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Cardinal Pell reiterates that “doctrine cannot be touched”: Letters from the Synod

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Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, leaves the morning session of Synod 2014. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring
Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy, leaves the morning session of Synod 2014. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

Letters from the Synod: Volume 14 – 15 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and elsewhere, on the XIV Ordinary General assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II

…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

Doubts About Devolution – III

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Catholics of the Second Class?

The “universal call to holiness” identified and explained in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, is widely celebrated as one of Vatican II’s most compelling ideas. It’s also one of the building-blocks of what Pope St John Paul II called the “New Evangelisation:” the Catholic Church’s rediscovery of herself as a community of “missionary disciples” (in Pope Francis’ happy term).

Thus it comes as a surprise, indeed something more disturbing and unpleasant than a surprise, that some Synod fathers are pressing the question of whether the universal call to holiness is, in fact, universal.

The question isn’t put quite like that, of course. But it’s not easy to interpret in any other way the claim by some members of Synod 2015 that the Church’s teaching on chastity, marriage, and the family is simply too difficult to live out, and therefore some Catholics – perhaps many Catholics – should be exempt for it (and thereby exempt from the universal call to holiness). Those given this pass by their local bishops may, it seems live with the Church’s tacit blessing in relationships long considered obstacles to moral and spiritual health. The exempt may receive the sacraments without being fully in communion with the Church in their manner of life. They may continue for an indeterminate period of time in what amounts to a kind of de facto personal schism that effectively detaches them from the global communion of Catholicism. They may, in sum, live as if the universal call to holiness were not universal, but something for the saints alone.

There are at least two serious problems here.

First of all, sanctity, as Vatican II insisted, is for everyone. Why? Because it’s only by becoming, with the help of God’s mercy and grace, the saints we were baptised to be that we fulfill our Christian and human destiny. This coming Sunday, Pope Francis will canonise Blessed Louis and Blessed Zélie Martin, the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux – living proof that sanctity in marriage is possible in modernity. Doesn’t their example apply to all? Don’t those who offer an exemption from the universal call to holiness understand that the Church canonises saints, not for their sake – God bountifully takes care of his holy ones – but for our sake: that we might see, in this case in our own times, the nobility of which men and women are capable, if we cooperate with the divine pedagogy inscribed in the world and in us?

The second problem is that deconstructing the universal call to holiness into a call issued only to the few creates an entire, vast class of Second Class Catholics: people whose leaders think them incapable of greatness and immune to the attraction of heroic sanctity; people who thereby come to think of themselves that way. Is that the way of “pastoral accompaniment?” Is that any way to be the “Church permanently in mission” for which the Holy Father insistently calls – by telling people they’re just not good enough? It seems a most unlikely evangelical program.

We are all sinners who live by grace and mercy alone. But it is precisely as sinners that we know the power of witness as an incentive to deeper conversion. And that witness often comes from surprising people and venues (a carpenter’s son in the backwaters of Galilee; a bourgeois family in a small town in Normandy). Devolving the authority to give exemptions to the universal call to holiness to local churches whose leaders seem to have lost confidence in the power of the Gospel and the power of Gospel witnesses is not, it seems to me (and I suspect to many others), something that Synod 2015 should endorse.

George Weigel
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Centre


Missing Pieces

 The following essay was written for Letters from the Synod by Theresa Farnan, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Mary Rice Hasson, director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. It should be of special interest to the commission drafting Synod 2015’s proposed final report.

The ambiguities of the Synod’s working document, the Instrumentum Laboris, have been criticised for undermining Church teachings on marriage, sexuality, and conscience. But the Instrumentum also suffers troubling conceptual problems that go to the heart of the Synod’s mission.

Notably, the Instrumentum fails to anchor its observations in a clear statement of what the family is, its purpose and its relationship to society, state, and the Church. And despite all the “listening” done in the lead-up to Synod 2015, the  Instrumentum offers a woefully inadequate diagnosis of the most serious issues families face.

These are not trivial deficiencies.

A document that glosses over the fundamental points about the family’s purpose and mission seems unlikely to help families rediscover the meaning of their vocation and the gift of family life. And if the Instrumentum can’t identify the origin of the problems threatening the family, how can it generate coherent solutions for those problems?

The reflections offered here address some of these conceptual issues. (CCC refers to the Catechism of the Catholic Church; Instrumentum sections are numbered.)

What is a family?

