Indissolubility as liberation: Accommodation vs. evangelization on marriage

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 22, 2015

The two synods in 2014 and 2015 have marked an important development in the way many bishops think about marriage and family. Only time will tell what fruit this change in perspective will bear, but it is clearly part of a larger shift from a passive to an active Catholicism. A deep faith is necessary for this shift to take place. Unfortunately, in the second half of the twentieth century, the episcopate as a whole was incapable of such a change. But the two Synods on the Family offer many reasons for hope.

In the 1960s, the prevailing Catholic narrative was that the aspirations manifested by the world at that time were generally good. Therefore, the Church ought to encourage these aspirations while seeking to purify them. But for an episcopate which too often grasped the faith in a sadly perfunctory way, this narrative frequently led to accommodation with the world. And those accommodations usually weakened the faith of the Church’s members.

Once again I remark that this is not your father’s Church. Today the Church finds herself in a far more adversarial role. Most bishops recognize that they are in the unenviable position of offering what we might call a charitable opposition to the leading ideas of the world. It seems clear, in fact, that most bishops are gradually abandoning a passive vagueness in favor of an active evangelization. Among the bishops (though not yet in most Catholic universities and many religious communities), the prevailing Catholic narrative now is that the world, while desiring happiness, no longer knows where happiness is to be found.

When the problem is posed that way, the solution is Christ and the Church.

While the weakest bishops still speak the language of accommodation, the majority seem at last to recognize the situation for what it is. This is encouraging, for there is no chance of pastoral success in any diocese if its bishop is not deeply committed to the Faith, including the conviction that Jesus Christ offers a powerful antidote to the world’s ills. Without this deep interior conviction, the Faith cannot be translated into effective strategies for changing people’s lives.

We have seen more and more outstanding pastoral letters from bishops in recent years, and since the 2014 Synod on the Family, such letters have more frequently addressed marriage. A very recent example is Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong’s pastoral letter last month entitled “Human Ecology & the Family: Strengthen Marriage Not Redefine It”.

In the Synod Itself

This vibrant spirit is even more in evidence at the current Synod. For example, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia began by cautioning against abusing the terms “inclusive” and “unity in diversity” as goals for the Church. “It’s very hard to include those who do not wish to be included, or insist on being included on their own terms,” he said; and while the faithful are marked by many differences in personality and culture, “our most urgent need is unity, and our greatest danger is fragmentation.”

In another intervention, Archbishop Tomash Peta of Astana did not hesitate to point out three serious temptations: To admit divorced persons in civil marriages to Communion; to affirm the value of cohabitation; and to recognize homosexuality as normal. As Peta noted: “Blessed Paul VI said in 1972: ‘From some crack the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God’… During the Synod last year, ‘the smoke of Satan’ was trying to enter the aula of Paul VI.”

To take another example, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, speaking for the Polish Bishops’ Conference, stressed that a spirit of mercy must not obscure a fundamental reality:

[T]he Church—in Her teaching on the admission of remarried divorcees—cannot yield to the will of man, but only to the will of Christ…. Consequently, the Church cannot let Herself be led by feelings of false compassion for people or by modes of thought that—despite their worldwide popularity—are mistaken.

Back to the United States again, sweeping 2500 miles or so to the west, Bishop José Gomez of Los Angeles told the Synod:

To strengthen marriage and the family in our time, I believe the Church must recover the Divine pedagogy found in the Scriptures…. Pope Francis reminded us again—that God entrusted his loving plan for creation to the family…. Our evangelization must proclaim an integral human ecology that reveals the nature, vocation and teleology of the human person as created by God.

To take one more example, Cardinal Jorge Liberato Urosa Savino of Caracas spoke to the Synod as follows:

We are all driven by the desire to find a better solution to this painful situation [exclusion from communion]. We must do it with the spirit of the Good Shepherd and the truth that sets us free…. United to Christ, who has overcome the world, the Church is called to maintain the splendor of truth even in difficult situations. Mercy invites the sinner and it becomes forgiveness when one repents and changes one’s life. [emphasis added]

Similar examples can be drawn from most countries and every continent. I think everyone knows by now that the African bishops actually put the world—and the more decadent churches of the West—on notice that they would, without question, take the lead in ensuring that the Church supports marriage and family.

With Good Reason

Again, the point to recognize here is that neither the Church as a whole nor individual bishops can take effective pastoral action unless they are absolutely convinced the Faith is not only true but vital to human perfection and happiness. After the tumultuous secularization of Catholic institutions in the second half of the twentieth century, the world’s bishops are reemerging with the necessary confidence in Christ.

The secularized may dismiss this as “mere orthodoxy”, but I assure you that everyone knows orthodoxy is not enough. As Henri de Lubac rightly quipped in his Paradoxes: In so far as faith is concerned, “orthodoxy [is] the most necessary and the least adequate thing in the world” (p. 223). It is not enough to be orthodox in a merely formal way. Archbishop Chaput made the point that the bishops who favor accommodation protest too much that they do not wish to change Church teaching—so much, in fact, as to raise suspicions.

No, as Pope Benedict taught in Caritas in Veritate, the truth, once grasped, must be offered in charity, and charity, once desired, must ground itself in truth. Jesus Christ must be preached positively, without fear or compromise, as an act of love. The whole point is to help each man and woman, and each family, to reach the perfection which grace offers, and the happiness which God intends.

Count on it: The right pastoral initiatives will emerge from bishops who really do understand that the indissolubility of marriage liberates the family for wholeness, happiness and union with God. In other words, the right pastoral initiatives will emerge from bishops who are seriously committed to the truth of Christ, and eager to infuse their ministry with Divine love.

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: bruno.cicconi7491 - Oct. 23, 2015 11:53 PM ET USA

    You sound optimistic, and perhaps you have reason to. That being the case, I recall how difficult the last year was for Catholics following these matters closely, how many of us came close to despair, and were very desolate, and remind myself of the time when Jesus slept and the boat rocked and the disciples were all anxious. May our hopes be fulfilled, amen.

  • Posted by: JonathanC - Oct. 23, 2015 8:42 PM ET USA

    Outstanding review! Very encouraging to realize our bishops are losing the willingness to embrace accomodation, more willing and likely to charitably oppose. This is the leadership God's people need and the faithful are now themselves more easily enabled do the same in faith, hope and true charity.

  • Posted by: bruno - Oct. 23, 2015 7:02 PM ET USA

    I'm very encouraged to hear of the substantial unity of our bishops. They truly have a heart for us in the flock.