An interview conducted for Light of Truth (Sathyadeepam) (A Catholic fortnightly published from the Archdiocese of Ernakulam, Kerala, India), Vol. 5/21 (November 1-15, 2014), Pages 3 and 13.
Change in Language Can Effect Changes
in Doctrinal Approach
Shaji George Kochuthara CMI, Dharmaram, Bangalore
What are your expectations about the Extraordinary Synod on the Family?
We do not know what the outcome could be. But, at the same time, we hope there could be some change in the approach to the whole issue and that is visible especially in the style or the language required. For example, in the preparatory document itself, there was a questionnaire inviting answers from the whole Church and not from the members of the hierarchy only; the faithful were included. So the style is that of listening to people, learning from their experience, and in that way is more open. Instead of adapting a judgmental or condemnatory style, we have an approach of compassion, understanding and openness to the problem on hand. That itself is a positive change.
Do you foresee some sort of doctrinal change?
That is possible. For example, when you speak about style or language, this is not something new in the Church. It was there in the Second Vatican Council. Historians like John O’Malley would say that the most unique feature of Second Vatican Council is the change in the style or the language, and that brought about changes even in the approach to doctrinal issues. Perhaps that style was forgotten after the Council to a great extent and the Synod is to rediscover it.
Don’t you think this new style was already in the Council and in its decrees, but the charism of the present Pope perhaps reinvented it and people started thinking along the Pope’s line?
We could see it that way. We cannot say that the others or the previous Popes completely ignored it. Somehow, it was not discerned by the people. Their emphasis was more on the doctrinal or judgmental style, and that was perhaps the impression the people got in these decades. The present Pope very consciously and very carefully uses that style and people identify it, like it and they rediscover the beauty of it.
Is it not simply the style of Jesus and the Gospels?
Surely, sometimes when we speak about the Fathers of the Church, we speak about them as very dogmatic, but many would say that even the Second Vatican Council surely reflected the language of the Fathers of the Church. They have more of an invitational style while dealing with issues and discussing them. Perhaps, with Thomism or Scholasticism, although surely it has its own merits, somehow that style was lost. More philosophical or rhetorical style was adopted and that became gradually perhaps the language of the Church.
The benchmark for teaching on the family comes from Humane Vitae of 1968. The history of the encyclical says Pope Paul VI decided in spite of the Commission’s recommendations. Now do you think this Synod will think in a more pastoral line and go beyond the benchmark once again?
The fact that the Synod is considering this issue very seriously, inviting even wider discussions, itself is a sign that somehow the Church feels the need of thinking about people. Sometimes it is said that the teaching of Humane Vitae is not communicated very clearly to the faithful or somehow there is a gap between what the Church teaches and what people practise. That itself is a recognition of the situation. But I think we have to approach or understand this issue historically also. First of all, the so called natural family planning is not a Catholic method. It is a method some doctors discovered or introduced and the Church somehow found it acceptable at that time. The natural family planning method is actually a combination of different methods like rhythm method, temperature and mucous method. These are not Catholic methods, but methods which the Church found more acceptable. At the same time, till the 20th century the Church or Christianity as a whole could never think about any attempt or method at all to limit the number of births. Perhaps for the first time in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, at least in principle the possibility of limiting births was accepted. Once again no definite teaching even on the method was given. That comes only in 1951 in Pope Pius XII’s Address to Midwives. In the Second Vatican Council, the idea of responsible parenthood, that is, limiting the number of children is accepted. A clear teaching about a method is given only in Humane Vitae. That itself represents progress. But, at the same time, I do not know if it can be taken as the final teaching on the subject.
Don’t you see that kind of an approach has its echo in the present interim report of the Synod?
On the one hand the Church considers procreation or transmission of life as integral to the family. That is very clear. We cannot deny that. But what does inseparability of love and life really mean? It is also clear at least from 1930s or more clearly from 1960s, that somehow there is acceptance that a limit in the number of children could be there or has to be there.
