At the conclusion of this month’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis reminded the synod fathers, “God is not afraid of new things.” Perhaps some of them, however, need to be reminded that God is not afraid of old things either.
After all, the Jesus who makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5) is the same Jesus who, when pressed on the question of marriage and divorce, pointed us back to the most ancient teaching of all: back to “the beginning,” where we find God’s original plan for man and woman (Matthew 19:1-12).
As we celebrate St. John Paul II’s feast day Oct. 22, we are reminded that no one exhorted us more tirelessly than he with Jesus’ words: “Be not afraid!” Indeed, the phrase itself became synonymous with his pontificate.
Is it a mere coincidence of the Church calendar or a sign of divine Providence that John Paul II’s feast day comes after the conclusion of the extraordinary synod (where his voice was absent) and will be celebrated during the 2015 ordinary synod?
The teaching of this man — the man Pope Francis named the “Pope of the Family” — seemed entirely forgotten (silenced?) by some synod fathers.
This raises an important question: Who will be proven to be on the right side of (salvation) history? The synod fathers who believe John Paul II’s vision of marriage and family has already gone stale and become irrelevant, a mere 30-35 years after he articulated it? Or the synod fathers who side with George Weigel’s description of the Holy Father’s vision as prophetic — “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.” My chips are on the latter’s side of the table.
My suggestion is that God was not afraid to reveal a “new thing” to John Paul II. In fact, the late Holy Father discovered a key anthropological truth that marked an authentic development of doctrine regarding the Church’s understanding of the human person as imago Dei (image of God). And this development of doctrine bears directly on the most contentious issues raised at the extraordinary synod: the status of civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics and the status of Catholic same-sex couples.
The Church has always affirmed that the human person is a body-soul composite and rejected any dualism between body and soul or any negative view of the body. Nevertheless, the Church traditionally located the imago in the human person’s spiritual faculties: reason (self-consciousness) and will (self-determination).
In shorthand, the human person images God where we are most similar to him (our spiritual faculties), not where we are most dissimilar to him (our body).
John Paul II, however, taught the Church that the human body — precisely in its masculinity and femininity — also plays a key role in our imaging God. In his theology of the body, he reflects on the second creation account in Genesis 2 and explains:
“Man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning. ... Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion. He is, in fact, ‘from the beginning’ ... also and essentially the image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons. The second creation narrative could also be a preparation for the understanding of the Trinitarian concept of the ‘image of God’” (Nov. 14, 1979).
The human body is, thus, meant to speak a prophetic-sacramental language — a language that reveals the divine communion of Persons in the Trinity. The human person in the fruitful unity-in-difference of man and woman is not simply imago Dei, but is more precisely imago Trinitatis. Moreover, John Paul II teaches that the body is meant not only to speak a prophetic-sacramental language that reveals the Trinity, but is also meant to reveal the spousal relationship between Christ (the bridegroom) and the Church (the bride). And it is on the cross where Christ (the New Adam) gives his bodily, total self-gift to the Church (the New Eve) — and Christ’s bodily, total self-gift bears fruit in begetting new life (baptism, Eucharist).
All of this may seem impossibly cerebral, and perhaps this is why some synod fathers are reluctant to refer back to John Paul II’s prophetic vision of marriage and family. After all, a good many laypeople simply want the answer to questions like: Why can’t civilly-divorced-and-remarried Catholics receive Communion? Why can’t the Church recognize the union of same-sex couples as marriage?
As a starting point to address these pastorally sensitive questions, another key insight of John Paul II’s vision sheds considerable light.
God imprinted on every human heart a profound desire: to know it is good for us simply to be; to rest in the secure knowledge that our existence is good, indeed very good (Genesis 1:31). Marriage is God's plan to satisfy this fundamental desire of the human heart. How so?
God’s plan is that we come to be as the fruit of a human act of love, an act of love patterned after Christ’s bodily, total self-gift on the cross. The child’s confidence in the goodness of his or her existence is given further confirmation — whether on the conscious or unconscious level — when he or she witnesses and participates in the ongoing love between the mother and father who stand at the origin of his or her being.
While all this does not deny the need to extend mercy and does not deny that God can write straight with crooked lines (i.e., that a child in an irregular situation can come to know it is good for him to be and come to know the Love at the source of his being), nevertheless, we cause more pain and wounding by tampering with God's plan for marriage and family and make it more difficult for adults and children to rest secure in the knowledge that their being is good and that Love stands at the origin of their being and, indeed, calls them to enter into relationship with him.
God’s plan is that the human act of love that begets us — an act of love that is not a one-time event, but is ongoing through the indissoluble union of our mother and father — is meant to be a prophetic-sacramental sign of the Love that stands at the origin of all coming to be. All being is good precisely because Love is the source of all being.
Of course, much of this needs further unpacking, and my sincere hope is that the synod fathers and laypeople alike will devote themselves to taking up this very task. However, in light of this brief presentation of John Paul II’s prophetic teaching on marriage and family, it should be clear that any tampering with God’s original plan for marriage and family runs two risks.
First, it runs the risk of undermining children’s confidence in the very goodness of their being. This is the case with divorce and remarriage, which shatters the indissoluble love of the two who brought us into being. And it is the case with redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, which shatters the very possibility of our coming to be as the fruit of conjugal union.
Second, it runs the risk of distorting the very prophetic-sacramental sign that is meant to reveal the truth about God (the Trinitarian communion of Persons) and God’s love for us (the spousal union between Christ and the Church).
I would argue that nothing less is at stake in next year’s Ordinary Synod on the Family.
Bill Maguire received a master's degree in theological studies from
the John Paul II Institute in Washington. He writes from Naples, Florida.