Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

How to Read the Vatican Family Gathering

by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.


In this column that appears in the October 16 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia remarks that at the Synod of Bishops, the frequent insistence that no one wants to change Catholic doctrine is enough to make cautious listeners suspicious: The more some synod fathers claim that no doctrinal change is sought on matters of divorce and remarriage—only a change in “discipline”—the more other synod fathers worry. And for good reason. Practice inevitably shapes belief.

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The Wall Street Journal

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Dow Jones & Company, Inc., October 15, 2015

A friend of mine, happily married for many years, likes to tell a story. Over a 30th-anniversary dinner, and after a little too much wine, he said, “I love you, sweetheart. I’ve never been unfaithful, and I never will be.” He repeated that line a couple more times during the evening—until his wife put down her fork and said with all the warmth of a glacier, “Are you seeing someone else?”

The lesson of the tale: Even when done innocently, emphasizing one’s fidelity a little too often and earnestly can yield unwelcome results. Such may be the case in Rome, where more than 250 Catholic bishops from around the world have gathered in a three-week synod, ending Oct. 25, to discuss “the vocation and mission of the family in the contemporary world.”

Synods, from the Greek synodos for meeting or assembly, are purely advisory. They offer counsel to the pope on matters he chooses. As the Catholic Church’s supreme pastor, he can listen to their advice, ignore them or do something in between. But it is a rare bishop of Rome who would disregard the consensus of his brothers, so synods carry collegial weight.

Pope Francis has encouraged candor at this meeting. Bishops can freely speak with the media. They can publish their synod interventions, which are three-minute speeches to the assembly, and many do. The reports by the synod’s working groups are freely available. For anyone willing to dig through the material, a remarkably clear window on the mind of the bishops emerges. Much of this differs from the past. The bishops taking part have warmly welcomed it.

And that is where the sunny feelings get more complex. Early church councils were known for heated debates, which might include sticks, bats, shouting matches and fist fights. If the discussions are more genteel now, it isn’t because humans are nicer creatures. As the great 20th-century French theologian Henri de Lubac once said, most Western moderns have simply shifted their ferocity to politics, where salvation is a matter of tangible power. Today bishops stress mutual respect and shared mission. But on matters of substance, fissures can run deep.

Few issues are more substantive than the state of the family. Catholics see the family as the cornerstone of society and of the church herself. Put simply: Healthy families mean a healthy culture; broken families, a broken culture–which then makes for a sea of personal suffering and social conflict.

Reality is more complicated, obviously, but the point remains. Economic and technological change disrupts families everywhere. In the so-called developed world, divorce and cohabitation are common. Fewer people marry. Religious faith seems to be weakening. Same-sex couples seek recognition as families. Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics want access to the Eucharist, the sacramental “source and summit” of Christian life. In the developing world, especially in places like Africa where the church is growing rapidly, the problems–polygamy, syncretism, the collapse of the extended family, rivalry with Islam, religious persecution–are very different.

These differences take flesh in many of the bishops at this synod. One of the sharpest criticisms of the synod’s working document–the Instrumentum Laboris–is that its concerns are too North American and Eurocentric; too despairing; too focused on accommodating family breakdown rather than healing and preventing it. Even more astonishing, many claim, is the text’s lack of confidence in the Word of God; its blindness to the joy of children and large families; and its deaf ear to the witness of many millions of Christian parents who already live lives of hope and enthusiasm.

Veterans of these gatherings note that every synod working document is a “martyr text.” It exists to be pulled apart and improved. But precisely because the process this time is so new, the issues so neuralgic, the text so flawed and the working time frame so compressed, anxiety about the final product runs high–as shown by a letter of concern signed by 13 prominent cardinals, sent to the pope on the first day of the synod, and leaked to the media earlier this week.

The possibility of formal changes in church teaching on sexuality, marriage and the family is implausible. Francis took that off the table as the synod began. He has repeatedly preached the beauty of Christian belief on these matters. But that isn’t the source of friction. What is at issue is the application of church teaching. In the case of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, that means whether they should be admitted to Communion, under what conditions, and who should decide those conditions–the local bishop, bishops’ conferences or Rome? Many bishops feel that the last thing the church needs is fragmentation of practice on a matter of substance.

And that brings us back to the lesson of my married friend. The more some synod fathers claim that no doctrinal change is sought on matters of divorce and remarriage–only a change in “discipline”–the more other synod fathers worry. And for good reason. Practice inevitably shapes belief.

Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia is a delegate to the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family

© The Wall Street Journal

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