Synod Spin


On Sept. 12, The New York Times posted a short notice with an unusual headline: “Are You Catholic and Divorced?”

“In an effort to better understand how Catholics experience their church’s teachings, New York Times  journalists covering religion would like to hear from Catholics who have been divorced, and, in particular, from those who have remarried,” read the post.

Respondents were asked to answer a number of questions, including: “Do you support the Church’s teachings on divorce, or are there changes you would like to see?”

There were no questions about the respondents’ level of Mass attendance or knowledge of the faith. There was no specific interest in the experience of Catholics whose spouses had left them behind to divorce and remarry.

If anyone doubts that Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage still matters, they need only consider the Times’ query. Everyone — in and out of the Church — appears to have a stake in the discussion about whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics who have not obtained an annulment should be able to receive Communion.

The reason is clear enough: The Catholic Church is the chief defender of biblical marriage in a culture that has drifted far away from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19. And, as the chasm widens between faith and social practice, the temptation increases to view Church discipline as a needless barrier to a more inclusive institution. 

Right now, the focus of attention is the Oct. 5-19 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, which has become a kind of Rorschach test for the culture’s evolving approach to family life and for how individual needs and desires should be accommodated by Church law.

Initially, media commentators suggested that Catholic teaching on contraception and same-sex “marriage” was on the table.

At present, the discussion has centered on the very real struggles of divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Sadly, the media hype is leading many Catholics to lose sight of the points of discussion listed in the working document on the synod: “Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World,” “The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges” and “An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing.”

“I don’t think you have to be brilliant to see that the media has, for months, been trying to hijack this synod,” observed Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura — the office which, among other things, handles annulment cases in the Church — in a Catholic News Agency interview.

The public battle to define the goals of the synod began earlier this year, when Cardinal Walter Kasper published the text of his speech to a consistory of bishops that signaled his desire to change Church discipline, possibly by dropping the entire annulment process. Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and other Curial officials responded by publishing a book reaffirming Church teaching on marriage.

Despite the very public disagreement between the cardinals now, the problem has long been a source of concern to the Holy See. In 2011, L’Osservatore Romano published part of a written reflection from Pope Benedict XVI, who noted the matrimonial problems of poorly catechized Catholics.

“Particularly painful is the situation of those who were married in [the] Church but were not really believers and did so because of tradition. Then, finding themselves in a new, invalid marriage, they convert, find the faith and feel excluded from the sacrament of the Eucharist,” stated Pope Benedict. He wrote that he had “invited various episcopal conferences and experts to study this problem.”

Yet Benedict has also taught that the Church cannot advance its mission by adopting the shifting fashions of Hollywood or The New York Times. Cardinals and their flocks must take the time to deepen their lives of prayer. Personal transformation and institutional reform will come when the Bride of Christ is close to the Bridegroom.

At the Mass before the 2005 conclave that would elect him pope, Benedict explained that an “adult faith is not a faith that follows the … latest novelty; a mature, adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false and deceit from truth.”

Pope Francis envisioned the synod as an opportunity for Church leaders and other invited participants to consider how the New Evangelization could transform family life and to address pastoral problems that need more attention.

However, the media spin and doctrinal debate that escalated in the weeks leading up to the synod underscore the immense challenge of transmitting the truth about marriage in a world that is losing its grip on a vital institution.

In late September, the Pew Center marked record levels of young Americans delaying marriage. Based on census data, researchers predicted, “When today’s young adults reach their mid-40s to mid-50s, a record-high share (25%) is likely to have never married.”

Marriage is losing ground as the culture is cut off from its moral underpinnings. And so many see vows of fidelity and permanence as a burden rather than an incalculable gift. St. John Paul II witnessed this, and he devoted a great portion of his papacy to marriage and the family (“A Letter to Families,” Familiaris Consortio, theology of the body).

Pope Benedict XVI taught that a family is strengthened when the parents agree “on principles of upbringing,” when they are “open to other families” and when they are “attentive toward the poor.”

Indeed, with this extraordinary synod, Pope Francis is affirming his predecessors’ contributions and bringing bishops and laymen and women (see interview with American participants on page 2) together with the goal of restoring a damaged and marginalized institution.

Echoing the words of St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, Cardinal Burke called on Catholics to guard the “splendor of truth of the Church’s teaching about marriage, which is foundational, for society and for the Church itself.”