Written from Rome:
Since Pope Francis announced that two Synods would examine the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family and work to devise more evangelically dynamic responses to that crisis, a lot of attention has focused on issues of Catholic discipline: How does the Church determine that a marriage never existed and thus grant a decree of nullity? What is to be done about the sacramental situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics? How does the Church best prepare its sons and daughters for marriage?
Beneath these visible questions lie more basic questions of the Church’s self-understanding. So one hopes that Synod 2015 will focus some of its attention on these very serious matters “beneath the surface” of the current debate.
1. Can Catholics be both sinner and saved?
Proposals to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion, after a penitential period but without a decree that the prior marriage never existed (an “annulment”), seem to some to reflect Martin Luther’s old claim that Christians are always simul iustus et peccator, “both sinner and saved.” Fifty years of ecumenical dialogue and serious theological work have not found a way to square this claim with classic Catholic understandings of sin and grace. Would the admission of the divorced and civilly remarried to Holy Communion eviscerate the Church’s classic understanding of God’s life within us, how we can reject that grace by certain grave sins, and how we are restored to friendship with God?
2. How does the Church help its people climb the ladder of love?
Many pastoral proposals floating around the Synod begin with the assertion that the Church “must take people where they are.” That seems obvious; where else would the Church “take” (or better, begin to evangelize and catechize) people? But the entire point of “taking people where they are” has always been to invite people to climb higher on what St. Augustine called the “ladder of love.” In that climb, we all stumble and miss rungs. Still, centuries of pastoral experience, and the lives of the saints, suggest that it’s by keeping the higher rungs on the ladder in view that we learn to climb higher and love more truly. And keeping those higher rungs in sight requires challenge as well as compassion and mercy.
3. Are there any stable reference points in the Church’s self-understanding?
The call to “take people where they are” has frequently been accompanied by the claim that “history” is somehow decisive for the Church’s self-understanding on, say, the nature of marriage. Many Catholics get divorced; this historical datum, say certain northern European theologians and bishops, is the prism through which we should “read” (and then find a way around, or through, or past) what has long seemed to be the stable truth, given by the Lord himself, that marriage is indissoluble. But what judges what here? Does the Church still accept that there are “sacred givens” in its life: truths given to it by Christ, truths that are the permanent standard by which proposed pastoral initiatives and reforms are measured? Or is “history” (which in the case of the Church leadership in Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland seems to mean “what’s happening right now”) the real standard?
4. Should the Church recognize an “intermediate” level of teaching authority, between the Bishop of Rome and the bishop in his diocese?
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI rejected the idea that national or regional conferences of bishops could exercise some form of real teaching authority, because this was not, in their judgment, the mind of Vatican II (or the tradition of the Church). Today, it’s proposed (again by some German churchmen) that, irrespective of the Synod and the pope, local churches should make their own judgments about issues like the conditions for the worthy reception of Holy Communion. “National Churches” have always been deeply problematic for the Catholic Church; now, when we have the opportunity to be a true “world Church,” are we returning to tried-and-failed notions from the past?
It’s going to be a full three weeks, here at the Synod.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.