Musings at the Midpoint

The Synod grinds slowly on, and you can see in Rome, with the naked eye, Synod Fathers who look haggard and worn out from long days spent in endless discussions. As the Superior General of the Benedictines admitted yesterday, they’re also dealing with demanding, difficult-to-handle texts that don’t exactly read like something by P. G. Wodehouse. And we’re only at the halfway point of the three weeks today, and will now begin to turn to the really troubling debates on practical matters.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we’ll receive the second set of small language circle reports on the relatively uncontroversial middle section of the Working Document, “The Discernment of the Family Vocation.” All signs are that these will be fairly straightforward in nature, cleaning up misleading wording and filling in gaps in the text. On the grapevine, there’s a recurrent complaint that there has been no clear definition of marriage, which is no small oversight given that this is a Synod supposed to be devoted to marriage and the family. Some have suggested stabilizing things somewhat by turning to the Code of Canon Law, which speaks simply of, “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” [1055]

Some presenters were asked today whether the Synod Fathers are talking about the link between the “Family Vocation” (another undefined term) and religious vocations. Situations vary quite a bit from one part of the world to another. A lay catechist from Rwanda said that everyone in her country knows that religious vocations depend on the quality of family life; and that the future of the Church, society, and the world, therefore, are at stake in the fate of the family. A German priest reported that an Indian bishop in his group described how it’s quite common for families to pray that one of their children will enter religious life. By contrast, he said, in Germany that’s almost unheard of, but didn’t draw any conclusions about why the Church in Asia is growing while it’s dying in Europe.

It’s one sign of just how detached from reality we are in our advanced, postmodern societies that some unintentionally comic elements have emerged during the synodal process. A female presenter mentioned publicly yesterday, as have other involved in the debates, that pointing to well functioning, normal families is sometimes frightening and taken as implied criticism by those who find themselves in irregular and painful situations. Which means – it’s hard to say what – that the Church needs to be careful even about celebrating what’s good because it might make someone feel bad?

And if that isn’t enough, some synod participants have taken a line of argument that the Church holds up traditional marriage as an “ideal,” but that it’s simply not realistic to expect people to live up to it. The Church has a massive pastoral problem because it’s true that – in today’s world – half of marriages end in divorce and 40 percent of the children in America are born out of wedlock. But it was not always so.

People who study global warming are familiar with the so-called “hockey stick,” a graph purporting to show that global temperatures were basically flat for hundreds of years until a sharp upturn erupted recently owing to human activity.

The science behind that is complex and controversial, but there no controversy at all about divorce rates in America. Here’s the divorce “hockey-stick.”


What this doesn’t show – and would if it went back further in time – is the normal phenomenon of a relatively low divorce rate in single digits going all the way back to the nineteenth century, followed by a brief spike around World War II, followed by a return to low rates in he 1950s and early 1960s.

And then: the sexual revolution, including contraception, and the rest is history.

A lot depends on whether you take that revolution as absolutely irreversible, or whether you think the human race has merely gone out of its cotton-pickin’ mind for the last half century. There’s no other social breakdown we treat so lightly as the breakdown in marriage and family. What human choice has created, of course, better human choices can reverse – unless our public and even our religious leaders subtly suggest that it’s impossible for human beings to do what nearly all of them once did: marry and mostly stay faithful to their promises, many even without deep formation in the Faith.

NY Cardinal Dolan has posted an interesting little message on his archdiocesan blog that puts all this in a proper perspective. People, he says, are talking at the Synod about including the excluded, welcoming minorities, not criticizing those in imperfect situations, but valuing them when they do good. Fine, but he remarks:

Can I suggest as well that there is now a new minority in the world and even in the Church?  I am thinking of those who, relying on God’s grace and mercy, strive for virtue and fidelity. . . .Couples who, inspired by the Church’s teaching that marriage is forever, have persevered through trials; couples who welcome God’s gifts of many babies; a young man and woman who have chosen not to live together until marriage; a gay man or woman who wants to be chaste; a couple who has decided that the wife would sacrifice a promising professional career to stay at home and raise their children – these wonderful people today often feel themselves a minority, certainly in culture, but even, at times in the Church! I believe there are many more of them than we think, but, given today’s pressure, they often feel excluded.

This is a brilliant and telling truth, and something that, unfortunately, our Synod Fathers don’t all seem to appreciate sufficiently. Dolan adds: “Where do they [the new Catholic minority] receive support and encouragement? From TV? From magazines or newspapers? From movies? From Broadway? From their peers? Forget it! They are looking to the Church, and to us, for support and encouragement, a warm sense of inclusion. We cannot let them down!”

Amen, brother. Let’s hope, as they prepare to tackle the most controversial questions about marriage and family, that the other Synod Fathers are listening, and get it.

  • waltercarlson

    This whole Synod is evil. It is a sin to put oneself near the “occasion of sin”. To even talk about going against dogma is itself a sin. May the Spirit save all of these people.

  • Tom Williams

    If Cdl. Dolan really believed what he said, why did he choose to shut down parishes in his diocese that were predominantly the exact minority he speaks of and expand parishes which espouse disadent practices from catholic teaching?
    Perhaps he has had a conversion experience. I certainly hope so.

