This supremely Catholic synod

In an article published today at The Week, Damon Linker opens with a question and asks for some help answering it. He spends a few paragraphs asking it, taking his time and doing a good job laying the groundwork and making clear the reasons for his “confusion.” Here is what he writes:

Maybe you can help me. I’m confused.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares as a matter of binding doctrine that homosexual acts are “acts of grave depravity,” “contrary to the natural law,” and “intrinsically” as well as “objectively disordered.” “Under no circumstances” can those acts “be approved.” Although people who feel same-sex attractions “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” they are called by the church to take up “the Lord’s cross” and embrace a life of “chastity” through “self-mastery” of their desires. That is the only way for them to “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

That sounds pretty unequivocal, wouldn’t you say?

Now let’s look at Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times, which contains an above-the-fold front-page story about a 12-page document released on Monday by the synod on marriage and the family that Pope Francis has convened at the Vatican. In the second paragraph of the story, we are informed (quite accurately) that the document “does not change church doctrine or teaching.” And yet the story also states (in the third paragraph) that the document is “the first signal that the institutional church may follow the direction Francis has set in the first 18 months of his papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situations and toward understanding, openness, and mercy.”

And indeed, the document does say some nice things, about homosexual relationships, but also about “cohabitation” among heterosexual couples. If you’re a non-celibate gay Catholic, or a Catholic who’s divorced and remarried and so technically excluded from receiving the sacrament of Communion at Mass, these words no doubt come as a comfort.

But how significant are they? The answer to that question depends in large part on what the pope has in mind. And that’s where I become confused.

Even if the language of the document released on Monday is approved in total at the conclusion of the synod, it will still change nothing at all in church doctrine or teaching. Homosexual acts will still be deemed intrinsically and objectively disordered. It’s just that the Vatican will now be urging pastors to soft-peddle the doctrine to parishioners. Priests and bishops will be urged to accentuate the positive, to talk about the “gifts and qualities” that gay people “offer to the Christian community,” and to acknowledge that gay couples often provide each other “mutual aid” and “precious support.”

That sounds like a modest expansion on or elaboration of the Catechism’s injunction to accept gay people “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” combined with a suggestion that priests and bishops not shove down people’s throats the much harsher official doctrine about homosexual acts.

But the doctrine itself will remain unchanged.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this makes no sense whatsoever.

I want to offer an answer to the question, because it seems that there are not a few good, faithful Catholics who are asking themselves something like it in recent days, and also because there are many bad answers to it being offered — answers that would have us believe that a “dark and false Church” is in the making, that a “dictatorship of relativism” is holding sway at the synod, that the synod itself is “counterfeit” and “sick,” and that it might be time for the few good bishops who are left in Rome to starting kicking some ass. Linker himself suggests that Pope Francis must have some “supremely Machiavellian strategy” in play to change church teaching.

So, here goes.

I’m a dad. The father of seven, in fact. (And while we’re on the topic, I’m the father of seven largely because my wife and I believe Humanae Vitae to be an expression of moral truth, taught to us authoritatively by Christ’s vicar on earth — so let’s please dispense now with any idea of this whole post being rooted in my wishy-washy heretical modernism.)

My kids do “bad” things all the time. (They’re my kids, after all.) From time to time they squabble, ignore homework assignments, talk disrespectfully to my wife and I, refuse to walk the dog when asked, and other such things. When they do these things, I or my wife correct them. It’s our job as parents, right? And when they sometimes choose to ignore several quick and polite verbal corrections, as they occasionally do, it’s sometimes necessary for me to raise my voice a bit or provide some consequence that gets their attention a little more effectively: they’re sent to their room for a period of time or loose the privilege of watching television for a while, that sort of thing.

