Tone and Substance

There has already been a great deal of controversy in the Catholic blogosphere over the document released on October 13 by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  The Relatio, as it is technically called, is an interim document that essentially is a summary of the discussion so far by the bishops at the Synod, and a prelude of the next phase of the discussion.  It bears no doctrinal weight at all.  It’s like a working early draft of what will be discussed at the regular Synod of Bishops in 2015, and that eventually may form a part of an apostolic exhortation to be issued by the pope in 2016.

Much of the controversy has centered on the alleged change of tone in the document regarding homosexual persons.  And, admittedly, the document says some startling things about the proper attitude we should have towards our homosexual brethren, such as:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies… must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.

Or this:

These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Or even this:

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Scandalous abandonment of the traditional Catholic condemnation of homosexuals, right? How could they have forgotten to say this:

The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.

Well, actually, the first three passages aren’t from the supposedly-liberal/radical Relatio at all — they’re direct quotations from the allegedly arch-conservative Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2358 and 2359, issued by Pope John Paul II and written under the direct guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI).  Only the last passage is from the new Relatio.  

Maybe it’s not such a ground-breaking ecclesiastical earthquake, after all.  The fact of the matter is that the Relatio reflects a mindset among the bishops that is very much in keeping with the Catechism, and that is — or at least should be — old hat among Catholics.  While we cannot accept the morality of any sexual sin or the validity of same-sex “marriages”, we still have to relate to homosexual persons as people made in the image and likeness of God, subject to the same sad legacy of concupiscence (i.e., “disordered inclinations”) as all of us, but who are loved by God and should be loved by us.

That’s nothing new in Catholicism, even if we have sadly failed to make it clear in our public statements.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.

There are some rather striking passages in the Relatio, in which the bishops note the existence of positive elements in imperfect relationships (such as cohabitation of men and women, and in same-sex unions).  In my mind, this is a crucial hint as to the pastoral strategy that our bishops — and most likely the Holy Father — are leading us towards.  It will not involve the slightest adjustment of doctrine, but it is indeed a change in tone and emphasis.

To get this, we need to think long and carefully about what, to me, is the most interesting phrase in the Relatio.  It is a very striking statement about the mission of the Church:

Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

The gaze of Christ is one of invitation, which calls us to a response, which has consequences for how we live.  But the love comes first, and that’s what will attract people to the Lord.


11 Responses to “Tone and Substance”

  1. DottieDay says:

    The Relatio document reminds me of how Obamacare legislation came about. Closed doors. Shadowy. Prepared years before and waiting for its time. Fast forward to Kaspercare. After months of propaganda and a week of Synod, voila, faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, we get the Relatio. Already many of the participants are claiming foul, hijacking and so on because its content does not reflect the Synod meetings.

    So here is a very good question about the document itself. How did it come to be prepared and distributed so quickly?

  2. Ed Mechmann says:

    I am not all that surprised that the document was prepared so quickly, especially given that it wasn’t a final document, but a working draft of a summary of the discussion thus far — essentially like a highlight of the minutes. That’s what staff does — you prepare it as you go along, and crank it out when the deadline looms. In fact, you can tell that it was written in a hurry, because of the disjointed style, which tells you that multiple hands were writing it, and there’s no unifying editor’s voice. The mediocrity of the English translation is also a give-away that it was produced under deadline.

    The key thing is that this is just an interim document. There’s a long way to go before anything final is issued — small group discussions, referral back to the dicasteries and the bishops’ working group, then the big Synod next year, then the Holy Father.

  3. DottieDay says:

    There is also the issue of the content of the document. As reported by Rorate, participans say it “does not reflect according to them what was said in the hall, and adds things that were never mentioned” …

    …and as for it being an interim (eh, eh) document. Tell that to NPR, Time, the Daily Snooze, etc.

    The smoke of Satan in my opinion.

  4. Alexis says:

    This is a very insightful piece. I appreciate your clever method in demonstrating how the Relatio document does not involve a change in Catholic doctrine, but a change in tone and emphasis.

    But perhaps you may want to further elaborate on the striking statement: “the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.”

    I certainly agree that it is crucial to focus on the positive aspects of incomplete participation, as opposed to the negative aspects. If the Church only focuses on limitations and shortcomings, people will undoubtedly turn away (as they have been). But what is the end of all of this? What is the real purpose of this pastoral method?

