The Church gave us a wonderful grace in the midst of the fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops session on the theme of the vocation and mission of the family in the contemporary world with the canonization of Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Liseux. They are the first married couple in history to be canonized together. The Martins represent the kind of saintly family that our mother the Church calls us to become. Their lives involved many hardships, particularly the early deaths of four of their nine children. All five of their surviving children entered religious life. Curiously, during the canonization Mass, Pope Francis’s homily focused on the readings of the day, and only mentioned the new saints in a few sentences at the end. An obvious opportunity to speak more in-depth about the beauty of saintly married couples and families in the context of the Synod was lost.
The luminous example of the Martin family is particularly important for the current session of the Synod, which has tended to get sidetracked by focusing on those in conflict with Church teaching. Cardinal Timothy Dolan noted in his speech to the Synod that there are many appeals for inclusion. His reminder to the synod fathers was salutary. “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—given the fact that, at least in North America, only half of our people even enter the sacrament of matrimony—approach the Church for the sacrament; 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.”
What many observers and participants in the current session of the Synod see is a lack of focus on the needs of the faithful who are swimming against the tide of secular, hedonistic societies. These families are mocked and attacked by their cultural milieu, and they can feel taken for granted by the Church. Christ called for the shepherd to seek out the lost sheep, but this was to bring it back to the flock that he guides and leads lovingly. No one should be denied gentle pastoral care by his spiritual shepherd. Faithful families need greater support, not less, in these times where confusion as to the nature of the institutions of marriage and the family reigns supreme, and there is persecution for those who witness publicly to the Gospel view of marriage and family. If the Church does not stand by their side, who will?
As was expected, the Sub-Saharan bishops have made their staunch defense of the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist clear. One bishop from Tanzania led an impassioned prayer before a morning session began last week. He said that the Church cannot compromise with the world, that homosexual acts and other sins cannot be dismissed or minimized. It was an electrifying moment that expressed well the concerns and determination of so many synod fathers.
In fact, at the very start of this session of the Synod, Cardinal Erdo of Budapest’s opening speech addressed the fact that there are certain non-negotiable objective truths and values. The constant teaching of the Church regarding the illicitness of receiving the sacraments in an objective situation of grave sin cannot be changed in pastoral practice. “Regarding the divorced-and-civilly-remarried, a merciful, pastoral accompaniment is only right—an accompaniment, however, which leaves no doubt about the truth of the indissolubility of marriage taught by Jesus Christ himself. The mercy of God offers to sinners pardon, but demands conversion. The sin in this case does not lie first and foremost in whatever comportment that may have led to the breakup of the first marriage. With regard to that failure it is possible that both parties were equally culpable, although very often both are to some extent responsible. It is therefore not the failure of the first marriage, but cohabiting in the second relationship that impedes access to the Eucharist.” Cardinal Erdo went on to cite authoritative Church documents such as the Letter to Bishops of the Catholic Church on the reception of Eucharistic Communion on the part of divorced and remarried faithful by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Sept. 14, 1994), the Declaration on the admissibility to Holy Communion of the divorced and remarried by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts (June 24, 2000), (IL 123), and the Post-synodal Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis by Pope Benedict XVI.
Liberals, who do think the divorced and invalidly remarried can legitimately receive Holy Communion without amendment of life, were put clearly on the defensive. Their mantra since has been that these matters differ from place to place and conscience to conscience and should be devolved on individual bishop’s conferences or even single dioceses. The infamous words of Cardinal Marx of Munich, president of the German bishop’s conference, that the Church in Germany is not just a “subsidiary” of Rome is the kind of frustrated overheated rhetoric they use. They now realize that huge parts of the Church will not accept the imposition of such heterodox practices and so talk about getting beyond an “idealized” or too narrow understanding of marriage and the family.
Cardinal Burke, speaking truth in charity, re-affirmed recently that the Church is universal, which is the very definition of “Catholic.” Therefore it is unacceptable to condone “regional diversity” on fundamental matters. “You can’t have the Church teaching, for instance, that marriage is indissoluble and then someone claiming at the same time for ‘pastoral’ reasons that a person who is living in an irregular union is able to receive the sacraments, which would mean that marriage isn’t indissoluble.” Inculturation is about adapting different pastoral practices to the faith and moral doctrine of the Church not vice versa.
The Polish, and more generally Eastern European bishops, have been particularly noteworthy in their zeal for authentic Catholic teaching. They have brandished the luminous magisterium of Pope Saint John Paul II on the family as a clear alternative to Cardinal Kasper and his ilk. Archbishop Peta of Astana, Kazakhstan spoke strong words in a public intervention at the Synod.
Blessed Paul VI said in 1972: “From some crack the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” I am convinced that these were prophetical words of the holy pope, the author of Humanae vitae. During the Synod last year, “the smoke of Satan” was trying to enter the aula of Paul VI. Namely: The proposal to admit to Holy Communion those who are divorced and living in new civil unions; The affirmation that cohabitation is a union which may have in itself some values; The pleading for homosexuality as something which is allegedly normal.
Some synod fathers have not understood correctly the appeal of Pope Francis for an open discussion and started to bring forward ideas that contradict the bi-millennial Tradition of the Church, rooted in the Eternal Word of God. Unfortunately, one can still perceive the smell of this “infernal smoke” in some items of the Instrumentum Laboris [the working document for the Synod] and also in the interventions of some synod fathers this year.
To my mind, the main task of a Synod consists in indicating again the Gospel of marriage and of the family and that means the teaching of Our Savior. It is not allowed to destroy the fundament—to destroy the rock.
The Polish bishops were so concerned about press manipulations of the Synod that they brought their own journalists with them to provide accurate reports on the events. There have indeed been charges of distorted reports on the proceedings, even during Holy See Press Office briefings.
A major news item during the first part of the synod was the leaking of a letter to the pope signed by 13 cardinals. These highest ranking prelates, including Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Pell, who is in charge of the finances of the Holy See, expressed deep concern about the Instrumentum Laboris. This text includes statements that are ambiguous or counter to Church teaching on parental rights and other topics. The thirteen cardinals noted with unease that the final text will be composed by a similar drafting committee not appointed by the Synod Fathers, and that it might not reflect the mind of the Church and the members of the Synod.
Heaven hears the prayers of Saints Louis and Zélie Martin, and the faithful around the world for the Synod of Bishops. Their relics, and those of St. Thérèse, are currently in Rome being venerated in the basilica of St. Mary Major. Hopefully, there will be action on the urgent proposals to strengthen and enhance Catholic marriage preparation from this session of the Synod. The Church must provide more truly charitable pastoral efforts to help those suffering from same-sex attraction and those in invalid second unions to live chastely and be in full communion with the Catholic Church. Contemporary Catholic families desperately need substantial encouragement and support. Indeed, all are agreed that true mercy and not “cheap grace” is required. May the Holy Spirit guide us in that direction.
(Photo credit for lead image: Catholic News Agency / Martha Calderon)