Synod Day 6 – A Day of Practical Conversations

The central difficulty in treating issues that affect the family is that the family itself is so central to human existence that anything related to the family involves virtually everything else. To date, the Synod has invoked everything from participation in the Holy Eucharist to the question of “street children,” and everything in between. And it has been right to do so.

Friday’s work at the Synod seems to have proceeded on more solid ground than in previous days. Instead of the large, contentious issues that may have drowned out the serious work of the beginning sessions, the bishops and laypersons grappled quite concretely with the challenges, both large and small, that the family faces almost everywhere today. And there was a bit more transparency than usual, perhaps because six lay couples offered presentations. If progress will be made in the Synod, in this very difficult terrain, it’s likely to come through reflections of this kind.

The surrounding static has not entirely gone away, of course, but it seems more of a sideshow – if the bishops and lay participants hold firm.

Still, static continues. For example, as was entirely predictable (I predicted it, at any rate), AP’s Nicole Winfield interviewed a number of gay activists who also claim to be Catholic. One argued that the emerging change in “tone” would lead to a change in substance: “I think the change in language starts a chain reaction: A change in language will bring a change in pastoral practice which will bring about a change in teaching.” That’s certainly a danger and the Church has to be very careful as it picks through that minefield. But it’s also, in no small part, wishful thinking.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio offered a useful distinction: “Its [one thing] to say that everyone makes his or her choice, that we dont judge and that they might be great people even with this condition, but its different to say that the union itself is blessed or a good thing.”

Some within the Church itself are also quite clear that maybe the best thing to do for now is pretend nothing has changed, but to change things. Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J. of the National Catholic Reporter, the MSM’s favorite liberal Catholic voice, has counseled, “the only way the synod is going to change anything is for the bishops to first convince themselves that they are not changing doctrine, only the way they are expressing it. Any announcement must begin with ‘As the church has always taught’. . . . Perhaps bishops, guided by the Spirit, should just discern better pastoral practices and then leave it to the theologians to explain why they are OK.”

This is the old “verdict fist, then evidence” gambit. But while in America such open doublethink was being preached, in Rome more serious engagement was being practiced.

Perhaps one of the most moving personal stories yet to be presented (published in full here) came on Friday from Olivier and Xristilla Roussy, a couple who run the Love and Truth program in France, and were introduced by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris Andre Vingt-Trois. They recounted their own struggles with living a contraceptive-free marriage before they made the full commitment – and what it has meant to them to live out a faithful family life. It’s people who have “walked the walk,” like them, who are credible when they speak of how important it is to “meet people where they are” and move them in the right direction. That’s a “gradualism” no one of any sense could object to.  

But there’s a double action needed.  People like the Roussys are dealing with the consequences of the breakdown, and God bless them. It’s also necessary, however, to prevent the chaos from reproducing itself by creating Catholic havens, of several kinds, from a corrupt and corrupting society. The Synod – we’re mostly reading it from behind a veil of press restrictions – seems to have discussed that.

          Olivier and Xristilla Roussy:  auditors at the Synod

In his introduction of the Roussys, Cardinal Vingt-Trois cited, “the profound change of relation between generations, which conditions the communication of values in the heart of the family reality.” Much of Friday’s discussion seems to have circled around the various causes for those “profound changes.”

G.K. Chesterton once remarked – a century ago – that it’s not that children were not being educated, but that they were receiving education all the time, of precisely the wrong kind, from the society that surrounds them. In our time, far more even than in his, it’s precisely the modern state that has to be recognized as the central problem.

In Cardinal Vingt-Trois’ own Paris, a socialist government has tried to impose radical steps on a quite reluctant French society with regard to homosexuals adopting children. That was the spark that set off the Manif pour tous, massive demonstrations in Paris and other major cities all around France, just last week again, against those measures, demonstrations that included people of many faiths and none.

In a similar way, America has seen dozens of very popular state-level laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman overturned by judges who seem to have discovered a judicial principle of “marriage equality” that no one for over two centuries ever suspected. Indeed, these same judges have gone out of their way to claim that there’s no rational basis for such laws, which can only be based in prejudice.

We should take the full measure of this: Christianity is being described here as prejudice. The law, as has been understood in the West since the time of the ancient Greeks, is a teacher. And these legal skirmishes have had a quite profound effect on actual teachers in public (i.e., state-run) schools. Any teacher who would raise up traditional Christian teaching as a moral position equal to the new permissiveness these days would be jeopardizing his or her professional career.

As several speakers seem to have noted, the Church needs to confront the ways that legal prejudice and public schooling have set themselves precisely against the Christian view of marriage and family – and not only in still disputed questions like homosexual unions, but on the legal promotion of contraception and the facilitation of divorce. Lay people, some Synod participants have argued, must be even more active on these fronts.

This is a rather new development in American and Europe. In the past, there were public disagreements at the margins and some effort to be “neutral” – a liberal value that even some liberals now say is in jeopardy because of increasing ideologization of the state. If we want to understand the “profound change” in the relation between the generations, we might begin with what spending twelve or thirteen years in public schools, as they are currently constituted, will do to all but the most independent children.

The Synod participants seem to have been much concerned with “education” all along. As in past days, it’s difficult from the mere summaries (Friday’s here) to know precisely how they have treated the subject, but we know it was a significant part of the Friday discussion. And we may hope that there will be some energetic thought – and action – on what it would mean to create not just more Catholic schools (much though those are needed), but also a whole community of places in the home, the neighborhood, the parish, where you don’t have to be a Christian genius or athlete to live an average Christian existence.

Integral to that has to be a profound discussion of the ways that the media – especially social media – shape the way all of us now “interact” with others. The Synod participants have touched on such matters, but much more needs to be thought through. Even the great, sometimes prophetic Chesterton had no idea what Smartphones and iPads and Facebook and Twitter might someday do to us – and to the family.