It’s worth contemplating, in a fresh way, what “open” discussion in the Church actually means, in practice, these days. St. John Paul II created the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1981, but none of its deliberations in the thirty-plus years that followed raised doubts about Catholic teaching – let alone descended into rippling anxieties (what the White House, in a different context, has colorfully called “bed-wetting”) over the difficult situations people get themselves into when marriage goes bad.
In past synods, too, there was plenty of talk of mercy and forgiveness, though to judge by the amazed look on certain observers’ faces, this is all but forgotten now. In those events, however, there wasn’t the belief that some magic elvish rune might be found to make intractable conflicts between teaching and life simply go away. Today, talk of mercy and forgiveness sends out a very different signal. Though the Church may actually be one of the few places where a deep reason is still valued on these hard questions, the world does not read such deliberations as orderly, rational inquiry, but as an expression of doubt. And perhaps surrender.
You can Google almost any set of search terms on the current Synod and what will you find? Not much, really, since the average religion reporter doesn’t have much knowledge of what he or she is covering. But one dimension of the story is clear: the Catholic Church is debating Communion for the divorced and remarried; it’s thinking about gay unions; it’s considering some confused way of blessing or, if not blessing, “regularizing” second (third?) marriages.
It would be good to know that someone, anyone, in Rome is aware of how this plays out for the average Catholic – to say nothing of non-Catholics. The Church, for them, is now “divided” or “discussing” these questions. And no one seems certain how it will resolve them. And they’re right about that – after only a few days, we’re already deep into repetition of the mantra about “respect” towards gays, the divorced, etc.
No one of any intuition will fail to sense that the Church must not be all that horrified now by breaking the Ten Commandments, since it’s primary concern seems to be looking for ways to talk to people who have done so without offending them. It’s like trying to square a circle. It just can’t be done. The teaching is painful if your life takes certain turns, and may be offensive to some people. Respect won’t remove that.
It also needs to be said that “respect” and “human dignity,” two significant concepts in Catholic social thinking, are often accepted in the Church as what might fairly be called shibboleths. We speak of them as if their meaning and application were self-evident, transparent. To be sure, these are delicate moral and human questions that call on those of good will to work hard properly to understand and act on them.
But when we talk about respect, do we recall the Gospel passages that remind us what a temptation a certain type of respect might be for us: “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37) Again, we do not want to apply texts like this as the Fundamentalists do. That way is not the Catholic way. But when we hear from a Catholic couple that if a son wishes to bring home his gay partner for a holiday, we should welcome them showing Christ’s love, while not accepting the relationship, are we in danger of letting our human sympathies overwhelm something greater?
In a more abstract way, human “dignity” too is not as clear-cut in its nature and what it requires of us than it may seem – if we begin solely from the perspective of modern culture. Two great living Catholic thinkers, Robert Spaemann and David L. Schindler, explored this subject in a crucial book: Love and the Dignity of Human Life . And in 2009, the President’s Council on Bioethics assembled a number of valuable essays  on the subject of human dignity, which makes it clear that in our Biblical tradition we believe persons are made in the image and likeness of God, but not everything that tries to sail under the flag of human dignity should be taken as such.
Respect and dignity, necessary as they are, lead us into many confusions when we take them merely as the world takes them.
And on top of this conceptual thicket, we now have the widespread impression that related questions on marriage, family, and the respect towards and dignity of the human person are, to put it mildly, unsettled. And what does the average, uninformed Catholic – operating in the atmosphere of modern individual autonomy – then think? I fear it runs something like this: “The Church is rethinking all that. So, in the meantime, I can do pretty much what I want since the Church seems to think that whatever I do it will try to come to terms with me.” And that’s among that small percentage of Catholics who still nominally care about what the Church teaches.
All of this is nonsense, of course, but the mere form in which things are presented these days encourages such nonsense. The pope, after broad consultation over the next year and following the full Synod in 2015, will at some point issue a report. That, we may safely predict, will largely repeat the line about truth and mercy and human dignity – but Francis will also have to make certain either/or decisions. Many people will doubtless remain unsatisfied, and with the impression that the pope could have gone further, or there’s more to be said, and maybe the next time around. . . .
As I say, nonsense, and unfair to the Church. But just yesterday two more Cardinals  came out in favor of Cardinal Kasper’s proposals for a “pastoral” solution to Communion for the divorced and remarried. Two Cardinals. The German bishops seem, on the whole, also to support that step. Others are being a bit more cagey about where things, ultimately, might go.
Those of us of a certain age recognize this situation. It’s very like what we suffered under in the years between the close of Vatican II and the election of St. John Paul II. No one may have willed this precise outcome, but it’s what we’re getting.