A chaotic synod? Reason two: The Church in our time

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 13, 2014

The second reason the current Synod on the Family will inevitably seem chaotic is the unique situation of the Church in this period of history. In my last installment, I explained that a certain degree of chaos is integral to the synodal process, and in the third and final installment I will explain why the very concept of marriage produces a chaotic response in the modern world. But today let us consider how the Church’s unusual situation leaves the synod fathers fumbling around for solutions they cannot quite grasp.

The reason lies in the rather odd condition of the Church after the long decline of the Western world from Catholicism into secularism. Allowing for some over-simplification, we may consider that in the early part of the Church’s history, there were essentially two kinds of people—those in the Church who held strongly to her Faith in Christ and accepted her moral teachings, and those outside the Church who either rejected both, or did not know anything about them. After this there followed a long process of conversion until, by the fifteenth century, essentially everyone in what we call the West was Catholic. This was a dominant historical circumstance, manifested openly (if imperfectly) in social life, politics and culture. The mission fields lay outside the borders of Christendom.

In other words, about 500 years ago, everyone in the primary community of reference for the Church was Catholic, and nearly all of these Catholics at least paid lip service to the teachings of the Church, even if they often fell short of them in practice. But then a period of secularization began, a process which gradually eroded the faith of a Catholic people. Part of this involved the splintering of the Christian religion into diverse sects. As time went on, many people even began to disaffiliate from any Christian church at all. The culture ceased by degrees to be Catholic, and the Church’s influence outside of the narrow sphere of religious practice gradually diminished.

The Culture Within

What we need to notice about this extended process is that it was not, and never could be, a simple matter of strong believers remaining in the Church while those who became more secular left. We are dealing with the slow secularization of an entire people. Therefore, many of those who remained formally within the Church gradually also adopted an increasingly secular mindset. They made continuous accommodations, generation by generation, with the growing secular culture without giving up their membership in the Church. They continued to self-identify as Catholics despite their ever more attenuated faith.

In her Magisterium, governance and sacraments, the Church remained what she always was. But in her members, she drifted out of a faith-filled worldview as the culture drifted out of a faith-filled worldview. In the latter stages of this process, many within the Church actually no longer paid even lip service to important Catholic teachings which were at odds with the prevailing cultural ethos. The increase of open dissent was bad enough, but even worse was the widespread lessening of Catholic identity within the Church. The primary drama was no longer that of the Church vs. the world ad extra, but the Church vs. the world ad intra.

Today I hope we are nearing an end to this long process. But whatever the case, the Church is now characterized—as in no other period of history—by a tremendous worldly inertia. Within her own ranks, an overwhelming majority no longer shape their lives according to their putative faith in Christ. It never occurs to them that there is and ought to be a radical gulf between the Church and the world. Even among those who still actually practice their religion, a majority not only live in opposition to some Catholic teachings but have actually convinced themselves that—on key points separating the Magisterium from the dominant culture—the Church is sadly wrong.

Deep Wounds

Obviously I do not mean to assert that other periods of history have not seen enormous numbers of Catholics fail to live up to what they profess. But there is a huge difference between a Catholic who falls into sin and a Catholic who does not really possess much of a Catholic identity at all, a Catholic who does not even notice that his or her principles are not drawn from the teaching of Christ, a Catholic for whom it is nearly inconceivable that the standard secular patterns of life ought to be subordinated to and reformed by Catholic teaching, a Catholic who would almost never think of life in terms of a long sacrificial battle against human passion and worldliness.

But in the modern period we have a Church which is largely composed of such persons, a fact that is explained, without casting very much blame at all, by the long historic process of secularization I have described. This process has been stoutly resisted by many over the years, yet it has continued inexorably for at least five centuries. We can chart milestones along the way, but we cannot say exactly why the vast majority of battles have been lost, whereas in the preceding millennium and more, the vast majority of battles had been won. Why does Christ wax in one time, place and culture, only to wane in another? Much of this is hidden in the inscrutable Providence of God Himself.

If we are deeply committed, we can see fairly easily what is wrong. And each of us can think of some things that ought to be done, or that we ourselves could do, to contribute to a new evangelization. We can point to a variety of initiatives that have borne fruit on at least a small scale. And we can even describe fairly easily what the Church ought to look like, as compared with what she looks like now. But when it comes to addressing the enormity of this problem, we do not really know how to guarantee success. Practically speaking, we do not know how to get from point A to point B. Neither do we understand why, with all the efforts that have been made over hundreds of years, we have apparently reached no turning point.

Fortunately, the Church’s job is the same as our own: Not to be successful but to be faithful.

Three Points

Regarding the Synod on the Family, this background clarifies three important points. First, in terms of the topic to which the Synod is devoted, we see immediately that nothing is more calculated than secular attitudes toward marriage to place Catholics in a position which makes it extraordinarily difficult for them to respond positively to the continued ministry of the Church. Clearly the Church needs ways to minister to her own estranged members so that they can somehow, by degrees, more fully embrace what it means to be a Catholic. Hence it is no surprise that the Synod fathers are exploring the concept of gradualism.

We can state unequivocally that It would be wrong to pretend that Christian principles are optional, adopting a false gradualism which makes Christ the problem rather than the solution. But self-evidently, the contemporary Church must learn to excel at moving her own members ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ—and marriage problems make this uniquely difficult.

Second, let me reiterate the singular position of the Church in our time. This may be markedly different in cultures emerging from paganism in the global south. One thinks of Catholic growth in Africa, for example. But within our still dominant Western civilization, which after all has not yet fallen completely into ruin, nobody really knows the solution to the Church’s fundamental problem—overcoming the inertia of a membership among which the faith is enormously attenuated or, for practical purposes, absent.

