Letting Christ — Not Confusion — Reign
COMMENTARY: Evaluating the Synod by Pope Francis’ Own Evangelical Principles
On the middle Sunday of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization, every Catholic parish in the world providentially focused on Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus compared his kingdom to a banquet, for which he sent his servants to invite everyone, the good and the bad. But then the king entered the banquet hall, found someone not dressed in a wedding garment and had him bound and cast into the darkness outside (Matthew 22:1-14).
The parable summarizes the essential mission of the Church: We’re called to invite everyone to the feast, saints and sinners both. But we’re also called to help people get properly dressed for the kingdom.
In the ancient world, whenever kings would invite those who wouldn’t have proper vesture, they would also send out royal tailors to get them properly arrayed. To show up in unfit apparel, therefore, would not be a result of poverty, but of a choice not to change one’s clothes and wear the suitable garb provided.
That’s why the king’s response wasn’t unfair. He wasn’t cruelly banishing a guest for failing to meet an impossible standard, but, rather, for the stubborn refusal to take advantage of the gifts provided to meet that standard.
The evangelizing mission of the Church features not just the proclamation of the Gospel, but the path of sanctification. It involves welcoming everyone, but at the same time helping everyone to welcome God, his call to conversion and holiness and the means he provides to live up to that call.
The garment God has sent out his Church to provide is the white robe of baptism that every believer is given and instructed to keep unstained to eternal life. It’s an outfit washed in the blood of the Lamb and weaved with faith, hope, love, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, truth, justice and God’s word (Revelation 7:14; Colossians 3:12-14; Ephesians 6:11-17).
Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” The properly vested chosen few are not the lucky winners of a divine lottery, but those who have responded fully to God’s invitation by choosing to align their lives to the kingdom.
The Church exists to help people choose the God who has lovingly chosen them. Merely to welcome people without at the same time challenging and helping them to change their old clothes and ways for the new robes would be to akin to inviting people to come to the banquet in dirty rags. Such wouldn’t be an act of true mercy, but one of pastoral malpractice, with eschatological consequences.
Yet that partial invitation is what I’m concerned many people heard coming from the synod, especially on the basis of the publication of its sensationally covered draft interim report (relatio post disceptationem).
The report passionately reached out to those who are divorced and remarried, in non-sacramental civil marriages, cohabitating, using contraception or involved in same-sex relationships and reminded them, in case they had any doubt, that the doors of the Church are open and that the Church wishes to accompany them in faith and charity.
At the same time, however, there was confusion, because the document and its coverage left the impression that those in these circumstances were not at the same time being called to change; rather, the Church, it seemed, was being called to convert with regard to them.
The document declared that the Church needed to recognize the “positive elements” in “imperfect forms” (18), the “seeds of the word” (20) and the “authentic family values, or at least the wish for them,” (38) present in their circumstances. It even challenged Church communities to accept and value not those with same-sex attractions but the same-sex orientation itself (50).
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many media outlets found in the document a rupture with the previous magisterium, not just in tone, but in substance. There was no indication at all that the Church still deemed any such conduct sinful.
The whole discussion gave the impression that the "sexual revolution" was triumphing over Revelation and that many of the Church’s teachings with regard to marriage and sexuality had a 2014 expiration date.
The vigorous debate that ensued afterward inside and outside the synod also came at a serious cost: If bishops and cardinals cannot agree on Church teaching and practice with regard to today’s hot-button issues, how, it was asked, can the faithful be expected to know the truth about things and live it with confidence?
The chaotic synod was not an effective expression of the missionary metamorphosis of the Church that Pope Francis has been summoning since the beginning of his papacy.
Pope Francis has called us to focus on the kerygma rather than the “secondary aspects of our faith,” lest the Church’s message seem identified with those subordinate teachings that “do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message” (Evangelii Gaudium, 34). Yet the interim report stressed not the kergymatic message that Jesus loves, gave his life to save us and is now living at our side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free us (Evangelii Gaudium, 164) — especially through accompanying us in sacramental marriages — but precisely those secondary issues about which Pope Francis has said we shouldn’t seem obsessed.
The Holy Father has said the Church’s evangelizing mission needs to imitate Jesus’ methodology in Emmaus, as he entered into the disciples’ conversation walking away from Jerusalem into the darkness. Jesus responded to them with the light of the faith, with the Law and the prophets, with a heart on fire that could warm their hearts and lead them, eventually, to run back to Jerusalem and the faith it symbolizes.
The document entered into modern conversations, but without much of the light of Scripture or of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church through centuries — and without the merciful warmth Jesus himself showed in not condemning the adulterous woman, but also calling her to go and sin no more (John 8:11).
Pope Francis has called the Church a field hospital in battle and has summoned us to go heal wounds. Many of the deepest wounds in families, marriages and individuals today, however, have come from living according to the lies of the sexual revolution. The document, however, didn’t address directly the spiritual carcinogens that are causing so many of the wounds. How can patients with wounds get better without addressing the cause of their lesions?
Finally, Pope Francis has called us to take risks, to be willing to make a mess and get a little dirty in bringing the Gospel to the crossroads and peripheries. But that work implies also taking the bold pastoral risk of challenging people to make the return journey, accompanying them from disorder to order, from darkness to light, from wounds to health, from sin to sanctity and from the streets to the banquet of the kingdom.
That mystagogical exodus or synod — Greek for “walking together” — on which the Church is summoning the people and families of the world will happen more effectively not in an atmosphere of chaos and confusion like the last two weeks, but in Mosaic and Christlike clarity.
As the synod moves on to its next phase, let’s pray that our shepherds will lead us with a clearer trumpet (1 Corinthians 14:8) to counter the offenses of the sexual revolution with the full splendor of the gospel of the family.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts,
and is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.
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