A Tale of Two Synods. Talk given by Bishop Kevin Doran, Holy Trinity Church, Donaghmede, Dublin 23rd February 2015

A Tale of Two Synods
Talk given by Bishop Kevin Doran, Holy Trinity Church, Donaghmede, Dublin
23rd February 2015
The Project of Pope Francis

I want to begin this evening by saying a few words about the Synod of Bishops. As you probably know, this is a project in two parts, which began with the extraordinary Synod last October. The stated purpose of that Synod was to consider “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. Married life makes an important contribution to the well-being of the family, of the Church and of society as a whole. Pope Francis clearly understands, as many of you do from your own experience, that the family also faces significant challenges – and not just from proposed changes in the law or in the constitution. While the focus of public debate about the synod was on the high-profile issues of “gay-marriage” and whether or not people who had divorced and remarried could receive Holy Communion, these are clearly not the only challenges facing the family and they are not the only focus of the Synod.

The second stage of the process, the Ordinary Synod, takes place in late 2015. The working document for that second Synod, known as the Lineamenta, is based on the conclusions of the last Synod. The idea is that, while the first synod placed the emphasis on identifying the key pastoral challenges facing the family, the next synod is charged with the task of developing the Church’s pastoral response to those challenges. The document comes in three sections and it reflects the three things that Pope Francis is asking us to do.

A. To listen (the context and the challenges for the family)
B. To look to Christ (the Gospel of the Family)
C. Bringing the context and the Gospel face to face

A. The Context:
Family life was probably always challenging. It was challenging at the time of Jesus; it was challenging during the Middle Ages; it was challenging in different ways, in different places at different times. The Second Vatican Council asked the Church to “read the signs of the times” and so we have to consider today what are the specific challenges facing marriage and the family today.

I think those challenges are emotional, spiritual, cultural and economic. How do you deal with the stresses and strains of disappointment, depression, alcoholism, or simply the downside of the daily routine? How do you live a sacrament when your faith is weak or undeveloped. How do you remain faithful, share faith with your children and avoid destructive individualism, when so much in the culture seems to be going in the opposite direction? How do you survive as a family unit in the face of unemployment, the real difficulty of getting suitable housing at a reasonable cost? How do you cope with the pace of life and the poverty of time?

The real life consequences for many couples, as Pope Francis comments, are a reluctance to commit to marriage on the one hand and a rapidly growing rate of breakdown and divorce on the other.

We read in the Working document (or lineamenta)
“The great values of marriage and the Christian family correspond to the search that characterizes human existence, even in these times of individualism and hedonism. People need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life. We need to know how to support them in their searching and to encourage them in their hunger for God and their wish to feel fully part of the Church, also including those who have experienced failure or find themselves in a variety of situations. The Christian message always contains in itself the reality and the dynamic of mercy and truth which meet in Christ.

B. Looking to Christ – The Gospel of the Family:
Christians see the universe as the result of a coherent plan brought about by a loving God. One of the earliest expressions of this faith is the account of creation, told in symbolic language. Central to this account, is the natural distinction between male and female and the truth about the love of man and woman, who are “companions”, made of the same “substance”, equal in dignity, but yet in a very real sense different. God’s plan, revealed in Scripture is that the man leaves his father and mother and becomes “one flesh” with his wife; that man and woman should “increase and multiply”. This places procreation alongside companionship as the other principal purpose of human sexuality.

In Christian marriage, a man and woman commit to one another that they will be faithful all the days of their life and that they will accept from God the children God may give them and bring them up in accordance with the law of God and of the Church. (I should say at this stage that the validity or the essential goodness of Christian marriage doesn’t not depend on whether or not there are actually any children, but rather on the fact that the love of the couple is open to procreation.)

Through their commitment to life-long fidelity, together with the openness to new life and the responsibility of care, husband and wife, male and female, become a visible sign (or Sacrament) of the love of God who is always faithful, who gives life and who cares for the life that he gives. Jesus Christ is not only present in their relationship, but through them, is present to others.

