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Letters from the Synod: Volume 5 – 3 October

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Letters from the Synod: Volume 5 – 3 October

Reports and Commentary, from Rome and around the world on the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Edited by Xavier Rynne II


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…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

What might be said at the Synod – II

We continue today the series of “model Synod interventions” – model speeches to the Synod’s plenary assemblies, addressing the “issues beneath the issues” at Synod 2015 – prepared at the request of Letters to the Synod by various Catholic thinkers. The themes in these “model interventions” could also be usefully brought into the discussions of the Synod’s language-based discussion group: the circuli minores, in Synod-speak. In any event, the hope here is that these brief disquisitions will shed light on the deeper issues of Synod 2015 for all concerned with its deliberations. XR2

Pope John Paul II blesses a baby in the Sistine Chapel on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in 2002. Photo: CNS/Catholic Press Photo
Pope John Paul II blesses a baby in the Sistine Chapel on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in 2002. Photo: CNS/Catholic Press Photo

Model Intervention #3: Conscience, Truth, and Happiness

Despite the world’s contention that the Catholic Church is a Church of “No” – a misapprehension created in part by the Church’s own failures of preaching and catechesis – one of the principle characteristics of Catholic theology since Augustine has been its claim that Catholic moral teaching is based on a great “Yes”, and that the moral life proposed by Catholicism offers everyone a path toward happiness and true flourishing. Thomas Aquinas put the search for authentic happiness at the center of his analysis of human freedom in the Summa Theologiae. And one of St. Thomas’s principle modern interpreters, the late Father Servais Pinckaers, OP, reminded the Church that the Beatitudes are the basic, evangelical context for Catholic moral theology.

John Paul II adopted this approach in Veritatis Splendor and began his encyclical with the dialogue in Matthew’s gospel between Jesus and the rich young man who wanted to know how to find happiness, in the form of eternal life. Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that human beings are called to beatitude, to that happiness that is possible through our participation in the holiness of God. And, as Pope Francis has reminded us, we must all learn to pronounce, and above all, live, that Catholic “Yes” more winsomely and effectively.  

The genius of the Church’s teaching on human love is its insistence that  human sexuality is capable of being sanctified: that human beings can be truly happy, spiritually in union with God, in their sexual lives as husband and wife. The key to this teaching is found in the inseparability of the procreative and unitive dimensions of marriage. Sexuality can only be a true source of moral happiness –and a source of grace by virtue of the sacrament of marriage – when it takes place between two people of complementary sexes, married to one another, who are open to life. Only this expression of human love is capable of receiving grace; only this way of loving sexually permits authentic cooperation with God.

Each of us knows full well that this truth has always been a “hard saying” (as the Gospel would have it), not only for many of our non-Catholic contemporaries but also within the Church; that difficulty has been magnified by the cultural upheavals trough which we have lived in the past half-century.  And one facet of the difficulty that many find in hearing, much less accepting, this “hard saying” involves the doubts that so many people have today about the objective good of the natural moral law, which expresses itself in a skepticism about whether that moral law, inscribed in the world and in us, truly points us to where authentic happiness is to be found. Rather, some say, isn’t this natural moral law something arbitrary, something imposed “from outside” on human beings who can’t really follow it, and shouldn’t be asked to practice it, except perhaps if they wish to strive toward heroic ideals?

In the 1970s, moral theologians commonly posited a juxtaposition: on the one hand, there are the objective truths of Catholic moral teaching; on the other hand, there is the subjective conscience of the individual. The objective teachings may prescribe high ideals aiming at the heroic; the subjective conscience takes account of one’s biology, one’s emotional and instinctual impulses, one’s moral intuitions and subjective perceptions. Who is to say, these theologians asked, which is the better judge of truth? Yes, one must consult the natural law; but its teachings are ultimately to be refracted through the subjective conscience, which may set them aside – perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently – if circumstances require.  

