Internalizing marriage at this year's synod

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 06, 2015

Given the variety of bishops involved and the sheer magnitude of “the family” as a topic, it is hard to predict the particular outcomes of the two-year synodal process. The 2015 synod does seem to be off to a more decisive start. Indeed, Pope Francis himself has set a new tone. But the specific measures to be recommended remain unclear.

What we are seeing now, at the outset of this second Synod on the Family, is the completion of a transition which began last year and has continued in the intervening period. It is clear that neither the Pope nor the majority of the Synod fathers are approaching this Synod as a search for loopholes; there is now a full court press for strengthening the Catholic commitment to marriage, and so to family life as a whole. Redefining marriage to pave the way for alternative families, including same-sex marriage, is now a dead issue not only according to the Holy Spirit, but also according to the overwhelming preponderance of faith of the Synod fathers themselves. I say again what I have said before: For all its weaknesses, this is not your father’s Church.

Pope Francis all but took the Kasper Proposal off the table when he streamlined the annulment process last month. He's done what can be done for those who may be justly seeking marital relief. Now it is a question of creating a Catholic community—indeed a Catholic culture—which forms men and women to love and reverence marriage and family as Our Lord intended, and to develop the virtues and habits necessary to sustain both.

It is possible that some of the more secularized bishops will still make some noise, but I would expect them to be rapidly drowned out. On the second day of discussions, for example, some of these bishops tried to reopen questions about divorce and remarriage and also the recognition of positive elements in same-sex partnerships. Pope Francis felt it necessary to make an unscheduled intervention to remind the Synod that divorce and remarriage is not the only subject on the agenda!

Nonetheless, I am of the firm opinion that this time around, the world press is going to be forced to conclude “there is nothing to see here”. Or perhaps a better way to say this is to expect stories about “the man behind the curtain”—accounts of how the conservative bishops have put themselves in positions of power and succeeded, in the long and objectionable Catholic tradition, at blocking progress and stifling dissent.

For the bishops, expect internalization

This column is obviously brought to you by the letter “I”, as in “internalization”. I’m reminded of a remark made by one of the former bishops of my diocese of Arlington, after he had returned from either a synod or an ad limina visit to Rome (I cannot remember). He said that the whole experience of being there had enabled him to experience in a new way the powerful and inspiring universality of the Church. His world was forever less-defined by the particular pressures of his local church. The whole “Catholic thing” loomed far larger in his outlook.

A gradual enlarging of the Catholic perspective has been experienced by most bishops, I think, over the nearly 50 years since Pope Blessed Paul VI established the triennial synods in the late 1960s, after the Second Vatican Council. Surely this is at least one of the influences that has tended to strengthen the worldwide episcopate throughout the long pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. Experiencing the universality of the Church in a synod, and recognizing that their regional cultural prejudices (including the prejudice of secularism) are neither universal nor commonly seen as the wave of the future, helps bishops to internalize the message of Christ.

Readers may be familiar with my frequent assertion that Catholics, including bishops, tended to approach the Faith prescriptively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is a major reason that the episcopate in the West changed dramatically, almost to the man, as soon as the culture shifted and the “rules” seemed to change. In this we witnessed a glaring failure of internalization of the Word of God, of the Faith, of Jesus Christ, of the “Catholic thing”. Without Catholic cultural support and familiar Catholic sign posts, the bishops simply adapted to a new set of external signals.

The last fifty years have witnessed the long and difficult process of the bishops reinternalizing their own Faith. That is the biggest reason why it has seemed that the Church herself has needed to reinternalize her own Faith. Indeed, in her members, this has been true for just about everybody. I know it has been true for me. Of course, we remain full of weakness, prejudices and snap judgments, so it is an ongoing process. This is really the never-ending process of spiritual growth.

What Internalization Means

Perhaps I’ve quoted Henri de Lubac too frequently lately, but de Lubac does explore this process of internalization here and there in a series of brief reflections—almost proverbial in character—entitled Paradoxes of Faith. Here is a helpful example:

Just as faith is a principle of understanding, so obedience must be a principle of freedom. You do not deliver yourself into the hands of authority like a man tired of using his initiative, abdicating; or like a sailor happy to find a quiet harbor at last after a stormy passage. On the contrary, you receive from authority the Duc in altum [put out into the deep (Lk 5:4)]. You entrust yourself to it as a ship leaving port for a glorious voyage and a high adventure. [p. 25]

Or again:

An obedience which only recognizes orders—even if, to assure the perfect execution of these orders, it calls on the will and on the judgment—is utterly insufficient. Especially in the spiritual life, which does not consist in gestures. To fulfill the prescriptions of religious authority faithfully, strictly, without any omission, is good. But if you are satisfied with that, you have not begun to obey. You take for an end what is still only a means, for an act what is only its condition. You violate the idea of Catholicism. [p. 27]

The obedience of Faith is ultimately a life informed by Christ, pressing toward the goal of perfect charity. It is a vibrant and expansive life, a life full of ideas, initiatives and sacrifices to share itself with others. The episcopal challenge today is not to create new doctrines, and not even primarily to create new procedures, but to be fruitful in sharing the obedience of faith with those entrusted to their care.

I expect this recognition to become increasingly evident in the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. I expect a new love and reverence for the family to emerge quite clearly, not fully alive in each bishop, of course, but at least significantly greater in the body as a whole. Even if the final document covers so many individual points that it loses focus, the most important result will be undocumented. It will be the bishops returning home as stronger apostles of marriage to the families of the world—apostles sent from the heart of the universal Church, apostles renewed by the heart of Christ.

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: koinonia - Oct. 07, 2015 10:31 AM ET USA

    Just saw an email from ALL's Judie Brown expressing her frustration with Catholic politicians and with Catholic prelates. She's tired. A lot of folks are tired. Again, that confidence thing. Day 2 of the Synod apparently afforded the recalcitrant some opportunities to remind folks they're plenty confident. The reality is they've been there all along. They will work hard to make progress. At Chalcedon (a council) bishops shouted: Peter has spoken through Leo! May Francis imitate Leo.