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.