Western society increasingly claims the right to redefine the family, and demands that developing nations follow suit. In response, Pope Francis insists that “family” is an “anthropological fact”, not an ideological concept subject to change. But the definition of a family (“A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family”, CCC 2202) is inexplicably missing from the Instrumentum Laboris.

Without that firm foundation, the Instrumentum drifts at times into language that describes the family as a set of relationships intentionally established, a notion fundamental to arguments supporting same-sex relationships and families “built” through surrogacy and assisted reproduction. The Instrumentum refers to families as “different persons” who “share life together”. It states that, “In the relations in a family – marital, filial, and fraternal – all family members willingly establish strong ties….” (11), thereby playing into the notion that “family” is a willed arrangement arising from an intentional choice about whom you wish to love, with no necessary connection to the fundamental mother-father-child relationship.

The Instrumentum also refers variously to “the procreative act” (45) and “the act of generation” (137), as if distinguishing when intercourse is open to life. Given that the Instrumentum also refers to the unitive and procreative character of marriage (45), and hints that the objective moral norm regarding openness to life might be an insupportable burden (137), it lends support to those who argue that openness to life need only characterise the overall tenor of the marriage, not every act of sexual intercourse. By implying that sexual intercourse is only intentionally, not intrinsically, related to procreation, and using language that minimises biological ties, the Instrumentum further confuses the idea of “family”.

What is the family’s purpose?

Marriage and the family are ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children (CCC 2201). But the Instrumentum Laboris only superficially addresses the family’s right and duty to educate its children, and thus misses an area of current vulnerability and future strength.

The Instrumentum acknowledges that Christian families have a duty to pass on the faith to their children (146), and observes the “progressive weakening in the role of parents in upbringing” because of the media’s influence and parents’ “tendency to delegate this task to other entities”. (144). It admits too that many institutions promote conceptions of the family radically at odds with Christian anthropology (91) and asserts that the Church must “support families in their vigilant and responsible supervision in a school’s academic and formative programs”.

But these references underplay the sweep of the problem confronting families every day: because of de-Christianisation in the West and “ideological colonisation” in the developing world, state-backed schools all over the globe have become ideological delivery-systems, demeaning or marginalising faith while promoting practical atheism, gender theory, youth “sexual rights”, and same-sex “marriage” in opposition to parents’ values.

The Instrumentum is oddly silent about an obvious solution: Catholic education. It fails to emphasise the vital importance of Catholic education – as an evangelistic opportunity and a cultural antidote – and the urgency of finding ways to make Catholic education widely available and affordable. Instead, the Instrumentum’s weak response to the challenges of raising children in a hostile culture relies on “welcoming communities”, nebulous “support”, and indeterminate “personalised pastoral programs” (145). It notes the right of educators (distinct from parents) to “conscientious objection” to erroneous formation programs (86) but offers nothing helpful to parents who send their children to school to gain an education, only to see them return having lost their faith.

Similarly dismaying is the Instrumentum’s surrender to the cult of experts. Despite the Church’s long-standing insistence that families have the responsibility to oversee their children’s education in chastity and sexuality, the Instrumentum states that “the family, while maintaining its privileged spot in education, cannot be the only place for teaching sexuality”. It calls for “devising… true and proper programs” for individuals and couples, with “special attention” to adolescents “so they can discover the beauty of sexuality in love” (86). Unlike the Pontifical Council for the Family’s document, Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, which urged parents to reclaim their responsibility for teaching their children about human sexuality and overseeing programs that assist in chastity formation (Truth and Meaning 24, 25), the Instrumentum seems unconvinced that parents can take the lead in teaching the “beauty of sexuality in love”.  Certainly the Church can assist parents with the theology or even the biology of human sexuality. But mothers and fathers teach children to integrate sacrifice, responsibility, and love in ways that cannot be matched by programs or experts. And they need the Church’s encouragement to do so.

The relationship between family and society

Divinely instituted, the family has logical, historical, and ontological priority to the state and other institutions, including those set up by the Church. Thus, state, social, or educational institutions exist in supportive relationship to the family – to assist when the family cannot care for its members and to support the mission of the family (CCC 2201-2203, 2209).

Astonishingly, the Instrumentum Laboris proposes the opposite, characterising the family as existing in a compensatory relationship to society: “the family’s great strength, in itself, [is] in being able to compensate for the inadequacy and inaction of institutions with respect to the formation of the person, the quality of social ties and the care of the most vulnerable” (10). This is exactly backwards. The Instrumentum underestimates the strength of ordinary families, suggesting that institutions are better suited to providing formation and care, with families as a fallback. This approach subordinates the family to state or societal institutions. And it breeds pessimism and saps the confidence of families, sending the message that families will thrive only if propped up by programs, experts, and the state.