Something like this approach seems to shape Paragraph 137 of the Synod’s Instrumentum Laboris, which many scholars believe undermines the teaching of Humanae Vitae, as rightly understood by the magisterium of the Catholic Church, whatever the Instrumentum’s intention at this point.  

One of the great accomplishments of Veritatis Splendor was its acute diagnosis of the false theory of conscience (outlined just above) that was operative in the moral theory known as “proportionalism”. And to those defects the encyclical supplied the needed remedy. “Nature” and the natural moral law, John Paul II taught, are not “external” to human freedom and human happiness. The natural law is inscribed in our very person; it cannot be reduced to some presupposed “laws of biology” and still less to “biologism”. Rather, according to Veritatis Splendor, the human being is liberated, made free, in his or her body by living in accord with the true conditions of our human nature. In fact and in truth, we are embodied as male or female, in complementarity. In fact and in truth, we are embodied as beings capable of transmitting human life, so that human sexuality is always charged with a deeper sense of responsibility and a connectedness to God and the larger human family. In fact and in truth, spouses are capable of loving each other in their bodies, freely and reasonably and truly, only when they preserve that openness to life that is at the heart of spousal love.

So it is only when conscience recognises the objective truth about the human condition that a person can truly act with authentic human freedom, and in ways that makes for true human happiness. It is only in recognising the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage that human beings are set free to be authentically happy in their lives as spouses, obeying God and drawing closer to God. Thus the language of the Instrumentum Laboris at paragraph 137 is gravely deficient.  

The Church’s teaching on human sexuality, which it draws from Revelation and reason, is both eternally true and remarkably timely. The sexual revolution has left human beings wounded and unhappy, disoriented by promises of happiness unfulfilled, confused about right and wrong – and, because of our own failures to communicate the liberating truth of the Gospel, often alienated from Christ and the Church. Our pastoral approach to the confusions of this historical moment should be full of compassion, mercy, and tenderness, full of truthfulness and joy. Because the true teaching of the Church – that happiness or beatitude is the goal of the moral life, and that beatitude comes from synchronising conscience to the truths we can know from both Revelation and reason – is essential in offering authentic happiness to today’s suffering world.  

Model Intervention #4: The Trouble with “Synodality”

Like every other bishop-member of this Synod, I cherish the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the collegiality of bishops. I cherish the unique bond of our global fraternity within the episcopal college; I cherish my personal bond with the Bishop of Rome and the bond between the episcopal college and its Head; I cherish the fraternity and mutual support found in my national conference of bishops. The recovery of a proper theology of collegiality was one of the great accomplishments of Vatican II, and draws our attention to the holy Fathers of the Church who lived that episcopal collegiality so robustly in the first centuries of the first Christian millennium.  

Yet I wish to share with the Synod my concern over proposals that have been made by appeal to a theory of “synodality”, seemingly derived from the Council’s teaching on collegiality, according to which national episcopal conferences might form an intermediate level of doctrinal teaching and pastoral authority, set between the Bishop of Rome and the individual bishops of the Church.

There are two reasons why this is an inherently and deeply problematic idea.

First, “synodality” is not prominently featured in the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council. The communio or communion ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, stresses the divinely instituted character of the Church as rooted in the grace of God, which makes possible a communion of human persons with God and with one another. Synodality, by contrast, refers primarily to human structures of organisation and collaboration in the Church. We should not confuse a theology of communion with one of synodality. The former is present in the documents of the Council; the latter is not.

With particular reference to the episcopal office and the relation of the bishops to the successor of St Peter, Vatican II developed the concept of collegiality, referring to the divinely-instituted apostolic college of bishops, united with one another in union with the successor of Peter. According to this conciliar theology, synods are not institutions of divine right. Rather, they are human institutions allowing for the regional collaboration of bishops for various purposes, and are thus the basis for the formation of national or regional episcopal conferences. Thus attempts to substitute a “theology of synodality” as the justification for an intermediate level of episcopal authority located somewhere between the bishops and the pope have always been resisted by the Holy See – not least by Pope St John Paul II and his successor, Benedict XVI – because such an idea of “synodality” has no foundation in the provisions Christ made for the episcopal office, or in the Council’s teaching on collegiality.