    I think this pastoral strategy is an attempt to meet people at their “incomplete stage” and slowly lead them towards a “more complete stage.” I’m just uncertain as to HOW stressing the positive elements of something incomplete (i.e., cohabitation) will somehow encourage people to achieve something complete (i.e., marriage). The reverse may actually occur – why would I want to get married if the Church is emphasizing the positive elements of my cohabitation?

    But again, I do agree that focusing on the positive aspects of incomplete participation is a GOOD START. It cannot, however, become a pastoral method in totality. It cannot stop at this point. There’s more (education, discussion, catechesis, etc.) that will need to occur.

  5. Ed Mechmann says:

    @ Alexis

    You’re absolutely right — we cannot have proclamation without catechesis to follow. Otherwise we present a hollow Gospel. It would be helpful to us to the apostolic Church, who had a pretty good understanding about this. In Acts 2:37-42, right after Peter first proclaims the Gospel on Pentecost, we read:

    Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

    Pope Benedict often pointed to this passage, particularly the last line, as a model for the Church. And it’s a useful benchmark for us — first proclamation, then conversion with baptism, then we instruct and welcome the person into our fellowship and our worship. It’s a process, but we never compromise the truth of the Gospel.

  6. Alexis says:

    I like your example from Acts 2:37-42 and your understanding of the benchmark process. I trust in the Lord that the Church is headed in this right direction.

    Now, in terms of the issues at hand, there’s obviously been an increasing push to welcome homosexuals as people worthy of compassion, dignity, and respect (and rightly so). It’s just very challenging to make the transition from welcoming homosexuals to explaining why homosexual acts are wrong. Often times, only one of the two steps occurs. And quite frankly, I think that this change in tone will make the transition even more difficult; it will be even more difficult to go from step one to step two. But perhaps that’s the best way for the transition to occur.

  7. Peter Rox says:

    The Church before has made great changes in tone and in doctrine on many occasions over the many centuries. This has usually occurred in matters in which the body of knowledge pertaining to scientific and medical matters has expanded, making the Church’s previous position ( even when held for many many years) not longer tenable. Think how the Church went from burning people at the stake in the cruel “auto de fe’ ” conducted during the Inquisitions throughout Europe, including in Rome. The prelude to the Church dropping such long held positions usually involved resorting not to the truth or falsity of the scientific or medical matter at hand, but rather came down to punishing the demands by Church authorities for blind obedience to power which those killed or tortured would not assent to , even when such blind obedience went against a well-formed conscience.
    The same issues for which people lost their lives under the cruelties of the Church became ” commonly accepted knowledge” to the point of even being taught in Catholic educational institutions eventually.
    Concerning the idea of welcoming “sinners” aren’t we already doing this by tolerating our hierarchy who collectively and in many cases individually are/were responsible for the disastrous handling of the clergy abuse crises which has also cost we the faithful billions of dollars world-wide? Oh, I forgot, pay, pray, obey, and shut up.
    On the subject of matrimony, in my opinion, the Church has made a colossal error in its declarations amounting to it alone “owning” marriage, and dispensing it to whom it pleases according to its interpretations. This attitude led our Church fathers to fight with all their might against allowing civil divorce in both Italy and Ireland for many decades. This led to what then became to be known as “divorce- Italian style” where couples broke up, eventually cohabited with another, often had a “second family” of children, and all this was done with the sanctimony of our Church, while the legal protections of kids, many spouses, many people in general, were ignored in the wisdom of our Church leadership. This greatly accelerated a general societal notion that the Catholic Church is “totally of of touch with reality.” I lived in Italy when these were live issues, and the divorce question was a huge factor in the dramatic drop in Church attendance, along with the usual high clericalism. Same is true in Ireland with divorce, but perhaps permanently damaged by the horrible sexual abuse cases dating back about a century. Many of the “faithful” are ever so forgiving to our clergy as an institution and to the hierarchy for the sexual abuse crisis, claiming, “let’s move on”. Well, many of us want to move on, but with justice, which has only come with the invaluable help of the civil courts, and a free civil media. (The Synod has sought the opinions of the laity. Interesting, many dioceses do not even allow letters to the Editor in their newspapers!!!). We still have admitted criminals in offices of bishops, years after a bishop found guilty, and some dioceses in the US not in full compliance with the so-called standards by the USCCB .
    The Church has quietly changed its theology on marriage in its current war on gay marriage, for pure political expedience. First, the Church always taught that ” in the sacrament of matrimony, it is the COUPLE who marries (administers) the sacrament to themselves. The role of the priests is as the witness of the Church. The Church also for eons taught that since it owned marriage, only marriages properly witnessed by the Catholic priest were valid, and all other marriages were either second-class or invalid. The second-class ones involved the instances with Catholic and non-Catholic who could have few (if any) guests, and who had to marry in the rectory, not the Church. The non-Catholic religions that also oppose gay marriage, no matter how much our bishops used to preach against them (like the Mormons), are all currently in league with the bishops opposing gays, letting by-gones be by-gones as long as they all hate gays.
    The Church should acknowledge in some fashion that it has engaged in a war on gays, not simply to “protect marriage”. Before gay marriage was even on the radar, in every state in the US in which civil protections were under consideration for gays in matters of education, housing, employment, or health care, the Church always fought protections for gays, and won in many cases. This has to stop. The Church should recognize that many denominations accept or encourage same sex marriage, and that these believers have religious freedom too.
    Too many Catholics ( including many priests and bishops) look on the Eucharist as a reward for the sanctimonious, and not as spiritual “medicine”. Why are so many so enraged if signals from the Holy Father or from the relatio come into practice, that their “faith”, supposedly based on a theology of love, is fatally shaken?

