We thank the Association of Catholic Priests, Ireland, for this article
Johan Bonny, Bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, has written of his expectations of the forthcoming synod.
It is a longish document but well worth reading in its entirety. The following excerpts are meant to only give a flavour of what he has written.
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The bond between the collegiality of the bishops and the primacy of the bishop of Rome that was manifest during the Second Vatican Council must be restored and without delay.
It represents the key to a new and better approach to many of the questions facing the Church. In my opinion, it is part of the task of a bishop today to work towards the restoration of the bond between collegiality and papal primacy. It goes without saying that a more collegial approach cannot guarantee solutions to every problem. Collegiality is not the easiest approach. It has the potential to expose new tensions and cause further rifts. Potential differences of opinion and lack of clarity are part and parcel of shared deliberation and decision-making. Indeed, the experience of other Churches and Church communities should invite realism in this regard. But I remain convinced that the Catholic Church is in urgent need of a new and steadier platform of collegial dialogue, particularly in the domain of marriage and family life. It is my hope that the forthcoming Synod will contribute thereto.
As a consequence of this polarisation, [following Humanae Vitae] conscience in Church teaching on relationships, sexuality, marriage, and family planning was relegated to the background and manifestly so. It lost its rightful place in healthy moral-theological reflection.
In the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, the judgement of personal conscience on methods of family planning features rarely if at all. The entire text is grounded in the truth of marriage and reproduction as taught by the Church, linked to the obligation of the faithful to make this truth their own and to comply with it. Based on natural law, certain acts are qualified as ‘good’ or ‘intrinsically evil’, independent of one’s personal surroundings, life experience or life history.
According to this methodology, there is little room for an honest and reasoned consideration of values in the light of the gospel and the Catholic tradition as a whole. In the chapters of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deal with the sixth commandment (2331-2400) and the ninth (2514-2533) there is likewise little reference to the judgement of personal conscience. Such lacunae do an injustice to the comprehensiveness of Catholic thought.
What do I expect from the forthcoming Synod? That it will restore conscience to its rightful place in the teaching of the Church in line with Gaudium et Spes. Will this solve every problem? Of course not.
How one’s conscience ultimately arrives at a responsible decision is far from simple. What is a well-formed conscience? How can it know the law that God ‘has placed in our heart’? How does conscience relate to the teaching authority of the Church, and vice versa; how does the teaching authority of the Church relate to conscience? How can conscience ac- count for the ‘law of gradualness’ and the pedagogy of gradual progress in the growth process none of us can escape? How can conscience practice the virtue of ‘epikeia’ or ‘equity’ when the letter and spirit of the law find themselves at odds with one another? For men and women today who attach great importance to the formation of a personal and reasoned judgement of con- science, these are pertinent questions. While I don’t expect the Synod to provide an answer to all of them, I hope nevertheless that it will devote the appropriate attention to them.
In these last months of preparation for the Synod, I have heard or read the following on numerous occasions:
‘Agreed that the Synod should support greater pastoral flexibility, but it will not be able to touch Church doctrine’.
Some create the impression that the Synod will only be free to speak about the applicability of the Church’s teaching and not about its content. In my opinion, however, such an antithesis between ‘pastoral care’ and ‘doctrine’ is inappropriate in both theological and pastoral terms and it has no foundation in the tradition of the Church. Pastoral care has everything to do with doctrine and doctrine everything to do with pastoral care. Both will have to be dealt with during the Synod if the Church wants to open new avenues towards the evangelisation of marriage and family life in today’s society.
Church as travelling Companion
Someone recently – and rightly – pointed out that the Church demands so much attention and understanding for ‘extraordinary’ situations that the ‘ordinary’ couples and families have almost come to think of themselves as a forgotten group.
Such ‘ordinary’ couples do indeed de- serve better pastoral support and guidance from the Church, also in my own diocese. Their dedication and witness are of great value for the future of our Church community. They have much to teach the Church about what it means to form ‘a home and school of communion’ and to continue to work on it.
At the same time, however, I am struck as a bishop by how complex the reality of relationship formation, marriage and family life is today. I hear stories on daily basis of human failure and starting over, of weakness and perseverance, of standing one’s ground in the face of economic and social imperatives, of mutual care in difficult circumstances. These stories are also moving and they also speak to me about the gospel. How can the Church be their travelling companion?
What are my hopes for the Synod? That it won’t be a Platonic Synod. That it won’t withdraw into the distant safety of doctrinal debate and general norms, but will pay heed to the concrete and complex reality of life.
The following powerful passage from Pope Francis should provide a source of inspiration: ‘I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are staring and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat”’ (Mk 6:37)
‘Regular’ and ‘Irregular’ Situations
In its standard language, the Church speaks of ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ situations. The distinction between them is based on moral-theological grounds and has consequences for canon law, including the domain of the sacraments. I do not intend to deny the legitimacy of the said distinction here. It remains in everyone’s interest that the Church helps people to discern what is in keeping with God’s intention for their lives and how they can grow in this regard. Moreover, it is also the Church’s task to bring the faithful together in an ordered community with rights and obligations for all. Nevertheless, we must also be extremely cautious in dealing with the distinction between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’. Reality is often far more complex than a pair of contrasting concepts can embrace: good or bad, true or untrue, correct or incorrect. Such bipolar thinking seldom does justice to the whole story of people’s lives and the situations in which they find themselves.