Similarly, the Instrumentum’s lack of clarity about the nature, purpose and priority of the family creates a dismal picture of families bent and burdened by life. It fails to distinguish between the challenges intrinsic to family life and the freight added by culture, sin, and circumstance. Thus, the Instrumentum treats age-old human trials – widowhood, disability, migration, poverty, loneliness, and unemployment – as if they were something new. And yet it fails to deeply consider the global cultural tsunami – roiling waters of individualism, secularism, and moral relativism – threatening families everywhere. Family life is foundering in those waters, as de-Christianised societies promote a false anthropology and preach a hedonistic gospel. The resulting culture of practical atheism views the demands of family life as limitations on freedom, rather than as means to realise it.

In addition to the cultural challenges, families experience other burdens – constraints on religious liberty, unjust economic policies, and “ideological colonisation’” – external to the nature of the family. But family members themselves often burden family life by making sinful choices, such as adultery, abandonment, divorce, polygamy, pornography, domestic violence, and substance abuse. These burdens result from personal sin; they are not part and parcel of the vocation of the family, nor are they evidence of “the family’s weakening and fragile character”(10).

Other challenges do arise from the mission and vocation of the family. By facing these challenges, however, the family grows stronger, not weaker. Unfortunately, the Instrumentum frames the normal challenges of life lived in relationship with others as burdens. When families lovingly accept of the gift of children, resolutely care for disabled or elderly family members, and persevere in faith through the pain of loss, suffering, and hardship, they emerge stronger–and encourage others by their witness.  On their own, humans fall short of the sacrificial love required to respond to the challenges inherent in family life. But the Christian family, sanctified by grace, can indeed see each family member as a gift to be cherished and nurtured, even in difficult situations.

Unfortunately, the Instrumentum at times loses sight of this truth. For example, large families – those with an “unusually high number of children” (93) – are mentioned only once and in a negative context, as a risk factor for poverty (ibid.). Is “responsible parenthood” reducible to a number count? What is the baseline “normal?” The replacement level of 2.1? What counts as an “unusually high number?” Three? Seven?  Ten? Absent from the Instrumentum is the language of Humanae Vitae, which praises the generosity of large families, of parents who give their children the priceless gift of siblings.

Nowhere is the Instrumentum’s confusion about the nature of the family more apparent than in the section on disability (21-23), where the Instrumentum asserts that “the conception of the family and its life cycle are deeply disturbed” by disability (21). Quite the opposite – the “conception of the family” is confirmed by disability. All families at some time include persons who are vulnerable and utterly dependent, people with disabilities of illness, age, injury, or congenital defects. Caring for vulnerable family members is precisely what families do best; this is where the beauty of the family shines through. Programs, institutions and experts cannot match the ability of the family to affirm the irreplaceability and dignity of the person even in the face of great challenges; in this lies the greatness and necessity of the family.

The burdens and challenges that families face are indeed serious. But they are best solved by a Church, and a culture, that affirms and supports marriage, insists on the priority of the family, and understands the necessity of faithful, indissoluble marriage between one man and one woman to safeguard the rights of children and the vulnerable. The Instrumentum makes the Church seem more like an anxious, indulgent parent who, afraid that her children cannot measure up to the demands of sacrificial love, asks less of them. The Synod fathers must send a more hopeful message: the family itself is a gift to humanity, and the ordinary work of the family, sanctified by grace, nourished by the sacraments, and strengthened by the teachings of the Church will bring healing to this broken world.


…for the Synod and the Church to hear

Thomas J. Olmsted (b. 1947) has been Bishop of Phoenix since 2003, having previously served as Bishop of Wichita. Born in Kansas, he grew up on a farm and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse and a rural high school before entering the seminary. Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, he served in local parishes before undertaking doctoral studies in canon law in Rome; there, he earned  his J.C.D. summa cum laude and later worked in the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, while acting as an adjunct spiritual director at the Pontifical North American College. On return to the United States, he served as dean of formation and later rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum before his episcopal ordination in 1999.

Bishop Olmsted’s answers to question posed by Letters from the Synod follow.

How does the contemporary crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family present itself in your ministry in Phoenix? What are the “signs of the times” there?

