How the Synod Missed the Mark

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It will undoubtedly take some time to assess the work of the 2014 Synod of Bishops. In order to promote the openness of episcopal debate, there was very little information made available during the actual event. Even its public documents, the midterm relatio and the final ‘message’, went through doubts about proper translation and created a certain confusion because of the tension between the content of the texts and the reports that many bishops refused to approve them.


The little reporting that did emerge during and immediately after the Synod gave the impression that there were basically two topics being discussed: the status of divorced and re-married Catholics and the Church’s policy with respect to homosexual persons. Neither issue was resolved, but two, somewhat surprising impressions were created.


The first was that, despite the pastoral approach that Pope Francis seemed to be calling for, some of the bishops appeared to be more concerned with the canonical (legal) issue of whether divorced Catholics could be admitted to the sacraments than they were about looking after their spiritual needs.


The second, regarding the ‘welcoming’ of homosexual persons, must, of course, be seen against the background of the wide divergence of opinion on that issue in diverse parts of the world. Not only the bishops, but large portions of the faithful have clearly defined attitudes toward homosexuality that no one could reasonably expect to be overcome in a meeting of two weeks.


What is surprising here is some bishops’ reluctance openly to welcome homosexual persons into the community of believers. If the church is founded upon the teaching and example of Jesus Christ taken from the gospels and the witness of the early community, how could one hesitate for a moment to embrace any child of God wishing to join in worshiping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?


The elephant in the room


The issue that many people thought would play a major role in the discussions, however, hardly seemed to surface. The teaching on the regulation of fertility, something that needs to be addressed by any couple seeking to practice responsible parenthood, has been an issue of contention for a huge portion of the faithful for generations. The relatio gave the impression that the teachings of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (1968) and that of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio (1980) had settled the issue and that nothing more needs to be said.


Have none of the bishops attending the Synod noticed that there has been a ‘lively debate’ (in the words of Paul VI) raging on this topic for the past 45 years? While many of those bishops may believe that the only thing necessary is to explain the teaching clearly, the simple fact is that many, many people – including clergy and other bishops – do not agree with the teaching.


The automatic response to this observation – that ‘teaching’ is not dependent upon majority opinion – is inadequate, for it fails to address the very essence of this kind of teaching itself, namely to communicate with and hopefully to convince one’s audience that what is being taught is important for the well-being of the community and its individual members. If there is a message here, in either of the documents referred to, that the standard teaching on contraception is beneficial for the community, it is evident that most of the members of the community simply do not get it. No such message has been ‘received’.


The understanding that a teaching needs to be received – the doctrine of ‘reception’ – is a traditional position of most of the Eastern churches. Though it is frequently referred to by many theologians, especially those who specialize in the study of the church itself – ecclesiology – most bishops are either unaware of it or believe that it somehow undermines their authority. The idea that an un-received teaching might in fact be an inappropriate teaching doesn’t seem to have occurred to the episcopal college.


Acknowledging that such a specific teaching has not been received is only the first step in dealing with this issue, for the bishops should then have felt compelled to ask why this is the case. Pretending that it is merely a matter of people’s inattention, or perhaps their unwillingness to ‘obey’, is no excuse for not asking what has gone wrong here.


Examining the elephant


Many have observed that the failure of the teaching on the regulation of fertility has undermined the credibility of official teaching in the entire area of sexual ethics. The traditional standpoint about not having sex before marriage seems to carry little weight for many – and not simply younger – persons. Then, we should count it as a positive sign that in most instances even the clergy have given up trying to scare young people with the threat of eternal damnation for an act of masturbation.


Beyond such traditional issues, the church’s leadership still has not even acknowledged the existence of a wide variety of non-coital sexual practices engaged in by many Catholic couples. This hitherto ignored range of human behavior used to be treated as a universal taboo, with the tacit agreement that we simply would not talk about it. More open, and yes, we should admit perhaps often too lax, standards of decorum have not only made such activities discussable, in many circles they have led to the realization that many forms of sexual encounter are in fact considered by many people to be an intimate part of married love-making.


However, the core of the issue at hand is not a more detailed examination of sexual mores. It is, plain and simple, the manner of reasoning that previous popes have used to defend their condemnation of ‘artificial contraception’. At the heart of that thinking are two fundamental ideas, one brand new (in 1968) and the other pre-conciliar, upon which the entire teaching rests and which are in dire need of re-examination.


The first of these is the statement in Humanae Vitae, 12 that there is an “inseparable connection, willed by God and unable to be broken by man on his own initiative, between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning.” This statement, which can now be traced back to the early writings of John Paul II when he was still Karol Wojtyla in Poland, has no foundation in the traditional teaching of the church.


Going back to St. Augustine, it is easy to trace a line of thought that claims that the only ‘justification’ for an act of male sexual climax is the potential (some would even say intention) to bring about the conception of a child. Later, pastors and moral theologians had to ignore this teaching to accommodate the ‘weaker’ members of the faithful who might be tempted to have sexual relations even though a pregnancy had already been established. But the teaching stood for nearly 1500 years and can even be detected in the statement cited above.


But where can one find an explicit statement by the teaching authority of the church that marital sexual relations had anything to do with love – presumably the ‘unitive’ meaning – before the encyclical of Pius XI in 1930, Casti Connubii? As far as the exact terminology is concerned, I have as yet to see any evidence of a ‘unitive meaning’ in church teaching before 1968.


The second and more important idea that underlies the difficulties for the reception of this teaching is the notion that one can conclude that a sin has taken place merely on the basis of the description of a physical activity. Presumably, if there is something that is non-good, dare we say ‘evil’, connected with what we do or fail to do, one already has sufficient grounds for declaring the presence of an ‘objective sin’.


To reinforce this notion, some people like to add the adjective ‘intrinsic’ to their observation that there is something amiss. Thus, an ‘intrinsic evil’ may never be done, no matter what the circumstances or the intention of the acting person.


Does this mean that there are two kinds of evil, one intrinsic and the other … pedestrian?  Can we further conjecture that the things not labeled ‘intrinsic evil’ may very well be done, like killing, imprisoning, depriving persons of consciousness or their legally earned money, or failing to disclose the activities of a pedophile? Is there one kind of evil that may never be done and another kind of evil that one can justify with a good reason? And how does one tell the difference?


In theological terms, this second idea supporting the condemnation of artificial contraception is referred to as a ‘method’ of (moral) reasoning. It is a method that was widely used in moral theological textbooks before Vatican II. It was thought to have been abandoned after the council because it was too mechanistic, too legalistic, and certainly not scriptural. It was a form of reasoning associated with natural law – an approach that was consciously avoided in the later conciliar documents, especially by Gaudium et Spes which only uses the reference to address matters of international politics.


If the leaders of the church wish to take on these issues in a fundamental way, they need to do much more research into various methods for pursuing moral theology. Perhaps they should listen to some of the moral theologians whom they have been attempting to silence since the appearance of Humanae Vitae. The episcopacy has nearly another year before they come together again and take up these issues under the gaze of a faithful who will be expecting much more than they received in October 2014. Much work needs to be done in preparation for 2015.


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