I have no wish to judge motives harshly or unfairly. But it is hard not to imagine that those who have embraced this theory of “synodality” have done so in no small part to accelerate the decentralisation of the exercise of authority in the world Church: to transfer to episcopal conferences powers hitherto reserved to the Bishop of Rome, thus de facto diminishing the authority of the Petrine ministry in exercising the missions of sanctifying, teaching, and governing. There are doubtless many things that can be done better locally than by the central authority of the Church. But recognising that does not require us to think of national or regional episcopal conferences as exercising magisterial authority. They do not.

My second concern touches what some propose as questions of the practical order. Those promoting this notion of “synodality” and “intermediate authority” often speak as if national or regional episcopal conferences would be making merely “pastoral” provisions. Yet this form of governance would inevitably lead to doctrinal and moral fragmentation in the Church, which is not legitimate “pluralism” but an un-Catholic kind of plurality. And to put it with the candor to which the Holy Father has called us, de facto doctrinal and pastoral fragmentation means de facto schism.

Practices are always based implicitly on principles. A fundamental change in practice is one that is so deep as to imply necessarily a change of principles. If some local churches were to change the fundamental practices of the Catholic Church regarding contraception, divorce, homosexual acts and relationships, and the reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, this would inevitably give rise over time (and quite likely in a short time) to a doctrinal rift in the Church that would not be easy to heal, even with great effort. With all due ecumenical propriety, the experience of the Anglican Communion in recent decades is a cautionary tale for the Catholic Church here.

“National Churches” have always posed the gravest problems for the unity of Catholic faith, worship, and pastoral practice. Let us learn from the hard experience of the past; let us deepen our understanding of the theology of ecclesial communion and episcopal collegiality taught by the Second Vatican Council; let us by all means work together to devise more effective ways to bring the joy of the Gospel to a broken world, especially to those suffering from the contemporary crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family. But let us not imagine that historically contingent national boundaries somehow create bodies of bishops with a level of authentic teaching authority “in between” that of the bishops in their own dioceses and that of the Bishop of Rome.

For the first time in our two-thousand year history, we have the possibility of being, truly, a “world Church”, thanks to the communications and transportation revolutions. Let us not trade that brilliant evangelical possibility for the mess of pottage of a new Gallicanism.


…for the Synod and the Church to hear

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has been the Archbishop of Denver – a local Church revitalised through the experience of World Youth Day-1993 – since 2012. He previously served as the Bishop of Fargo, North Dakota. Letters from the Synod invited him to reflect on his experience in both Fargo and Denver in fostering chastity education and innovative marriage preparation. XR2

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver lays his hands on Bishop Stephen J. Berg during his episcopal ordination Feb. 27 as the fifth bishop of Pueblo, Colo. (CNS photo/Donna Ryckaert) (March 7, 2014) See BERG-ORDAIN March 3, 2014.
Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver lays his hands on Bishop Stephen J. Berg during his 2014 episcopal ordination. Photo: CNS/Donna Ryckaert

1) In your pastoral experience in Fargo and Denver, what are the particular ways that the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family – the contemporary crisis of chastity, really – have presented themselves to you?

The contemporary crisis of marriage and the family can be seen in so many ways: the high divorce rate, the absence of the father in many households, a lack of understanding of the truth and dignity of human sexuality, the throwaway approach to the unborn in abortion, the confusion of gender, and now, most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court’s support for a false definition of marriage that can include two persons of the same sex .