  8. Ed Mechmann says:

    @Alexis —

    In this day and age, it seems to be difficult to explain why anything is right or wrong. The argument from authority doesn’t seem to have any weight with most people. Without a sense of authentic anthropology, it’s very difficult to speak to people about how some acts are against human nature or right reason.

    I agree with you that the shift in tone will be challenging, particularly if our pastors fail to make the second part of the argument. In the sexual arena, though, I think that the theology of the body, and its underlying anthropology of love, give us a good basis for making the case. Do you have any ideas for how we should do it?

    Of course, the best argument is always how we live our own lives. The more we see people (especially young folks) choosing lives of purity and virtue and self-giving, the more persuasive the case will be. That’s perhaps the most important lesson from the early Church.

  9. Alexis says:

    @ Ed

    You know I essentially agree with you. We just can’t have a defeatist mentality. Things are difficult, but we must persevere.

    You posed a question to me, although I’m not sure what you’re exactly asking, if you really want an answer, or if you were simply employing a rhetorical strategy. So I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible: Most Catholic arguments on morality and human sexuality (i.e., why pre-marital sex is wrong, homosexual acts are wrong, etc.) that are drawn from philosophical anthropology and theology of the body are generally sound…but “generally sound” means logical and coherent. That says nothing about people being convinced by these arguments. That’s the problem. We may craft the perfect logical argument, but that doesn’t mean that people will actually believe it. I’m a philosopher, so of course I think we must strive to present valid arguments, but to convince people, we must reach both their minds and hearts. We must reach them at both a logical and emotional level. My humble suggestions…

    1) Like you say, lead by example. If you do what’s right and people admire you because of it, they are likely to emulate your behavior.

    2) There must be increased exposure to competent Catholic speakers. In other words, there must be better speakers and more opportunities to hear them. These speakers need to be honest, welcoming, and intelligent. People may certainly disagree with the Church’s views on sexuality, but often times, they don’t actually understand WHY the Church believes what it does on sexuality. The Catholic position needs to be intelligently explained, not forcefully explained.

    3) Catholics should embrace what I call the “St. Paul” method of evangelization. Catholics must look for opportunities to share their faith in secular atmospheres (the workplace, school, etc.). These are great places to strike up casual conversations. There’s no need to always avoid controversial issues. People possess the ability to talk civilly without “forcing their views” on others.

    4) The transmission of Catholic morals should occur through the Catholic family. Relatives must speak openly about the Catholic faith. Often times, Catholic parents find that their children disagree with them on matters of sexuality. But this does not mean that Catholic parents should stop sharing their viewpoint. When done in a calm and loving manner, constant reiteration does not lead to constant arguments. Catholic parents must pray for the conversion of their children. I don’t think St. Augustine’s mother gave up on him.

    These aren’t novel ideas and I’m sure you can think of some betters ones. Ultimately, I think that persistent engagement is the key to Catholic persuasion…and courage and patience from the Holy Spirit. If you’re not going away, people will eventually listen, and after a while, they might just end up taking your arguments seriously.

  10. Ed Mechmann says:

    @ Alexis

    I like your agenda. I find it interesting that you didn’t include anything for the bishops or priests to do. That’s good, in my view. Too many Catholics spend all their time waiting for Father or Bishop to fix something, that they forget that we’re called to be apostolic, and that this battle in particular is for us to fight. At the same time, there are important tasks for the clergy. Clear, consistent messages have to be heard from the clergy, to reinforce the messages from the laity, and to encourage them to persevere in the struggle for personal virtue.