We are on the eve of the Synod on marriage and the family, so I asked contributors to Second Sight Blog to comment on the issues listed in the Instrumentum Laboris – the initial working paper. Many comments were received, and discussion continues. I proposed that we should consider what we expect, hope or fear from this Synod. We know that it has already broken new ground through wide consultation – which has included the laity. Despite the amateur questionnaire, it does seem to have reflected correctly substantial gaps between the Magisterium and the body of the Church.
Synods arising from Vatican II have in the past been very much under the control of the Curia. Both the agenda and the final outcomes often appear to have been master-minded. It has even been suggested that they were a pretence of collegiality. However the advent of Pope Francis may well make a difference this time.
Will we see the bishops in open robust exchanges, and – even more importantly – will it be they who decide the outcomes (in communion with the Pope) or the Curia? It will be a real test of collegiality, otherwise we might as well drop the whole idea. And will we receive a reliable account of the discussions? Or perhaps nothing more than the eventual publication of some kind of carefully drafted official document?
Many will remember how, at Vatican II, draft documents drawn up by the Curia were simply rejected by the bishops; they preferred to produce their own. It was a true exercise of collegiality. But in the end it failed: the concept of a college of bishops, in communion with Peter, leading the Church has not become a reality. Ironically this is most clearly seen in that swift emasculation of the very episcopal synods which were to be the instrument of collegiality. We may hope that we will see, by contrast, the coming Synod as an occasion for straight talking, and for a readiness for serious debate.
Contributors to the Blog have noted over the years a lack of active episcopal support for the Church’s position on contraception, and one of them has listed the names of the bishops who supported the rejected verdict of the Papal Commission. It will be important for the bishops to express without fear or favour their real attitudes on this question.
So far the signs indicate that there will be no substantive change in moral doctrine. But there may well be changes in pastoral practice. One of these could be a re-emphasis on the sovereignty of conscience, both its extents and its limits. It is about time for this Vatican II teaching to become a reality in pastoral practice and in general Catholic understanding.
The preparatory document speaks of confusion around the concept of Natural Law, and suggests that much may be done by explaining it in terms so simple that all of us will understand (and so presumably accept) its conclusions. But it is not a difficult concept: every entity from a washing machine to a human being has a nature, and that nature must be respected if the entity is to flourish and achieve its designer’s ends. The problem lies in identifying the detailed characteristics of that nature and correctly deducing its imperatives.
It is possible that the bishops may acknowledge that the Church herself has misunderstood an important aspect of Natural Law. As we learn more and more about the nature of human beings, both physical and psychological, we must accept that the imperatives we recognise will modify in harmony with our fuller understanding. If this were not so we would still, for instance, regard kidney donation as mutilation and natural family planning as inherently sinful. And since we have learned that our physical nature was not created directly but through evolution we have another, as yet untapped, source of understanding of what God’ teaches us through his creation.
The document rightly notes that much needs to be done to promote our openness to life. It is ironic that some European countries with an historical Catholic tradition have lower fertility rates than secular Britain and materialist United States. Is there a lesson here? However we need to be clear that openness to life does not necessarily mean the more the merrier. We all need to work towards a fertility rate which ensures a sustainable increase in population. – but no more. My recommendation is that every marriage should aim for three children. Allowing for the unmarried and the infertile, this should ensure a gradually growing population. But it should be accepted that openness to life itself cannot be simply judged by the means used to plan a family. It may even be that, in some cases, the concentration on natural methods becomes in itself an unhealthy preoccupation with avoiding new life.
The issue of those in second marriages being allowed to receive communion was clearly an important one to Blog contributors. There was no overall verdict but a strong case was made that it should be permitted in suitable cases, provided that the indissolubility of marriage is emphatically preserved. And the same might be said for the streamlining of nullity cases: it must never become a form of Catholic divorce.
So we look forward with cautious optimism to the Synod, bearing in mind that it is only the first stage of a longer process. It will of course continue at the Ordinary General Assembly in October 2015. And there will be much discussion in between.