Within the Church, this breakdown is clear in a weak approach to catechesis on the faith and the truths of our faith, a lack of adequate catechesis on the Theology of the Body at an early age (in the home) and in our Catholic junior high and high schools, a lack of education in the virtues and a positive approach to the virtue of chastity, and finally, a lack of an adequate preparation for marriage and a positive approach to natural family planning.

At the heart of the matter is a lack of faith and a true encounter with Jesus Christ and his Church, as Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict, and now Pope Francis have called for. There has been an attempt to apologise for the faith, rather than a bold proclamation of it. In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out that too many churches were offering cheap grace, not the costly grace of discipleship. Authentic discipleship requires a total gift of self to Christ and the Father, which leads the disciple to deny himself, take up the Cross, and follow in the steps of Christ. Only the encounter with Jesus Christ and his mercy, love and truth will restore the human heart and bring it the joy and peace that Christ alone can give.

2) What pastoral strategies and initiatives have you found most effective in dealing with these challenges?

When I was Bishop of Fargo, I reviewed the religion curriculum for our Catholic schools and religious education programs. I also restored the Sacraments of Initiation to their original order: Baptism, Confirmation and then First Eucharist. As a part of restoring the order of these sacraments, I made parents the primary focus of faith formation, since they are the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith, and their consistently lived faith will continue to significantly impact the faith of their children. One of the methods we used was to teach parents and children Lectio Divina – the prayerful reading of Scripture – which leads them to a deeper encounter with Christ. The children were also taught at an early age to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and to have a love for the Eucharist and Christ’s real presence in it.

At the same time, I mandated the use of texts on the Theology of the Body for teens in all our junior high school programs, whether in parish-based religious education or our Catholic high school. This encouraged a positive teaching on the truth, dignity and meaning of human sexuality and promoted the virtue of chastity in a positive manner. Parents were made aware of this teaching, too, through workshops held for them on the Theology of the Body. In many ways, it changed the manner in which young people related to one another.

I told our parents, teachers, and administrators: Either the media forms our children or we do. Young people are bombarded day-in and day-out with a false understandings human sexuality, intimacy, and love. All one has to do is to watch the Internet, movies, advertising, and television to see the brainwashing that goes on amid false presentations of the family and distorted notions of what constitutes respect for the dignity of the human person.

I further mandated that Lectio Divina be used in our Catholic schools and that teachers be trained in using it in the classroom, thus teaching the children how to pray and giving them a love for the Scriptures. I also called for the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in our Catholic high school in Fargo so that the young people were thoroughly acquainted with it and how to defend their faith.

Finally, in our marriage preparation program in Fargo we revamped the entire program to teach couples the three goods of marriage: permanency, fidelity, and the gift of children as rooted in God’s plan for marriage from the beginning.  My experience had shown me that most married couples were unaware of the three goods of marriage and of natural family planning, so I wanted the Church to give that truth to them.

In regards to natural family planning, I required that the full three-to-four month course be taught. I received some pushback at first, but as couples went through it, they learned a lot and well-over 75% of couples said that it opened them up to practicing it. One letter I received from a young woman who went through the class summarised the change of heart that would take place in people who participated in the course. She wrote to me, “At first I was not open to it. I wondered: Why do my fiancé and I have to go through this? Then as my eyes were opened to the Theology of the Body and natural family planning, I saw the truth and beauty of the Church’s teaching. It would have saved me much heartache in college and spared me the experiences I had there.  Now I have one question for you, Bishop: ‘Why wasn’t I taught this earlier?’ I am going home and teaching my sister who is still in high school what I have learned so she does not go through what I went through in college.” Those words capture well the appreciation many couples had in their marriage preparation.

In Denver, some of these practices were already in place, but I have made sure that those that weren’t are being implemented.

3) What are your hopes for the Synod? How can its work have a positive effect on your own pastoral work?

