Battles in the Church and How You Can Help


Russian icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea
Russian icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The family today is in crisis. There is a failure of couples to get married (cohabitation), a failure to have children (contraceptive mentality), a failure to stay married (divorce) and a failure to even understand what marriage is — as the debate over “gay marriage” illustrates.

What’s worse, these are only a few of the crises facing marriage.

Among other threats, there is an alarming number of invalid marriages, including those that result from Catholics contracting a merely civil marriage — either the first time they marry or when they want to remarry without an annulment.

And these are just the direct threats. Then there are all the other ones: poverty, drug-and-alcohol abuse, poor secular and religious education, and the list goes on.

It’s no wonder that Pope Francis called for an extraordinary synod of bishops on the theme of the family.

Pope St. John Paul II, similarly, devoted his first general meeting of the Synod of Bishops to the Christian family.

Both popes perceived that, in today’s world, the family can use all the help it can get — but there are differences between the situation at John Paul II’s 1980 synod and Pope Francis.’


The Internet

A major difference is the presence of the Internet. We’re getting a much closer look than ever before at a synod dealing with hot-button issues.

As a result, many faithful Catholics have been troubled by what they’re learning. Even though we don’t have an ecclesiastical equivalent of C-SPAN, offering real-time footage of what’s happening on the synod floor, we are getting daily summaries from the Vatican Press Office.

Those are supplemented by media interviews with cardinals and other synod fathers, some of whom are openly jousting with each other in the public square.

All of this is then dissected and commented on in detail by the blogosphere, and attentive Catholics are getting a strong sense of the kind of battles going on at the event.

This is not to say that such battles are unprecedented or even uncommon. Indeed, they’re not.


1980 All Over Again?

Although it wasn’t covered as intensively as what we’re experiencing now, the 1980 synod on the Christian family has notable similarities with today’s.

One of them is a battle over the “law of gradualness.” This is a principle in moral and pastoral theology that says Christians should be encouraged to grow spiritually in a step-by-step manner rather than being expected to leap from initial conversion to perfection all in one step.

In itself, the law of gradualness reflects a profound spiritual truth: We are scarcely perfect after our initial conversion, and, thus, St. Paul spoke of giving some of his readers milk rather than solid food because they were “infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

At the 1980 synod, some of the fathers attempted to apply the law of gradualness to the situation of married couples using contraception, suggesting that they could continue receiving absolution and holy Communion as long as they had the intent to gradually conform their lives to God’s law regarding contraception.

John Paul II rejected this view when he gave a homily at the synod and stated, “What is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations.”

Contraception is not the hot-button issue today that it was in 1980 (a mere 12 years after Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae was released).

Instead, the issue of absolution and holy Communion for those who have divorced and civilly remarried has come front and center, and so we again have an attempt to use the law of gradualness to justify giving the sacraments to those who have invalid marriages.


Not the First Time

The 1980 synod was not the first time in Church history that there were sharp divisions among the Church’s leaders on matters of importance.

Indeed, that’s something of the norm. Father Robert Barron recently invited his readers to “simply look at the accounts of the deliberations of the major councils of the Church, beginning with the so-called Council of Jerusalem in the first century right through to the Second Vatican Council of the 20th century. In every such gathering, argument was front and center, and consensus evolved only after lengthy and often acrimonious debate among the interested parties.”

“Read John Henry Newman’s colorful history of the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century,” he suggested, “and you’ll find stories of riots in the streets and the mutual pulling of beards among the disputants. Or pick up Yves Congar’s very entertaining diary of his years at Vatican II, and you’ll learn of his own withering critiques of the interventions of prominent cardinals and rival theologians. Or peruse John O’Malley’s history of the Council of Trent, and you’ll see that early draft statements on the key doctrines of original sin and justification were presented, debated and dismissed — long before final versions were approved.”


Don’t Panic!

Though we are getting an unusually intense look at the kind of conflicts that go on at such events, this is not a reason to panic.

We are simply getting a closer-than-usual experience of a common historical process — in fact, it’s part of the process by which the Holy Spirit guides the Church “into all the truth” (John 16:13).

That’s actually a sign of hope: God guided the Church through the previous conflicts, and he can bring us through this one as well.

But that doesn’t mean we should be unconcerned or passive.

Of course, we can and should pray, but there is more that we can do.


How You Can Help

While the Church’s leaders receive God’s guidance in a special way, they can make mistakes — even serious ones.

For that reason, the Code of Canon Law provides that “the Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.”

It goes on to provide that, “according to the knowledge, competence and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors” (Canon 212 §2-3).


And So ... It Begins

With the conclusion of the 2014 Synod of Bishops, we begin a yearlong period of discussion and reflection that will lead up to the 2015 synod on the same topic.

There, cardinals and bishops from all over the world will gather to discuss and consolidate the results of that conversation.

Afterward, they will make their recommendations to Pope Francis, who must make the final determinations on what, if any, changes are to be made to the Church’s practice.

So now is your chance: If you want to help Pope Francis hear the voice of the faithful on these matters, then exercise your canonical right to do so.

“With reverence toward ... pastors,” reflect on the situation, listen attentively, pray and then calmly and serenely make your views known, particularly to your own bishop.

Jimmy Akin, a Register columnist and blogger, is senior apologist at Catholic Answers.