  • Chris in Maryland

    I am sure that Cdl. Dolan means well, but as a father of 4 fighting to help his wife and children to persevere as Catholic people, in a Church being diluted from within and politically attacked from without, I am less in need of “a warm sense of inclusion” and powerfully in need of a Church that stands and speaks the Truth…and preserves Catholic tradition in The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The real spike, or rather, series of leaps, in the divorce rate occurred in the first half of the 20th century, not the second.

    Taking the figures for my own country, Scotland, between 1900-1950 there was a 1,430% increase in divorces (from 144 in 1900 to 2,204 in 1950); between 1950-2000 the increase was 403% (from 2,204 to 11,096). Over the century, the population rose from 4.47 million in 1901 to 5.06 million in 2001, a mere 13%.

    In 1930, there were 469 decrees. A generation earlier, in 1890, there had been 87 – a 439% increase.

    There were 890 decrees in 1939 (still more than ten times the 1890 figure), but in 1949, there were 2,447, an increase of 175% over 10 years. Population rose from 4.47 m in 1901 to 5.18 m in 1951, a mere 16%

    In the 1950s, the annual average was 2,071; in the 1930s, the annual average had been 597, representing a 250% increase. So much for the family-friendly ’50s.

    • Orwell’s Oracle

      Your data does not support your conclusion. Although the real reasons for the significant increases in Scottish divorce rates (in the early 20th century) were due to changes in the legal codes related to divorce and women’s rights, your data – assuming it is correct, indicates a significant decrease in the rate of increase occurring right around the “family-friendly ’50s” that you infer never were. In fact, most countries in the West saw a spike in divorces during and after WWII. A somewhat predictable social pathology given the horrible psychic toll of such a conflict. However, the prosperity and return to normalcy during this period were not illusory, but real. The fact that this period was coincident with the beginning of the sexual revolution and the general secularization of Western culture is actually proof for the proposition that the 50’s were in fact much more “family-friendly” than any decade following. The data is depressingly self evident. Compare divorce rates, abortion rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates during the past decade against the 50’s and tell me again that the 1950’s were not significantly more family friendly. Frankly, that would be absurd.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        The fact remains there was a fourtenn-fold increase in the divorce rate between 1900 and 1950 (during which the population increaed by 16%) and a four-fold increase between 1950 and 2000 (during which the population fell by 0.5%)

  • Alicia

    The 50s ? early 60s ? and before ?Talk to women. Many, but many of those marriages were anything but ideal. Women stayed married, put up with a lot, and sacrificed their dignity and self-respect because they couldn’t support themselves and had no money. The men controlled everything. Many children grew up and still do, in homes where there is no love, there are no role models, and there is a lot of bottled up resentment and hurt. Bottled up because everyone shut up, looked the other way , and smiled. Nice family !
    This situation still goes on and is very common in underdeveloped and developing countries.
    Of course contraception and moral decay are responsible for the family’s pityful situation today. But the fact that, after high school, women started going to college instead of to the altar, has a lot to do with it. They are no longer afraid of where the next carton of milk is going to come from.
    They can support themselves now.
    The problem, in my opinion, starts with early education for children for boys and girls alike. No more ‘ boys will be boys ‘, no more double standard. There are wonderful marriages out there, with amazing husbands and fathers. But not everything was a rose garden in the past and women know this only too well.
    Education ! Where ? Schools, parishes, sermons ???

    • Bob Wilkens

      I grew up during this time period and i would like to see any proof whatsoever that these apparent implied majority of marriages were only due to long suffering oppressed women tolerating brutish husbands.

      Most families i knew of were struggling to make ends meet and raise kids and were wonderful families. Mine was not one of those and i envied the great ones. But even my mom and dad hung together for my sister and i.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    The Synod’s committee report due in just a few days will include the recommendations of members who are proponents of gay marriage and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Our uneasiness shows when Pope Francis affirms traditional doctrine and we become ecstatic. You previously deftly pointed out that such affirmations by the Pontiff do not always match his actions. The anomaly has roots. As some of us know there has been a drift in the Church toward intellectualism, here referring to the prominence of rational analysis over spiritual content. The science of Formgeschichte begun in Germany is a methodology that isolates the varied kinds of biblical writing, construction, and has adapted the criteria of contemporary historiography, social anthropology etc. all of which can improve research. However the results are often not. Famous scholar Bultmann ‘demythologized’ the faith. More orthodox and influential theologian Pannenberg rejected the doctrine of two natures of Christ one divine one human in One Person. When referring to the Resurrection he employed Hegel’s Christ related idea of prolepsis, historical self-realization. This refutes the divinely instituted translation of the Divine Word into the Word Made Flesh of the Gospels. Without this fixed bridge there is no reason to prevent us from changing what are presumably mere human words. Benedict XVI alludes to this omission in his book Jesus of Nazareth. This theological lacuna is evident in the Pontiff saying the Gospels are “just mere words” and Cardinal Marx arguing the plausibility of radically reinterpreting revealed moral doctrine. To the contrary “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not (Lk 21:31).