My hopes for the Synod are that it will ponder the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus speaks to the Pharisees on the question of marriage and divorce. Jesus’ response is as valid today as it was in his time. He goes back to the intention of the Creator from the beginning, who “made them male and female.” Jesus speaks to the truth of marriage and the family, and no bishop, priest, or lay person has the authority to change that teaching and truth.

Furthermore, the Synod must look at marriage preparation, the teaching of the truth, dignity and meaning of human sexuality – especially as expressed in St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body – and the promotion of the virtues and the virtue of chastity. Unfortunately, a few bishops seem more interested in affirming the culture’s approach to sexuality, marriage and the family, rather than the teaching that has been consistently affirmed in Scripture, tradition, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They seem to think that the Church can simply change her teaching to respond to our times and that this will fill our pews again. Nothing is farther from the truth, and their approach will only empty the pews more. We know that God is faithful to his promises, and that apart from him we will bear no fruit and wither. We have only to look at other Christian communities who have changed their teachings and continue to decline in membership.

The Synod must therefore boldly and confidently, with joy and humility, proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ and encourage people to truly encounter him. Knowing and loving Jesus Christ will lead people to an affirmation of marriage and the family as understood in Scripture and Tradition and in the Catechism. For it is only in the proclamation of that truth, who is Jesus Christ, that the joy of the Gospel will be lived and witnessed in marriages and in the family. And it is only through him that the new evangelisation will be brought about.  

…being other items of interest   

The following letter to the Holy Father and the Synod fathers comes from over one hundred converts to Catholicism and was released earlier this week.

Its reflection on the crumbling of Christian communities that have accommodated themselves to the sexual revolution and to political correctness is especially noteworthy – as is the converts’ frank admission that it took many of them some time to grasp that the Catholic Church’s teaching on chastity, marriage, and the family was an expression of truths that made for happiness. Yet when presented in a compelling way by those who have themselves been liberated by it, the Church’s teaching becomes, not a burden, but an important instrument of the New Evangelisation. XR2


An Open Letter to the Synod

24 September, 2015

Your Holiness; Dear Fathers in Christ –

We are all converts to the Catholic faith. Some of us were raised in other Christian communities; some of us came, unbaptised, from other faiths; some of us had once been thoroughly secular and thought of ourselves as agnostics or atheists. Despite the diversity of our backgrounds we all have this in common: we entered the Church as adults. As you prepare for the Synod on the Family we hope that you will be encouraged by the multitude of lay faithful who were, and continue to be, attracted to the Church in large part because of what she proposes about the human being in her teaching about sexual difference, sexuality, marriage and the family. Early on, most of us would have objected to at least some elements of the Church’s teaching about such matters. Yet, as we began to notice how harmful were the effects of popular conceptions of human sexuality, and as some of our own congregations began to give way to the dominant culture − its ideas about freedom, equality, progress, and its growing gnostic tendencies − each of us started to suspect that there was something right about the Church’s understanding of things. Unpopular though they often were, the Church’s teachings about the facts of life became strangely attractive to us. And in time, we became convinced that they expressed the deepest truth of ourselves, a truth that is both good and beautiful, howsoever demanding. What is more, the certainty the Church had in her teachings and her confidence in pronouncing them even in the face of hostile opposition was for us evidence that we could encounter in her the life of Jesus Christ as he truly is. As human beings we understand the dramatic nature of desire and the self-justifying “dictatorship” that often accompanies it. But as converts we also know the tendency, wherever ecclesial bodies lack a visible, historical, and authoritative bond with Christ through his vicar, to adapt Christianity to the dominant mentality. In short, the fact that the Catholic Church held fast to the deepest truth about our embodied human existence was for us a point of attraction, and a sign that the Church was the surest link to Jesus Christ Incarnate.