One of the big predicaments we face is that love and life have been separated by science. They were originally inseparable, but science separated them. That created all the problems.
Isn’t there a natural separation actually?
Perhaps naturally there is a separation, but it was made easy and available through scientific procedure.
Yeah, but what is the norm for distinguishing between natural and artificial? That itself is a big theological and philosophical issue.
We are going to interpret natural law in a broader concept, aren’t we?
Also, SOME theologians would say today that St. Thomas’ interpretation of natural law was often misinterpreted, because traditionally we speak about the primary and secondary ends of marriage; primary is procreation and secondary is love. Now, normally, how do we understand the term primary? That it means more important. But that was not the real meaning given by St. Thomas, it is said. By primary he perhaps meant something that is common to all animals and secondary as that which is specific to human beings. That is love and it is the unique feature in marriage or sexuality. Somehow that was misinterpreted by subsequent theologians. So, even the concept of natural law has to be correctly understood. Many of the principles of natural law were developed or formulated on the basis of the scientific knowledge of those days. Now, when the scientific knowledge changes, should we hold on to the norms based on the old scientific knowledge? I am not saying that we have to change all the ethical norms according to scientific knowledge. We have to consider a number of factors. Actually, a number of surveys were conducted in preparation for the Synod. In many places, 80 to 90 percent of the married couple who are really faithful Catholics find it difficult to practise, and support natural family planning. We cannot say that for all these faithful procreation is not important or they do not give value to any of the Catholic principles. Whether teaching changes or not, the question is, how we can understand these people and how we can dialogue with them. The so called Gospel of the family doesn’t appear a Good News for them when we insist too much on rigid principles. How it actually will become a Gospel for them, that is the real question.
Do you expect some sort of a reinterpretation or a better understanding of what Pope Paul VI did at that time?
I believe that at least there will be a beginning to open up and understand better how the concept of responsible parenthood can dialogue with the real experience and difficulty of the people in their actual life situations. I hope that attempt will be there.
That will create better situation where the teaching of the Church will become Gospel to the married people.
Yeah. Whether it is a secular teaching or not is not the primary question; rather, it is whether people are listened and whether they are understood.
Even in India, we know well the situation of our own married sisters and brothers. The Pope’s approach tells that we have to teach them, guide them and help them in the family life showing a different attitude.
Yeah, that is the question: how do we communicate? It is not merely the message that we communicate; how we communicate is equally important. Change in the language or style is very important. That is why for the Synod the first step is listening. Only by listening we can look into Christ. From there, we begin the discussion. Whether the immediate step to follow is decision making, that I do not know.
How do you see the issue of the divorced and remarried couples in the Church? Though this may not be a big problem in Kerala, it is a real problem in the Western countries and even in Africa.
On the one hand, we believe in the indissolubility or inseparability of marriage. Based on Jesus teaching, we believe that a marriage is an inseparable union, but at the same time even in the Biblical times or in the Bible itself we find some kind of exceptions. For example, in 1Corinthians 7 St. Paul says that ok, this is the teaching, but at the same time on my own authority I say that there may be some situations of exceptions, which we often refer to in technical language as the Pauline privilege. Even in the practices of the Church and in the traditions we find it. Even today, the Orthodox churches and the Eastern churches practise that based on the approach of compassion or, as they call it, the second chance. They give a possibility. That is why on the one hand we believe in indissolubility and on the other hand we consider what is to be done in case a marriage fails due to human fragility. Here again the question is not one of ignoring the basic principles or values or the Catholic understanding, but an attempt to be near to people who are already suffering. So what can we do? Surely, many bishops also have publicly asked for a change. For example, late Cardinal Martini was publicly asking for some change even before Pope Francis took charge. What change I do not know, but at the same time we feel that a change in the approach to these couples should be there. For many of these couples, Christian principles are very important and they want to continue in the sacramental life. So, what can we do or how can we respond to these people who are already suffering? That question has to be answered I think. Now I have known personally many couples who really suffer these situations and who really want to be active members of the Church. How do we respond in their case? The Synod is already recognising that there are situations where a return to the previous marriage is no more possible, for example, the remarried already have children in the new marriage. So, what is to be done? These are real questions and in India we have started facing it. People already have started saying that Bangalore is also the divorce capital of India.
