]. The Synod is charged with discussing how the family can better fulfill the mission of all Christ’s family, the mission of evangelization. “And it will be fruitful,” Father Robert Imbelli writes [scroll down a bit on the linked page for his commentary] “to the extent that it can provide a compelling Christological frame for the portrait and promise of family life that it paints.”

”When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians [1 Cor 2:1-2]. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” With that tight focus, St. Paul won converts in Corinth. Remember that the Apostle had come from Athens [Acts 1], where he had tried out his lofty words and wisdom, without much success. “We will hear you again on this,” his Greek listeners told him, perhaps looking forward to another desultory, salon-style discussion, pleasantly abstract, a diversion from their daily concerns.

Today I cannot help thinking of those Athenians when the bishops concentrate so much attention on the question of pastoral care for Catholics who are divorced and remarried. Yes, certainly these people need guidance and help; the Church could and should do more to help them. But isn’t this debate taking place at one long step removed from reality? Isn’t it impractical to fasten on the question of remarriage, when fewer and fewer people see the point of marriage in the first place? To hone in on the question of whether remarried Catholics may receive the Eucharist, when so few Catholics—married or not, divorced or not—bother to attend the weekly Eucharistic celebration?

This is not to say that questions about divorce and remarriage are irrelevant or abstract; they are all too relevant to our day, all too real. But we cannot begin the discussion of healthy family life by speaking about irregular unions. On the other hand, if we begin by speaking of Jesus Christ—whose union with his Bride, the Church, is the model for sacramental marriage—we have set the discussion in the proper perspective. A Christian who thinks of marriage in the light of the New Testament—in terms of a fulfillment that is realized through fidelity and self-sacrificial love—is more prepared to handle the problems that any marriage will face. Someone earnestly striving to imitate the Suffering Servant will be better equipped to cope with the loneliness that follows a broken marriage, or stems from a same-sex attraction. Moreover, someone whose thoughts are centered on Christ may recognize that the pastoral teachings of the Church are not based on abstract rules, invented by celibates wearing miters, but on the will of the Man-God, their Savior.

Another crucial lesson to be learned from those early Christological debates is the importance of using precise language in theological discussions. “Words spoken amiss lead to heresy,” St. Jerome warned. Facile references to the primacy of conscience, or the depth of God’s mercy, or the need to “accompany” sinners—all valid concepts, but concepts that must be treated with some care—can lead people seriously astray. Good intentions, coupled with sloppy reasoning, can yield misery.

During the past week, some movers and shakers at the Synod have claimed that this session’s debate pits bishops who favor a “pastoral” strategy against those who take an “ideological” approach. I wonder how many of the activists who use this sort of heavily loaded language have actually served as pastors themselves. Real pastors, who deal with ordinary Catholics every day, know that their people are already confused, and that confusion is a breeding ground for bad—often self-destructive—decisions. Insofar as the Synod is designed to clarify the teachings of the Church, the bishops should fight to overcome that confusion. There is an urgent pastoral need for clarity.

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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  • Posted by: skall391825 - Oct. 20, 2015 7:42 PM ET USA

    "Insofar as the Synod is designed to clarify the teachings of the Church, the bishops should fight to overcome that confusion. There is an urgent pastoral need for clarity." Exactly, Phil, but my bishops never wanted to hear that from me at the local level because it would negate their pet politically correct agendas. That 40-year long festering problem has been exposed at this Synod--dubious agendas die in the light of clarity.