One way for us to take this on board is to say that the language of marriage and the language of the Eucharist are the same; it is the language of the body. The words of Jesus “this is my body which is for you” do not refer only to the sacramental action which took place at the table and which we do in memory of him at Mass. They refer also to the manner in which he lived his whole life and to the consummation of his mission in his bodily death on the cross and in the new life of the Resurrection. In much the same way, the words of consent exchanged between a couple at their marriage are consummated in their sexual love, and lived out in the daily offering of their lives for one another. There are few things more inspiring than this love, when it is lived out in faith and in faithfulness over a lifetime of self gift.

I think one of the challenges for all of us, as Church, is to help young couple to see that the totality of their love is sacred and that it makes them holy. Another related challenge is to help them to see their love as their particular vocation and mission in the Church. A further challenge is to encourage them in the face of struggle and failure and to support them in growing over time into the fullness of what they are called to be.

Marriage is not an invention of Christianity or indeed of any religious tradition. The reverse in fact is the case. Primitive societies recognised the uniqueness of the male-female relationship, written in human nature. Religious faith helps men and women to make a connection between their marital relationship and their relationship with God, but it does not fundamentally change the meaning and purpose of marriage, already well established in most cultures. You don’t have to be a Christian to recognise the truth about human sexuality; the joy of it and the heartbreak of it. Reason allows us to see the contribution that faithful marriage offers to society through the stability that it brings to society and to the lives of children.

C. Confronting the Situation: (Bringing the context and the Gospel face to face)
The challenge for the next Synod is to propose a pastoral response, which will arise out of bringing the Gospel face to face with the reality of marriage and family life as it is lived in the Church today. It is this that Pope Francis asks us to consider in this period between the two Synods. There are forty six questions attached to the Lineamenta. It is unlikely that many people will manage to deal with them all. The Irish Bishops Conference suggested that parish councils might consider at least the following questions.

Question 10:
What is being done to demonstrate the greatness and beauty of the gift of indissolubility so as to prompt a desire to live it and strengthen it more and more? (cf. n. 14)
“What is being done ….?”
It doesn’t say by whom
The question here seems to be about bearing witness and giving encouragement.
Why would young couples be encouraged or motivate to commit to Christian marriage?
What comes to mind when you think of the “indissolubility of marriage”
Is it a negative or a positive?
How does it relate to the commitment to faithful love?
What does it or did it mean for you to make that commitment or to have that commitment made to you

Questions 11:
How can people be helped to understand that a relationship with God can assist couples in overcoming the inherent weaknesses in marital relations? (cf. n. 14) How do people bear witness to the fact that divine blessings accompany every true marriage? How do people manifest that the grace of the Sacrament sustains married couples throughout their life together?
The question about religious practice in the pre-nuptial enquiry is not an empty question.
Couples praying together
The joyful attitude and down-to-earth love of people who have been married for years

Question 22:
What can be done so that persons in the various forms of union between a man and a woman — in which human values can be present — might experience a sense of respect, trust and encouragement to grow in the Church’s good will and be helped to arrive at the fulness of Christian marriage? (cf. n. 25)
This question reflects the comment that, while some couples live together in different forms of relationship which are not marriage or not the sacrament of marriage, the grace of God is at work in those situations too.
The idea of “graduality”. Jesus proclaimed a kingdom of God which was “yet to come” in its fullness, but which in another sense was “already here”. Can we say the same about marriage, which is a sign of the kingdom of God.
How can people in such situations be helped to respond to the grace of God?
How well do we understand why people who are Catholic choose not to marry?
How can they be encouraged to take and supported in taking “the next step”

Question 31:
The pastoral accompaniment of couples in the initial years of family life — as observed in synodal discussion — needs further development. What are the most significant initiatives already being undertaken? What elements need further development in parishes, dioceses or associations and movements?
This is very simple –
We know about pre-marriage courses;
We know about counselling in crisis situations;
Is there anything in-between; what would you like to see happening to support couples in living the daily reality of their marriage?

Question 35:
Is the Christian community in a position to undertake the care of all wounded families so that they can experience the Father’s mercy? How does the Christian community engage in removing the social and economic factors which often determine this situation? What steps have been taken and what can be done to increase this activity and the sense of mission which sustains it?

This is a rather wide and general kind of question
As it surfaces in the Synod document it refers for the most part to the pastoral care of families in which people may be separated, divorced, and/or remarried.
The question is NOT about changing the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, but about how the Church can respond to situations of breakdown etc.
Clearly it is not enough just to “wave good-bye” to parishioners who feel that their relationship with the Church is somehow changed by their marital circumstances
The question about “what we can do” seems to be directed more towards the Christian community (parish / diocese etc) than the institutional Church.
The question also refers to the challenge of changing the social circumstances which contribute to breakdown.