Here in Phoenix, we see a host of indicators of the crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family. Here are a few:

First, there has been a dramatic fall in number of sacramental marriages.  In 1993, we had more than 1,500 marriages in our diocese; by 2007, that number dropped to just over 1,200.  Phoenix was one of the two fastest-growing cities in the United States during those years (this fast rate continues). Despite this rapid growth of population, the drop in sacramental marriages still happened.  It indicates a dramatic loss of Catholic identity, a failure of the Church and of parents to pass our Catholic faith along to the next generation with a depth and conviction that could resist the prevailing secularism that surrounds young persons. The assumption that young people will simply follow a pattern of coming to the Church for marriage has been dramatically proven false.

Second, Phoenix is now a large host city for immigrants from many parts of the world, especially Mexico, Central and South America. At our Hispanic parishes and in parishes with other ethnic groups, the cultural practice of having children before marriage is stubbornly in place. As a result, we see far more convalidations than engagements and courtship, if people come to the Church at all for marriage. This indicates, again, a disconnect that has grown between the Church and the everyday life of our people.

Third, the contraceptive mentality, encouraged even further by the recent HHS mandate which lifts contraception up to the status of primary healthcare for women, remains a significant threat to relationship development and family life.  The structures in place for public education and medical training warp the understanding of sexuality and orient people away from openness to life; thus they put young people on a path toward promiscuity that is damaging to their present happiness and to future vocational hopes and a true readiness for marriage.

What pastoral initiatives have you found most successful in addressing this crisis?

When it comes to marriage and family, we have seen evangelisation prove effective through a renewed and robust marriage preparation process.  We call it Covenant of Love.  In this process, which is nine months in length, couples are required to take three courses, including a one-day course on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and a series of Natural Family Planning courses.  Since this change in 2010, we are seeing couples make important decisions to abstain from sexual activity before marriage and also begin to pray together as a couple.  The requirement of Natural Family Planning caused worries at first that the process would become too burdensome.  But we have seen the opposite effect.  The steady drop in sacramental marriages has stopped, and this year of 2015 we have seen our first growth in the number of couples coming for marriage preparation, a growth of about 15%.

Developing a large group of enthusiastic Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning instructing couples and medical professionals in both English and Spanish has proven to be a great deal of work, but entirely possible with persevering prayer and effort.  Many of these instructing couples have large families themselves and are beautiful role models of generosity and trust in God. We are forming more than one thousand couples per year in these areas and they are responding with gratitude and enlivened faith in many cases.  It bodes well for the future in Phoenix.

The laity in our diocese, seeing that beginning earlier than the official marriage preparation is ideal, have developed on their own initiative excellent father/son and mother/daughter formation weekends that assist parents in initiating and completing the conversation on sexuality with their children.  For high school students, our NFP Office has developed the Catholic Academy of Life Leadership, which forms students over three years in understanding Theology of the Body, male/female complementarity at the biological and relational levels, and a strong formation in Catholic teaching on bioethics, before they head to college.  Our grade schools and high schools, which educate about 1/3 of the students we see come back to marriage prep, are strengthening their educational mission in these areas of chastity, marriage and respect for life as well.

Finally, men’s and women’s conferences which have developed and grown here in Phoenix, especially over the past ten years, have been powerful moments of evangelisation for many who come without a strong connection to the Church.

The Holy Spirit is helping us to build, step by step, a stronger culture within the Church in Phoenix for marriage and family life.

How could Synod 2015 best help you in your ministry?

The Synod on the Family in 2015 could best help me and all of our clergy, lay faithful educators, parents, and young people here in Phoenix by speaking clearly and enthusiastically regarding Church teaching on marriage and the family.  This teaching is not something we should be embarrassed or apologetic about.  In fact, taught in its full beauty, this teaching is one of the best gifts we have to offer at this historic moment.  Couples, once they are well informed and then challenged to live the true, good and beautiful, will respond.

It would be helpful if the Synod addressed the distortion and confusion about femininity and masculinity that has become widespread in the America today. Along with this, I would welcome a clear call in the language of our Catholic faith for men and women to find in Jesus their identity and their mission, not being afraid to take up the cross each day and follow after Him. The joy of the Gospel is intended for all, and it comes by way of Christ’s triumphant cross.


…being other items of interest 

The Church as Mother and Teacher

This is the full version of an intervention delivered in briefer form to the general assembly of the Synod of Bishops on 14 October 14 Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy of the Holy See. XR2

 Paragraph 69 [of the Instrumentum Laboris] speaks of the Church as a tender mother and a clear teacher.