I will say this again: Nobody knows. We can cry for holiness even as we ourselves hang back in so many ways. We can condemn false moves. We can rail at synods for not being on point all of the time. But even the loudest of us does not have the answer. I don’t have it and, if you will excuse blunt speech, neither do you.

Third and last, what we have here is the second great reason why we must expect this synod above all others to be in many ways chaotic. Yet through our Faith we know that this is no rough beast* slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, but the Bride of Christ seeking her Bridegroom in all the ways and byways of a wounded world. Nor is my use of such nuptial imagery accidental. For we must still consider, in the third part of this explanation, why marriage presents the Synod on the Family with the most difficult topic of all.

* See William Butler Yeats’ evocative poem, “The Second Coming”, written in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I.


Previous in series: A chaotic synod? Reason one: The nature of synods
Next in series: A chaotic synod? Reason three: Marriage itself

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: St.John Neumann - Oct. 16, 2014 11:22 AM ET USA

    People need to be aware that many in the Church are hoodwinked into using the language of the world in expressing Church teachings. 1. there is no such being as a homosexual or a heterosexual. 2. defining a person by their sexual urges just be cause they do, creates a false understanding of human nature and creates a dialogue which is flawed. All that needs to be said: a marriage is between a man and a woman and all sexual acts outside of marriage are sinful.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 15, 2014 3:43 PM ET USA

    No where in the New Testament was forgiveness not contingent upon repentance and changing ones live by forgoing the sinful deeds. Those controlling this Synod seem to be selling forgiveness without a redeeming life style change. The homosexual lifestyle was the cause of the Church's biggest corruption in the late 20th Century. Apparently, our Churches leaders did not learn anything from that horrible scandal!

  • Posted by: littleone - Oct. 15, 2014 12:55 AM ET USA

    Beautiful Essay. Thank you! Quite nuanced, and faithful to our Dear Mother Church. My faith tells me that after all the chaos, "surely some revelation is at hand." And that our Synod Fathers, led by the Holy Spirit, shall be about making attempts so that "the centre" CAN "hold," as we must stop the 'drowning of innocence' this current culture evokes. (quotes or changes in quotes from Yeats).

  • Posted by: bnewman - Oct. 14, 2014 10:30 PM ET USA

    Surely the Synod is talking about when a family seeks help from the Church. This step might lead to a happier family situation, or not, partly depending on the first response of the Church. I am hoping that “gradualism” is an attempt to describe how such response might be structured, so as to not cause an immediate turning away of the family. Of course there are bottom lines where marriage is concerned, but it may not be best to start there, without search for how to overcome difficulties.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 14, 2014 2:07 PM ET USA

    Card. Burke: "The faithful and their good shepherds are looking to the Vicar of Christ for the confirmation of the Catholic faith and practice regarding marriage which is the first cell of the life of the Church." -The Catholic World Report. "We can rail at synods for not being on point all of the time. But even the loudest of us does not have the answer..." Perhaps. but as Card. Burke points out (applies in biology too) we might start with fundamentals. Those cells are mighty important.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 14, 2014 9:46 AM ET USA

    I slept little last night finally finding consolation in the Rosary. Yesterday was a disastrous day for the Church; the Synod's mid-term report is a secularist's dream and our worst nightmare come true. Thanks, Jeff, for the perspective you provide here. Nevertheless, I intuit your discomfort in these words:"We can condemn false moves. We can rail at synods for not being on point all of the time. But even the loudest of us does not have the answer." I suspect you're as heartsick as we all are.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 14, 2014 12:14 AM ET USA

    "I don’t have it and, if you will excuse blunt speech, neither do you..." (???) Well Jeff, if "they" don't have it, & we don't "have it," Who may I ask, then, does...??? It's there (the answer{s})..., don't worry about that... Let's see now... Something out of Jeremiah I think... Something to the effect that "When you seek me with your 'whole heart' THEN you will find Me" I don't really care so much "who" does it (finds the answer{s}), "them," "you," or even yours truly, so long as it gets done

  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Oct. 13, 2014 11:58 PM ET USA

    Superb! While the Church, in Her eternal nature, is not slouching toward Bethlehem, the world is. Perhaps Christ's waning in the West (even as He waxes in the South) has been a 500 year decline into what the CATECHISM, in No. 675, calls the "final trial" before Christ's Second coming that will "shake the faith of many believers . . . [a] 'mystery of iniquity' in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth."

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 13, 2014 11:21 PM ET USA

    Abandoning the underlying, timeless, enduring principles in favor of tangible, temporal, dynamic and even evolutionary theories has led to a great deal of doubt and ignorance. Now we see an enormous, pervasive, deeply entrenched problem to which "none of us has the answer." We long for an imperfect body identifying with injured members, but souls demand more. They continue inexoriably to thirst for eternal life- the free gift Our Lord so generously offers through his Mystical Body the Church

  • Posted by: - Oct. 13, 2014 11:20 PM ET USA

    Lots of these "pastoral questions" have been percolating since before Vat II. The swift jettison of moral objectivity (manifested in Catholicism) and grasping of relativistic humanism as the prevailing mode of operation is a fact. It generated the Culture of Death and initiated what I like to call "the Ethos of Convience." Good = What is Convenient for Me/Us. Bad=What is Inconvenient for Me/Us. The NEW in the New Evangelization is that it is OUR watch and our mission to promote the Gospel.

  • Posted by: abc - Oct. 13, 2014 8:55 PM ET USA

    I would like to agree with you (ant the Synodal Fathers) about gradualism. But my fear is that the proposed gradualism, which, in theory, means gradually changing people's life to conform to Gospel Truth, is going to turn out being, in practice, a gradual descent of Church practice into everyone's secular lifestyle.