But if these corrections and punishments were all I ever had to say to them, or even most of what I ever had to say to them, if I simply kept quiet and bided my time until the next bad choice came along, my relationship with them would quickly go into a tailspin, because what the heck kind of father-child relationship is that: me, the Corrector? They would grow tired of and quite accustomed to my scoldings, and any joy in their relationship with me would wither. Sure, I love them, and I might even convince myself that I am correcting them and punishing them because I love them, because after all, it is true that it’s wrong to fight and be disrespectful, and loving them means teaching them that, dammit. But my children would only with great difficulty know that I love them and experience the relationship as one of love.

This is one reason — though certainly not the only one — that I try to make sure I have lots of conversations with them about the good things happening at school, the fun stuff they’re doing with their friends, the books they’re reading, and the best shows on television. I also make sure that I point out as often as I can the great stuff they do and excellent moral choices they make. When they excel at sports or get good grades, I encourage and praise them, and when they go out of their way to be respectful, loving, or generous, I say so enthusiastically.  Not only is this just; it almost certainly makes my moments of correction and punishment more effective, because they know these corrections are coming from a parent who loves them and respects them, and they know I don’t do it simply because I like correcting them; indeed, they know I would much rather be praising them.

In fact, I make sure my kids know, unequivocally (they have heard me say this clearly and often): There is nothing you can do that would make me stop loving you. If they don’t know that — and I mean know it in their bones — I’ve failed in a significant way as a father.

I would suggest that herein lies the “sense” of approach we find in the mid-term synod document released yesterday. As has been made clear by almost everyone, no doctrinal changes have been proposed or are suggested. The Church still believes marriage is intended by God to be permanent, that it is between a man and a woman, that remarriage after divorce is contrary to the nature of marriage, and that homosexual activity is sinful.

The insight of at least some of the synod fathers and, it seems, Pope Francis, is that if the only thing the Church ever says to people who are divorced and remarried or people who are gay or people who are living together is “what you are doing is wrong” or “your desires are disordered,” then the Church is carrying out its role as mater et magister poorly.

Some will object to this line of thinking: “But that’s not all we say to them. Haven’t you read the Theology of the Body?” I have read it, in fact, and find it to be quite compelling and in places beautiful. I have taught its ideas to others over the years. In fact, I was an “early adopter,” if you will, teaching Theology of the Body in the mid-1990s, long before it became much more widely known within the Church.

But the fact is, it’s not that compelling to some folks. Some are not convinced by Catholic moral teaching — in some cases because they could care less what the Church says, and in some cases because they have reflected on it, prayed about it, discussed it, and struggled with it, and they still don’t buy it. Of course, the Church should and must continue to teach it as the good news that it is. But if all they hear is the Church continually insisting that they’re wrong about that, and they never hear that despite the Church’s different view of things, they are still respected and loved and welcome among us, we’re doing something wrong.

If people, all people, do not know that there’s nothing they can do to make God stop loving them, and therefore that there is nothing they can do to make the Church stop loving them and respecting them and welcoming them, then the Church’s teachers have to some degree failed in their roles as fathers and teachers. In my view, the mid-term synod document was a moment in which the synod of bishops decided to say something like that. And in saying it, they were expressing the orthodox, evangelical, essential truth of Catholic Christianity.

And so maybe Cardinal Burke wasn’t “punished” (as Mr. Linker puts it) “for forthrightly stating and defending in public the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church.” Maybe he was moved on to a less prominent position because he seems unenthusiastic about stating and defending in public another authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church: that God loves sinners, and he wants them to know, through the Church’s teaching and practices, in their bones, that they are loved.

“I submit,” Damon Linker writes, “that there is only one way to make sense of the pope’s actions…. It’s a brilliant, clever, supremely Machiavellian strategy — one that promises to produce far-reaching reforms down the road while permitting the present pope both to claim plausible deniability (‘I haven’t changed church doctrine!’) and to enjoy nearly constant effusive coverage in the secular press.”

But I submit, Mr. Linker, that there is more than one way to make sense of the pope’s actions, and that the most reasonable and likely way involves not a supremely Machiavellian strategy, but a supremely Catholic one, and that is that he intends to proclaim God’s unconditional love to the sinners for whom his Son Jesus died.



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