Every mother loves her children and feels their suffering.  If we cannot feel the suffering of others, our hearts are dead or dying.  But a good mother does not give her unhappy or wayward children everything they think they need; and she works to prevent her other, healthy children from repeating the mistakes of the wounded. Too much sugar is bad for the health.

We bishops are gathered as successors of the apostles; as priests, prophets, and leaders to lead in prayer and worship; to teach, warn, and rule in service.  While we teach with and under the successor of Peter, we are not delegates of the Pope – hence the Holy Father’s encouragement of open discussion.

We are wounded healers, but we also practice preventive medicine and strive to preserve ourselves and our people in holiness, in spiritual health.  We are interpreters of the great mystery of God’s love and forgiveness, and our first episcopal task as teaching bishops is not to be theologians, but to teach, explain, and defend the apostolic tradition of faith and morals.  Young adults need to be shown that our defense of lifelong marriage is sincere and serious.

We stand under the Word of God as its servants and protectors.  As Cardinal Erdő pointed out so well [in his introductory address on the first working day of the Synod], we have no power to change the central teachings of the New Testament or the essential teachings of popes and councils.  We are not like Moses, and while we are the successors of the apostles, we are not their equals.  We can contribute to the genuine development of doctrine, as we read in Vincent of Lerins recently in the prayer of the Church.  But we have no power to change or diminish the Word of God, much less to refashion it according to prevailing insights, or relativise the objective truths of Catholic faith and morals as passing expressions in some Hegelian flux.

Too many have lost confidence in Jesus’ doctrines and doubt or deny that mercy is found in his hard moral teachings.  The crucified Jesus was not afraid to confront society, and he was crucified for his pains, teaching his followers that life is a moral struggle that requires sacrifices, and his followers cannot always take the easy options.  He did not tell the adulterous woman to continue in her good work, but to repent and sin no more.  The prodigal son acknowledged his sins before he returned home.

While we have many theologians, we have one faith and one set of official doctrine.  We have seven sacraments but many different devotions and paraliturgies.  The Ten Commandments are not like an examination where only six out of 10 need to be attempted.  The prohibition of adultery still continues today, although less drastically protected than it was in the first centuries when. like murder and idolatry, it often meant exclusion from the worshipping community.

Groups of bishops do have the authority to teach, explain, and even develop doctrine; but not even a council with and under a pope can change essential Catholic moral teachings sanctioned by Scripture and the Magisterium.  It is for reasons such as these that the Holy Father has said that “doctrine cannot be touched”.

Catholic unity around the apostolic tradition of faith and morals is a mystery and a blessing, to be valued and defended by prayer, teaching, and sacramental discipline.  In this way God’s unfathomable and infinite mercy will continue to be available to believers.


Healing Cultures Corrupted by Fear

An abbreviated form of the following intervention was given in the Synod general assembly earlier this week by Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Eparchy of St Volodymyr in Paris, which serves Byzantine Ukrainians in France, Benelux, and Switzerland. Bishops Gudziak’s description of the particular challenges facing marriage and the family in post-communist and communist societies was a gentle but important corrective to what some perceived as the (western)Eurocentrism of the Synod’s working document, and a call for pastoral solidarity across the old Cold War battle lines. XR2

 Allow me to bring to your attention a challenge hardly recognised in the international discussion about family. This challenge is like radiation. It has no smell, no taste; it cannot be measured or counted. Yet it mutates our spiritual chromosomes and affects close to two billion persons who are the victims or heirs of modern totalitarianism, from Albania and Estonia to China and Vietnam. This challenge is the undermining of trust caused by fear.  It is a broad, social, post-traumatic shock.

If you live in fear you cannot love. You cannot have good families if people cannot trust each other. Created in the image and likeness of a Triune personal God, we are created to be in personal relationships modeled on the Holy Trinity, in which openness to the other – mutual  trust, willingness to be vulnerable and committed to self-sacrifice – is a pre-condition.

Let us start with the Word of God, the point of departure for our existence, our life, our salvation. The Biblical understanding of “trust” is for us a guide, an inspiration. In both the Old and New Testament, faith and trust are deeply connected. Trust is an essential part of the definition of faith. In Hebrew the word “faith” (אֱמוּנָה emunah) has the same root as the word “Amen” (by which we say “yes” to God) and means faithfulness, firmness, steadfastness, trustworthiness, fidelity in relationship to a person. It is not an abstract belief. It is relationship. The New Testament Greek word ἡ πίστις (pistis) means faith, belief, trust, confidence; fidelity, faithfulness. This word is used to refer to the faithfulness of Jesus to the Father, even unto death on the Cross.