With respect to the bewildering diversity of contemporary opinions about the human good, especially where questions about the human body are concerned, we understood that the radical nature of the Christian claim − that God, the Son, had taken up all flesh into Himself − was at stake. Christ “revealed man to himself” (Gaudium et Spes 22). He thereby “made clear” the meaning of our humanity – and with it the meaning of the body, of sexual difference, of sexuality, marriage and the family. He did this, for example, when the Pharisees asked him about divorce, and he turned them (and his own disciples) back to “the beginning”, to human nature as it was created. What is more, he brought something new to that same humanity, bestowing on it, mercifully, a share in His own fidelity to the Church. It was not by accident, then, that early Christians were drawn to the Church through the radiant humanity of His followers, manifest, for example, in their unique attitudes toward women, children, human sexuality, and marriage. And it was not by accident that, for the same reasons, we too were drawn to the Church many centuries later.

We are keenly aware of the difficult pastoral situations that you will be confronting at the Synod, especially those concerning divorced Catholics. We also share something of the burden you carry in confronting them. Some of us have experienced the pain of divorce in our own lives; and virtually all of us have friends or close relatives who have been so afflicted. We are therefore grateful that attention is being paid to a problem that causes such grievous harm to husbands and wives, their children, and indeed the culture at large.

We are writing you, however, because of our concerns about certain proposals to change the Church’s discipline regarding communion for Catholics who are divorced and civilly re-married. We are frankly surprised by the opinion of some who are proposing a “way of penance” that would tolerate what the Church has never allowed. In our judgment such proposals fail to do justice to the irrevocability of the marriage bond, either by writing off the “first” marriage as if it were somehow “dead”, or, worse, by recognising its continued existence but then doing violence to it. We do not see how these proposals can do anything other than contradict the Christian doctrine of marriage itself. But we also fail to see how such innovations can be, as they claim, either pastoral or merciful. However well meaning, pastoral responses that do not respect the truth of things can only aggravate the very suffering that they seek to alleviate. We cannot help but think of the abandoned spouses and their children. Thinking of the next generation, how can such changes possibly foster in young people an appreciation of the beauty of the indissolubility of marriage?

Above all, we think that the proposals in question fail to take to heart the real crisis of the family underlying the problem of divorce, contraception, cohabitation, and same-sex attraction. That crisis, as Benedict XVI observed, is “a false understanding of the nature of human freedom”. Still worse, as he continued, we now have to confront an outlook that “calls into question the very notion of being − of what being human really means” (“Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI on the Occasion of Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia”, 2012). Not only are the changes in the Church’s discipline called for by some far from adequate to the challenge before us, they seem to us to capitulate to the problem they purport to address.

As has everyone else, we have witnessed the human wreckage brought about by the culture of divorce. But as converts we have also witnessed Christian complicity in that culture. We have watched our own communities abandon the original radical Christian witness to the truth about man and woman, together with the pastoral accompaniment that might have helped them live it.

And so we turn to you. We look to you to uphold Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage with the same fidelity, the same joyful and courageous witness the Catholic Church has displayed throughout her entire history. Against the worldly-wise who counsel resignation and concede defeat, let the Church once again remind the world of the beauty of spousal fidelity, when lived in unity with Christ. Who is left who can offer the world something other than an echo of its own cynicism? Who is left who can lead it toward a real experience of love? Now more than ever the world needs the Church’s prophetic witness! As Pope Francis said to the thousands of young people at World Youth Day in Brazil:

“Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion….They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘forever,’ because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the time; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love.” World Youth Day, 2013)

As you gather in Rome for the Synod on the Family, we want to offer you the witness of our conversion, which testifies to the attractiveness of the truth about man and woman as it has been “made clear” by Christ through His Church. It is our hope that our witness will strengthen yours so that the Church may continue to be the answer to what the human heart most deeply desires.

Sincerely in Christ,

[There follow the signatures of over one hundred Catholics active in the ordained ministry, evangelisation programs, social service, the professions, public service, and academic life. They include former congregants and clergy from the Assembly of God and various Evangelical Protestant communities, as well as former Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, and Presbyterian clergy and laity. XR2]  

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