There is worldwide interest in the Synod of Bishops taking place at the Vatican in Rome. News outlets seem rather obsessed with the issue of the admission to Holy Communion of the faithful who are civilly divorced and remarried without having first been declared free to remarry by Church authorities. The vexing principle at work is Jesus' clearly reported teaching on marriage and divorce in the Gospels. The Church's challenge is how to apply Jesus' teaching in the lives of the faithful. However the bishops in Synod are studying together the much bigger picture of the call and challenge of the family to follow Jesus and live and proclaim the Gospel with our lives in our world today.
For many the issue is about a claim to unrestricted freedom to engage in sex and cut loose from historic and cultural definitions and taboos to the point even of redefining marriage and family. I believe that the true issue at work here is not so much sex but rather the true nature of love. Jews and Christians believe there is only one God, the Creator, who revealed to his Chosen People something of his nature and of his purpose in creating us human beings. He loves his creation and He loves us and simultaneously offers us and expects of us a genuine and reciprocal relationship of authentic love, which manifests itself in a paramount desire for and dedication to the good of the other. God's good is to be known and loved widely as He is and our good as human beings is to live in harmony with God and with each other. This is the heart of the Jewish faith and their specific vocation is to give witness to God in the world.
Jesus fine tuned the understanding of this revelation in his person, teaching, and example to the point of laying down his life for the glory of God and for the salvation and sanctification of sinners. Jesus has given to all of humanity a clearer and more readily understandable teaching and example of authentic love, both divine love and human love. Authentic human love is a living and true reflection of divine love, a love which pours itself out, gives itself completely to the other, holding nothing back and yet losing nothing of itself in the giving. Actually, it is only in giving oneself wholeheartedly to the other that one attains the fullness of authentic love and in a true sense fully becomes a person. In contrast, it is in the self seeking, the obsessive grasping for one's own pleasure and satisfaction, that love is distorted and reduced to a destructive counterfeit that destroys life, people, families, and society itself and that a human being shrinks and shrivels as a person.
After listening to several reports on the Synod and interviews with several bishops and Pope Francis himself, it seems increasingly clear that no one at the Synod is showing any desire to change what God has revealed as this is transmitted in Church teaching or for that matter to compromise the Gospel. A primary factor at play is that the bishops under the influence and example of Pope Francis are becoming more aware and hence also more preoccupied that for quite some time the Church has in many places and at various times been more likely to wield the truth as a club rather than show compassion and pastoral concern for the state and suffering of the faithful. This is the kind of failure of authority to truly serve for which Jesus reproached the religious leaders of his day.
The focus then is not so much on dogma but rather on the attitude and behavior of pastors - bishops and priests - towards the faithful. What comes to mind is Jesus' reproach to the religious leaders of his day that they did not keep the law in their heart, and what is worse, they did not lift a finger to ease the burden they as religious leaders imposed so harshly on the faithful in all that had to do with the observance of religious laws. "You do not enter the kingdom yourself and also prevent others from doing so." They were not faithfully representing God to the people but were in effect only serving themselves. They did not love the faithful as God does.They were obsessed with external observance of religious law but not with the restoration of the people to an obedient and loving worship of God and service of the neighbor.
The principles at work in reviewing the Church's pastoral care of the faithful are several.
1. God alone is the judge. Jesus made it clear we have no right or authority to judge because we are incapable of acting out of both divine justice and divine mercy simultaneously. Moreover, only God knows truly the condition of souls and He alone is qualified to judge. He alone truly loves each soul and perfectly desires its good.
2. When Jesus gave authority to the Church to bind and to loose, He did so in order to extend and widen in time and space the exercise of divine mercy which He had inaugurated, not to restrict access to the blessings and new life of the kingdom. The binding is for dealing with sinners' unwillingness to turn away from sin and with hypocrisy and hardheartedness as when Jesus dealt with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes.
3. The bishops are considering how they and all the pastors of the Church are to exercise the pastoral ministry more faithfully to Jesus and his example. They desire as successors to the Apostles to remain faithful to the truth given to us in the person of Jesus and at the same time to the divine revelation contained in Jesus' person, teaching, and example. The Pope and the bishops are to help us learn and follow the ways of the Lord.
Reactions to the work of the Synod come from at least two extreme positions or views.
As the whole Church, all Christian churches and faithful, and people in the world at large observe the Synod fathers in their collective study and deliberation, there are people who are disturbed and react out of fear perhaps because they need the security of "black and white" answers. Not unlike the religious leaders in Jesus' day, such people try to find their security in setting themselves apart from all those whom they judge to be sinners or guilty of breaking some law. At the other end of the spectrum there are those who look for freedom from any law, from any restriction on their thought, speech, and behavior. They claim to love and to defend the truth, but they are not open to the whole truth, nor do they have any love, true love, for others.
Some of these people go so far as to qualify the RC Church as oppressive, not realizing that they misinterpret the Church's stance as some kind of fascism or dictatorship. Through the centuries the Church has always been composed of people of their own time. When society was such that authority was imposed by force, the Church tended to do likewise. The Spanish Inquisition was a reflection of medieval society in which the rule of law coincided with the rule of force, but today the Church has changed as has the society in which it is embedded. In our world today there are still societies that rely primarily on the rule of force but most western societies rely on responsibility and compliance from their citizens. Similarly, the RC Church no longer imposes or enforces its teaching by physical force or punishment. Even centuries ago when Church authorities did use the harsh methods of the times they were ostensibly seeking the good and eternal salvation of those souls, those people they deemed to be in error and in sin.
