Well, this will be my last blog post on the interim report of the Synod. The Synod itself is moving on past that phase, and the Internet with its usual goldfish-like attention span has gone in a few days from ‘It’s the end of the Church as we know it! The mark of the Beast is nigh!’ to ‘Report? Was there some report? Oh yeah…’ It is perhaps salutary for us to remark on that not infrequent dynamic in modern life whereby yesterday’s apocalypse becomes today’s footnote. Surely when the actual apocalypse comes we will be able to focus our minds on it for more than 72 hours, don’t you think?
I have concluded in all this kerfuffle that I must have some kind of anti-alarmist prejudice. I have indeed read various things written about just how terrible the report is. I… just am not seeing it, folks. I can’t join the panic party – I just… can’t. Partly, I know that I am not reading a Church document with any binding authority. So I can just read it. I don’t have to obey one word in this document (nice!).
It is not a perfect document. It is awfully poorly written, for one thing, which as a professional writer offends me more than perhaps it would someone else. Language should not just communicate truth, but also beauty, and this report is written by someone who has a tin ear for language, for sure.
There is an emphasis on the positive that may strike some as polyannaish, if not worse. More could have been said on the harm done by the morally wrong choices people make in their intimate relationships, especially when those immoral choices become constituent parts of those relationships (i.e. ‘living in sin’).
But the document is not—repeat, not—ignoring Catholic doctrine in favor of accommodation and relativism. Here is the paragraph which I believe is the guiding principle the report is proposing:
In this context the Church is aware of the need to offer a meaningful word of hope. It is necessary to set out from the conviction that man comes from God and that, therefore, a reflection able to reframe the great questions on the meaning of human existence, may find fertile ground in humanity’s most profound expectations. The great values of marriage and the Christian family correspond to the search that distinguishes human existence even in a time marked by individualism and hedonism. It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.
OK, not well written. But the point is clear: people have within them a desire for goodness, for love, for meaning. Yes, they make terribly wrong choices based on the fact that our desires have gone badly awry (the document is weak on that point, I will grant).
But our pastoral outreach to people must be based on the fact that everyone is searching for something good, something true, something real. I have always firmly believed, my life experience and priestly ministry have confirmed, and I will go to my grave insisting, that there is very little actual wickedness in this world.
The people who deliver themselves over to monstrous evil do disproportionate damage and tend to generate a lot of headlines. The vast majority of people are not wicked; they (we) are blind. Not wicked, but weak. Not wicked, but terribly wounded. Not wicked, just wrong. And it’s all of us together—there are no ‘good people over here’ and ‘bad people over there’ – or if there is, it is strictly and exclusively the business of God to sort that out (cf. Matthew 25).
And so this paragraph, and the report that follows upon it, counsels that we both teach the doctrine of the Church regarding sex, marriage, and the family, and be merciful in so doing. It is not either-or; as always in things Catholic, it is both-and. That is how I read the report, and that is how I intend to carry on in my own priestly ministry and meager attempts to follow Christ.
Regarding the word ‘gradualism’, about which I may write more if I can find the time, space, and sanity to do so (my life is a wee bit hectic of late), I recommend this woman’s story as an example of gradualism working as it should. It is, by definition, a messy business—conversion, that is. Moral progress, that is. Hard to make sweeping generalized statements about; best left to the individual work of pastors and penitents and all us sorry sinners together.