Faith based on trust is the foundation of the life of the Church and the life of the family. We need to trust each other in the Church, in the family, and also in this Synod.

Nations and cultures that endured or endure totalitarianism, particularly Soviet-style communism, carry particular anthropological scars. Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, Kazakhs, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Balts, Central European Slavs, East Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Moldovans, Albanians, Chinese, Cubans, Vietnamese, North Koreans – in their country and in their emigré communities – were or still are ruled by a system of violence and fear and are handicapped by it, and are sometimes even crippled by this reflexive fear.

Totalitarian regimes systematically terrorised their populations, driving them into submission and seeking to establish maximum, if not total, control over actions, words, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. Thoroughly invasive methodologies were used to undermine the spiritual foundations and social fabric of societies. The security services systematically engaged in moral blackmail. Using detailed, intimate personal information collected by surveillance and through denunciations made by secret collaborators, the security services held hostage as many citizens as possible directly. Indirectly, they held hostage all of their respective societies and virtually every person. At the heart of the effort was a basic undermining of interpersonal trust, the cement of all human relations, including family relations. If trust is destroyed, the person becomes disconnected, isolated, incapable of engagement and lasting commitment, and, most importantly for the system, becomes more easily manipulated.

In the past century, through war, genocides, exiles, executions, famines etc., totalitarian regimes killed approximately 150 million people, driving fear deep into the DNA of surviving and descendant populations. Hiding behind masks and facades, disengaging, and suspecting the other became a natural reflex of self- preservation. The longer the totalitarianism lasted, the deeper the fear was implanted, becoming in the end a lifestyle, a characteristic of culture, communication, relationships. The fear is skin deep. Just scratch the surface and it appears. In the words of the Psalmist: “Trembling seized them there, anguish, like a woman’s labor” (Psalm 48:7).

The Soviet system had the opportunity to instill this almost genetic fear over three full generations.

Let me explain with a story that every person over thirty-five years old today heard during their childhood in the Soviet Union. It’s the legend (probably not true) of Pavlik Morozov –lionised by Soviet propaganda as a hero and a martyr. As a thirteen-year old boy, Pavlik denounced his father (and some neighbors) to the authorities for “forging documents and selling them to the bandits and enemies of the State (in Soviet legal parlance – an “enemy of the people” could be anyone)” and was in turn killed by his family, “his uncle, grandfather, grandmother, and a cousin”. The story of Pavlik Morozov became a foundational myth of Soviet pedagogy. He became a model for the Soviet children encouraged to follow his example – in every Soviet city there was a street named after Pavlik Morozov.

Totalitarian ideology undermines the very essence of human coexistence – you cannot trust anyone even your own family, even your children, your parents. The party indicates whom you are to love and trust, the party’s interests are above personal and family ones. God-given dignity and freedom are negated. The Christian understanding and experience of family is deconstructed. This fear and suspicion tragically embodied the words of the prophet Micah: “Put no faith in a friend, do not trust a companion; with her who lies in your embrace watch what you say” (Micah 7:5).

The pilgrimage from post-totalitarian fear to Biblical trust and lifelong faithfulness is a difficult one for many Christians, sometimes excruciatingly so. It is not possible without grace. It is a challenge for the Church called to speak to two billion victims and descendants of totalitarian ideology. To call disciples to walk this journey, the Church needs to understand their brokenness and show willingness to walk patiently with them in love and mercy. The Church in the contemporary world is called to trust fully in the Triune God, who makes Himself vulnerable to us, and to create places, structures, policies, and relationships of trust, fidelity, and faithfulness that evoke and promote mutual openness and trust. Our vocation is to announce the victory of Christ over death, fear and sin with confidence and joy. This is especially true when poverty, forced migration, homelessness, virtuality, and the violence of war threaten and undermine trust, as today in Ukraine, the Middle East, and so many places in the world. Facing these threats, we are called to proclaim “what is the surpassing greatness of his [God’s] power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens,  far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:19-21).


Speaking of “ideological colonisation”….

 The latest, disturbing news from India, is that the Missionaries of Charity have closed 30 orphanages after legislative changes made it easier for divorced and single people to adopt.

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