Question 40
How can the Christian community give pastoral attention to families with persons with homosexual tendencies? What are the responses that, in light of cultural sensitivities, are considered to be most appropriate? While avoiding any unjust discrimination, how can such persons receive pastoral care in these situations in light of the Gospel? How can God’s will be proposed to them in their situation?
The question focuses not just on the pastoral care of individuals, but on the pastoral care of families to which individuals with homosexual tendencies belong. This is important. Families often struggle to work out how they can deal with “the elephant in the room”. How can the Church continue to faithfully carry out its teaching mission and at the same time offer more support to Catholics who happen to be homosexual? Is there a need for a particular pastoral approach, or would that be “making a distinction as to sex”. I want to come back to this question towards the end of my talk.

Question 46:
How can parents and the Christian family be made aware that the duty of transmitting the faith is an intrinsic aspect of being a Christian?
There are questions in the pre-nuptial enquiry before marriage
There are promises by parents and god-parents at Baptism
The question, however, is what are we diing as Christian communities to support parents in the formation of their own faith as adults

The Elephant in the Room
I want to come finally and briefly to what I might describe as the “Elephant in the Room”. It is the fact that as we preparing for the Synod on the Family next October, we are also faced with a referendum on the meaning of marriage.

A politican asked me last week, “what is so wrong about being nice to people who are equal to us in every respect, but whose sexual orientation is different?” The answer of course is that there is nothing wrong with being nice to them, but that is not what the referendum is about.

Let me express what I want to say in the form of a few questions:
a. Can we recognise the fundamental goodness of people who are of homosexual orientation. YES
b. Do we believe that they are loved by God. YES
c. And that the are equal in dignity to every other person YES
d. Can they be actively involved in the life of the Church YES
e. Can friendships between people of the same sex be good, even if they are sexually attracted to one another? YES of course. While marriage is the “primary and most unique friendship”, there are many other kinds of friendship which are blessed by God. Friendship is an aspect of love and love is the path to holiness. This of course applies equally to those who are homosexual in orientation as it does to those who are heterosexual.
f. Can people of homosexual orientation receive the Eucharist. YES, on exactly the same basis as heterosexual people, who are likewise called to the virtue of chastity
g. Can we engage with them in pastoral care for the family YES of course.
h. Can people of homosexual orientation marry? This is quite interesting, because most people would probably say that they cannot legally do so. But, of course there is no legal obstacle to a person of homosexual orientation getting married, just as a heterosexual person can. To that extent the question of marriage equality simply doesn’t arise. (Whether it is good or just or wise for a homosexual person to enter marriage is another question).

The question posed in the referendum is not actually about marriage equality. Those who wish to change the constitution are looking for a different kind of relationship which would be called “marriage”; a relationship which includes some elements of marriage, such as love and commitment, but which of its very nature excludes one of the two essential aspects of marriage, namely the openness of their sexual relationship to procreation. What is at issue, therefore, a radical change in the meaning of marriage which would remove the aspect of opennes to procreation in how marriage is defined and understood in our constitution for all of us.

Part of the challenge for us as a society, of course, is that we (and that includes many practicing Catholics) have to a greater or lesser extent given up on the idea that sexual intercourse and an openness to procreation are essentially linked. That makes it more difficult to get our heads around why there might be any problem about changing the meaning of marriage.

The challenge of the referendum, like the challenge of the Synod, is not simply how we can defend and protect the “status quo”.Arguably, we need to improve it rather than just defend it. Everybody is welcome in God’s Church. Those who are baptised Catholics have a unique right to participate in the life of the Catholic Church, to pray together, to celebrate together and to serve together. Catholics, irrespective of sexual orientation, also have responsibilities within the community of the Church. These include the responsibilities of worshipping God, of witnessing to the Gospel and of working together for justice and peace, to mention but a few. Many people who are of homosexual orientation live faithfully as members of the Church alongside their heterosexual brothers and sisters. Many struggle with the demands of chastity, as do many heterosexual people. That does not change the reality of God’s love for them; nor should it make them any less welcome or less free to participate in the life of the Church.