It happens in priesthood. It is tolerated. So why don’t you use that in the case of married people?
That is one way of understanding the issue. One difficulty is that in our pastoral care of the family or married couples, we don’t have any programme. We don’t have any clear plan on how they are to be accompanied. We don’t foresee things. When problem crop up, we throw up our hands and say we cannot do anything. So that itself has to change. That is why pastoral care of the family is made a main focus of the Synod. Now I could not go to the extreme of what could be implied in your question that after ten years or twenty years there will be or there can be radical changes so that we can think of a short time commitment instead of a perpetual commitment in the case of marriage as a whole. We cannot hold to such extreme views.
A parallelism exists between a laicized priest and a divorced couple, except that children are involved in the latter. Do you consider it a serious matter?
Although there does exist such a parallelism, there is a difference: in the case of a priest, apart from the commitment to the Lord, there is also commitment to the community. In the case of marriage the commitment is to a particular person or two or three persons including the children. Sometimes, the injustice or the suffering caused to them is more severe. I think first of all we need to change our judgmental attitude. Very often we say that marital problems are caused because one partner is just seeking pleasure or the other partner is just ignoring his or her partner, looking for someone more beautiful. Very often the reasons are very different. As I already said, there are changes or development in the personality or difficulties in the communication, sometimes as a solution some other relation is sought, not just for reasons of finding pleasure. Such kind of understanding of the complexities involved need to be developed. Not that we have to accept every situation or we don’t need any norm, but there is a need for more understanding and compassion.
There are same sex partners and transgenders in the Church. They even appear in public media demanding their rights and some accuse that they are not considered part of the Church. What should be the approach towards them?
That is a very complex and controversial issue to deal with. Now, here again one of the major focuses in sexual ethics is the concept of natural law. In the preparatory document, in the questionnaire and also in the instrumentum laboris of the Synod, we can find it. Very often we say homosexuality is “against nature”. The concept of natural law is very difficult to understand. Now, when we say “against nature” another question that immediately should come is, have you understood human nature completely? It is in the process of evolution, not the human nature but our understanding of it. Our understanding of human nature is still evolving. Now, with regard to homosexuality, why do we say that it is “against nature”? Very often it is because of the sexual roles of man and woman. So, between man and man or woman and woman, often it is said, the sexual act itself is against the natural process. Another aspect to be considered is procreation. If in the sexual act, procreation is not possible, it is said to be unnatural generally. So, there are different ways of understanding “against nature”. Again, the basic question is that of the need for human intimacy and love. Even today, in the scientific field I don’t think that there is a clear understanding of the causes of homosexuality. Some would say that there is some genetic or biological basis, but that is not proved. Some would say that there are psychological reasons but we do not know. In some cases it may be changed, in some cases it cannot be changed. Even in the Vatican documents we find different positions. For example, sometimes it is said that these people have to be changed or cured through counselling or psychological treatment. In some other documents they would say that there are incurable situations. So what should these people do? With regard to the percentage of these people, some would say that it is only 2%, some others would say more than 10%, because many do not reveal their real sexual orientation due to homophobia. We do not have clarity with regard to this. If somebody has a particular same sex orientation and if he or she finds it difficult to be changed, what is to be done? What about the needs of love and intimacy of these people? These are questions to be answered. On different occasions Pope Francis himself has made this comment: who are we to judge? Even in the interim report we find we have to approach these people with compassion, but, at the same time, with prudence. Whether the solution is immediately recognising gay unions, that we cannot perhaps say. More important than that is how their need of intimacy and love can be responded positively by the Church. These are questions to be addressed, because there are people who suffer because of them. No discrimination should be there and they should experience the compassion of Jesus through the Church. So, it becomes very important to consider how we can become more compassionate towards who are caught up in special situations.