Currently, the bishops are remembering that the Church's only authority is that of Jesus in his person, his teaching, and his example to the point of laying down his life. They realize and remind us that our Church, in its ways and practices, comes from the historical process of its development. The laity, such as married couples and families, are witnessing that in many situations pastors treat them harshly rather than with the compassion and kindness with which Jesus treated people. There has been too much insistence on the law and too little on the patience and mercy of God. Church authorities have not only been teaching the truth but at times they have been employing ways of imposing the teaching on people to the point of dictating their behavior and applying punitive sanctions and social pressure. The bishops are trying to recover Jesus' approach, which in any age is a difficult challenge but possible with the help and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Not unlike today then, in Gospel times the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees were constantly trying to pin Jesus down to clear and unequivocal answers that would clearly condemn sinners and cast them out while establishing themselves as "the pure ones", but Jesus consistently resisted this approach and attitude, saying He came for mercy not sacrifice. Those Jesus called hypocrites live their lives on the basis of appearance whereas God looks at the heart, mind, and intentions of the soul.
Jesus was killed for his merciful attitude toward sinners, which threatened all those who sought their security in the letter of the law, and the more the bishops try to approach Jesus' own attitude and pastoral care today and at any time the more they too will be resisted, judged, and rejected. It remains an incredible challenge for pastors to care for souls, to receive them and guide them through the mercy of God, while at the same time striving to increase and perfect the formation of their conscience, to care for the truth while also loving the sinner.
The temptation is great to "take over" the sovereignty of the individual conscience and "dictate" to others their behavior, but that was not Jesus' way. He spoke the truth as clearly and eloquently as He could but left people free to govern themselves, knowing that God alone could judge rightly. When anyone came to Jesus with a request He responded to them, often granting their request, but also warned them to sin no more. We are frightened and severely challenged by the patience and respect God shows each person and expects us to show one another and we continue to seek our security in the letter of the law rather than in a true and living relationship with God.
Only the tyrant refuses to respect others, to grant others the right to make mistakes. It was only with the hardhearted, hypocritical, and tyrannical that Jesus took the tough approach. Our purpose in life is to walk towards the light and none of us accomplishes the journey overnight. If it took me thirty years to come to a point of true conversion, who am I to demand that others make that jump on demand? It is not my concern. Even then, I have not arrived once and for all in safe harbor and must continue to struggle for perfection to my final breath.
God is ever just but simultaneously merciful, kind, and patient. He suffers not the shepherds who lead the sheep astray by letting them do whatever they want without warning them of the dangers they face and ignore at their peril. Shepherds must constantly teach the truth and warn the faithful of the dangers of misusing God's many gifts to us and then in their dealings with the faithful they must present to them the kind, patient, and merciful face of God in Jesus. Not only shepherds but all of us believers must be ever vigilant to confess our own sins and failure to love truly, and only by daily confessing our own sinfulness can we avoid sitting in judgement on others. Those who taste the goodness of the mercy of God can in their turn be empowered by God to show mercy to others. Those who refuse mercy and the humility of self confession and seek to justify and rationalize living in sin are at risk to harden their hearts, which was the overriding condition of many if not most of the religious leaders in Jesus' day. Hardened hearts ever need to justify themselves at the expense of others by accusing others and finding fault in them.
Perhaps what contributes to the intensity of contemporary concern about our Church's approach to moral issues and pastoral care is the nature of our culture and society in this age of instant communication and social media. This setting may be abused by those who harbor a hypocritical attitude and seek to exploit the situation in order to justify themselves in their hardheartedness. I remember a class in high school religion when the teaching brother, Bro. French, was giving a class by having us read the text book out loud. The topic was human sexuality and the desirability of chastity. A student stopped reading and questioned the teaching and, finding the brother's responses unsatisfying, asked "But Brother, how far can we go?" This is an adolescent attitude focused solely on pursuing pleasure with no preoccupation whatsoever about true love. The selfish pleasure seeking attitude does not desire true good both for oneself and for the other, but shows total disregard for the will of God and God's intention in our regard. Rather than accept to allow God to lead us to true and complete happiness, we prefer to grasp for caricatures of happiness as the world promotes them.
It is the role of the Church to bring light to such consciences and to insist on the truth, all the while striving to allow Jesus as the Divine Mercy to continue to speak to souls today. Morality is a drama that plays itself out between the individual soul and its Creator, and we cannot avoid suffering the consequences of our collective choices and behaviors. We all share in the collective responsibility to serve the common good and our common need for order. The tension between individual freedom and the common good is a balancing act which requires ongoing discernment on the part of pastors and unrelenting patience, the patience of the loving parent who knows how to be firm with kindness.
That high school adolescent was a sort of Pharisee, an immature one, but a Pharisee nonetheless. Jesus did not hate them but loved them and the love they needed from Him was a firm hand and this is what Jesus showed them. He won some of them over but the others were not yet ready to welcome the light, but perhaps they would later.
Today, with the social media, people from differing points of view are quick to pounce on every word that comes out of the Synod, from the Pope or from bishops. The bishops need resolve and trust in God to be firm and resolute in attending to and following the guidance the Holy Spirit is giving them. They must continue to deepen their study of this complex situation of the Church as mother and shepherd as well as the condition of souls living in our time because we are all called to develop and deepen our humanity. The bishops and pastors are very much in need our prayers.