To begin with, regular and irregular situations occur in the majority of Christian families. This mixture of situations, however, does not prevent family members from continuing to sup- port and appreciate one another, and fortunately so. The Church should not underestimate this family-rooted solidarity.
As a bishop, I have had to listen to a great deal of irritation in this regard: a brother who is angry because his sister who remarried is no longer being permitted to read during the Eucharist; a father asking for more understanding on behalf of his homosexual son who feels rejected by the Church; a grandmother who can’t understand why the pastor refuses to bless the relationship of her granddaughter with a divorced man. People ask questions about the choices and decisions of their relatives, are often saddened by them, would have preferred things to be different, but they do not abandon one another. For the people involved, such solidarity is an important sign of God’s fidelity to his people, no matter what happens to them. People in these situations sense that the Church should not lag behind vis-à-vis the support and hospitality they continue to offer one another within the family.
Divorced and Remarried
One of the issues raised in many countries is the problem of divorced people who have remarried and their exclusion from Eucharistic communion.
The Instrumentum Laboris states in this regard: ‘A good number of responses speak of the very many cases, especially in Europe, America and some countries in Africa, where persons clearly ask to receive the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. This happens primarily when their children receive the sacraments. At times, they express a desire to receive Communion to feel “legitimized” by the Church and to eliminate the sense of exclusion or marginalization. In this regard, some recommend considering the practice of some Orthodox Churches, which, in their opinion, opens the way for a second or third marriage of a penitential character [...] Others request clarification as to whether this solution is based on doctrine or is merely a matter of discipline’.
I would like to make three observations in relation to this topic.
The first focuses on the close connection Catholic doctrine currently makes between the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament of the Eucharist. There can be little doubt that both sacraments are related. The sacramental life of the Church is an organic whole in which one sacrament opens or re-opens access to the other. The question can be asked, nevertheless, whether the indissolubility of marriage between a man and a woman can be compared directly with the indissolubility of the bond between Christ and his Church. The ‘application’ to which Paul refers in his letter to the Ephesians is not an ‘identification’. Both ‘indissolubilities’ have different salvific meanings. They are related to one another as ‘sign’ and ‘signified’. Who Christ is for us and what he did for us continues to transcend all human and ecclesial life. No single ‘sign’ can adequately represent the ‘reality’ of his bond of love with humanity and with the Church. Even the most beautiful reflection of Christ’s love is characterised by human limitation and sinfulness. The distance between ‘sign’ and ‘signified’ thus remains considerable, and for us this is good for- tune and a blessing. Our weakness can never undo Jesus’ fidelity to the Church. From the indissolubility of his sacrifice on the cross and his love for the Church flows the mercy with which he comes to meet us time after time, particularly in the celebration of the Eucharist.
The Proclamation of the Gospel
Jesus did indeed die ‘all against one’ on the cross, but he did not live his life ‘one against all’. More than any other religious leader, Jesus opened his heart and his arms to people whoever they were and whatever their experience in life. There were no walls or boundaries around his mercy and compassion.
He went from village to village to be sure that no sick person would elude him, no leper seek him in vain, no sinner be left without forgiveness. He entered into dialogue with unexpected dialogue partners and accepted invitations to dine with people of questionable character. He wasn’t particular or exclusive in his choice of friends or table companions, not even in his choice of apostles. These are the tracks on which Jesus placed Church.
In its relationship with the world and the people who live in it, the Church should exhibit the same openness and compassion as its founder. It can fulfil its mission only via the path of dialogue. It has no other choice, if it wants to maintain its identity and credibility.
It is here, I am convinced, that the Church today is struggling with a deficit. We referred above to the sensus fidei. If many today sense a deficit in the Church, they will point to how clearly it reflects Jesus Christ. They have a hard time recognising the interaction of Jesus with the men and women he encountered in his day in the interaction of the Church with the men and women it encounters today.
They are particularly interested in this regard in the domain of love, relationship, sexuality, marriage and family, and that should come as no surprise. It is the domain that concerns them the most, the domain in which they find the greatest happiness and sometimes the greatest sorrow.
It is in this domain in particular that the Church must step away from its defensive, antithetical stance and seek anew the path of dialogue. It must dare once again to start with ‘life’ and then move on to ‘teaching’. The Church has nothing to lose in this regard. In dialogue with the world it can discover where God is at work here and now, and the challenges with which he his confronting both the Church and the world today.
A Synod with a Challenge
Marriage and family are not having an easy time in this part of the world. We know this from experience. The number of marriages that don’t survive is extremely high. Young people are hesitant when it comes to marriage, in both the civil and the church contexts. The number of children per family is extremely low (in contrast to new families of overseas origin). The number of suicides is alarmingly high, particularly among the young. Marriage as an institution enjoys little support from the government or from the socio-economic sector. The gulf between rich and poor families is steadily widening. Statistics are available to substantiate all these claims.
This does not mean that other parts of the world have no problems or no ‘other’ problems, but we cannot deny our own problems. Without honesty there is little chance of moving forward. Courageous dialogue is better than no dialogue.