Synod Day 3 – In Search of Effective Action – and Language

And so, now the synod settles into the real work. But what is that work? One of the prominent stories to have come out of yesterday’s session (Tuesday) was that Jeff and Alice Heinzen, an American couple from La Crosse, Wisconsin, married for thirty-four years, told the pope and bishops that the Church is failing to deal with the collapse of the traditional family.

Now, it’s news that a lay couple said this in a synod; but it’s hardly news to anyone, Catholic or not, that the family is in crisis, multiple crises. Or that the Church has failed to deal with it. Nor is this much of a criticism, since no one else – in academia, government, the media, the self-important international agencies – though they talk a lot, much knows what to do about the dissolution of so fundamental a human institution, on which much of what is good in human societies depends. Still, there are some known remedies, of which more below.

Under the news restrictions the Vatican has imposed, it’s difficult to get a full sense of the shape of the follow-on discussion. It was good what the Heinzens put on the table: the alarming decline in the sheer numbers of marriages, Catholic or not; the increase in cohabitation; the high (though, I’d add, now somewhat stabilized) divorce rates. And it seems that they then encouraged a vigorous expansion of Church programs to address each of the problems.

But anyone who has been engaged in domestic policy debates, in America or other developed countries, will immediately wonder what real solutions might be, if not to begin by saying – and saying vigorously – such breakdowns are not merely personal choices, or things that “happen” to certain couples, but are signs of real social evils.

Catholic self-flagellation in such questions may scratch some obscure spiritual itch, but it’s not as if the Church is the cause of the crisis. Or even that its alleged “failure” to deal with it shows some deep fault. Is it even the case that many divorced and remarried couples who feel “alienated” from the Church are so because of the Church itself?

If the published summaries are to be believed, the Heinzens’ remarks provoked reflections on the decline of the Church’s influence, which was somehow linked with reactions against “clericalism.” Bishops are also reported to have remarked, “At times the Church seems more concerned with power than with service, and for this reason she does not inspire the hearts of men and women.”

From a distance, this seems perhaps partly true, partly false, but maybe even more significantly, the very internal-looking approach the pope has derided. I’ve already remarked in this series that I find it hard to see where the Church has been so excessively concerned in recent decades with power. In fact, you might make the counterclaim that the Church ought to be seeking more power of the proper kind in its public witness, in its teaching authority for those who claim to wish to follow Christ faithfully, in its necessary functions of setting order in the Church, and – through the Church – in society. It’s an old Catholic trinity: teaching, governing, sanctifying.

Humility is a good thing, in its place, lest we perish from the truth. But we don’t want the kind of humility within the very institutions of the Church that deters popes, bishops, even parish priests, that encourages them to think the Church can only listen, as if it had nothing to say to the usual human disorders and failures.

        The Heinzens

When Cardinal Kasper mentioned the other day that the term “adultery” is offensive, he came very close to claiming that the moral teachings of Christianity, expressed in the terms the whole Jewish-Christian tradition has always used, are now just too harsh for the tender ears of our contemporaries – including our fellow Catholics. Should we “re-word” the Sixth Commandment, so it doesn’t offend? Or the Gospels?

And now we see that at the end-of-day press conference Tuesday, the English-language presenter, Fr. Tom Rosica, claimed that  “one of the salient interventions” argued that “language such as ‘living in sin’, ‘intrinsically disordered’, or ‘contraceptive mentality’ are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church. . . .There is a great desire that our language has to change in order to meet the concrete situations.”

If  true, it’s a surefire formula for even greater disasters. There are remedies to our situation, but not if we throw away the (primarily moral) weapons that we have.

Many factors contribute to family crises, of course, economic, social, cultural. But we are not Marxists or determinists. We all have freedom, to live better or worse lives. When we make this argument, should we approach people respectfully? Yes. (But you don’t need to be Catholic to practice basic human respect when you engage with others.) Should we offer people candid moral guidance – itself a kind of respect – the same kind of candor the pope has encouraged the synod participants to express, even if they believe he doesn’t approve? Absolutely.

No one change of any kind can do much against the sheer tsunami of marital troubles in our societies, especially among the poor. But we start by making a start. One of the books I often recommend to people who come to this subject is Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Marriage and Morals among the Victorians. We are all very sophisticated now and know that the Victorians were hypocrites who didn’t practice what they preached. Just like us. But Himmelfarb shows how the sincere Victorians, seeing the breakdown in the family produced by the industrial revolution and the urbanization of formerly rural populations – and the alcoholism, drug abuse, and prostitution that arose – fought back.

For example, among other matters, they thought the end might be nigh when the illegitimacy rate reached the low double-digits (in “normal” time it’s about 6 percent). Ours is now somewhere between 35 and 40 percent, twice that in some poorer communities. Activists, mostly inspired by Victorian Christian institutions, cobbled together private programs to address one element or another of the problem. And surprise: it worked.

The Instrumentum laboris, the work-plan for the synod, is good on these sorts of grassroots solutions, no one of which taken alone will achieve much of anything, but taken together may reweave the fabric of the family and society. If I were making a statement at the synod this morning, I would tell the bishops to try to carry out a moral rearmament without government involvement. All modern states have jettisoned moral language about marriage and family – indeed, they’ve tried to find “neutral” language to describe social pathologies.

And I’d continue: Dear bishops, be pastorally sensitive, but don’t set out on this fool’s errand of trying to make moral arguments in language that seems “inoffensive.” It only further confuses suffering people and leads to more wrecked lives.

Please God, we’ll not see the Church wasting time at such things in coming days. Some proposals are only tentative discussion starters and may melt away under further consideration. But the prospects, at the moment, aren’t good.