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Will the rest of the Church get a look-in? Letters from the Synod

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Will the concerns of Africa, Asia and South America regarding the family get a proportional degree of consideration at the synod relative to those of Europe, asks Xavier Rynne. Pictured: A nun carries a candle outside the Namugongo Shrine during the 2013 annual Uganda Martyr's Day Ceremony. Photo: CNS photo/Ronald Kabuubi, EPA.
Will the concerns of Africa, Asia and South America regarding the family get a proportional degree of consideration at the synod relative to those of Europe? Pictured: A nun carries a candle outside the Namugongo Shrine during the 2013 annual Uganda Martyr’s Day Ceremony. Photo: CNS photo/Ronald Kabuubi, EPA.

Letters from the Synod: Volume 10 – 9 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


…being thoughts on Synod 2015 from various observers

Eurocentricity, Demographic Winter, and the Synod

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During the first week’s work of Synod 2015, numerous Synod fathers have commented on what seems to them the Eurocentric character of the Instrumentum Laboris, the Synod’s basic working document now being digested in the circuli minores (the Synod’s language-based discussion groups) as well as commented upon in the Synod’s general assemblies. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia also remarked on this curiosity in his comments at the Synod press conference of October 7.

In sum, the concern is that the Instrumentum Laboris – and thus the Synod’s speeches and debates – tend to focus too much on concerns brought to the Synod from the First World (the “Kasper Proposal;” the question of the Church’s stance toward civil unions for same-sex couples; the authority – if any – of national conferences of bishops to make pastoral provisions for the divorced and civilly remarried that are dramatically different from those in other sectors of the world Church). The parallel concern, evident especially among African and Asian bishops but also among some from the Americas, is that the experience and concerns of the Church in the developing world are getting shorter shrift than they deserve.

The first concern is sometimes specified with more geographic and ecclesial precision, and the question thereby sharpened: Why are issues of primary concern to northern European countries so prominently a part of the Synod’s work, when those countries, for all their noble history, are now among the most religiously desiccated places on the planet? Is there something a little strange about dying local churches instructing living, vital, local churches on what “the issues” involved in the 21st-century crisis of marriage and the family really are? Doesn’t this Eurocentricity cut against the Holy Father’s desire, stated on many occasions, that the Synod range widely in its discussion of this pastoral challenge? These questions have not gone unnoticed. At least one Synod father, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, has taken public umbrage at the suggestion that the synod risks becoming too Eurocentric.

In a Synod devoted to issues of marriage and the family, it’s perhaps useful to look farther than church-attendance statistics (which, unhappily, demonstrate the Catholic aridity of too much of western Europe) and open the analytic lens to include the question of fertility. Here, Europe finds itself in a grave crisis indeed. For Europe is now, and for some time has been, in a self-induced demographic free-fall that demographers have dubbed “demographic winter.” The figures are striking, to put it gently.

Demographers reckon that the “replacement level” at which a country maintains its population over time requires a “Total Fertility Rate” (TFR) of 2.1. (According to the World Bank, the TFR is “the number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children in accordance with current age-specific fertility rates.”) Not a single European country  had a 2013-14 TFR at replacement level (again, according to World Bank statistics), and some are so far below a replacement level TFR as to find themselves in the bottom quarter of the world fertility league tables: in order of descending TFR, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Lithuania, Estonia, Switzerland, Portugal, Monaco, Latvia, Albania, Spain, Croatia, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Poland. Barely avoiding the bottom quarter, but still below replacement-level (again, in descending rate of TFR) are France, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland.

These figures are subject to the normal statistical anomalies, and calculating any population’s demographic future is not simply a matter of extrapolating from the present; things can and do change, culturally and otherwise, and TFR rates can change accordingly. But what these statistics tell us about the present situation is unmistakable: Europe is systematically and wilfully failing to reproduce itself, with results that already pose serious social, political, cultural and economic problems – problems that will, if present trends continue, only intensify to the point of real crisis, and quite possibly grave fiscal and political instability, in the mid-twenty-first century.

As I wrote ten years ago in a book-length essay on Europe, The Cube and the Cathedral, this Euro-demographic winter is historically unprecedented. There have been spasms of depopulation before, but they had previously involved natural disasters, plagues (e.g. the Black Death), or wars (e.g. the Thirty Years War). None of these conditions obtains in Europe today, and none of them has obtained for decades. Europe in the second decade of the twenty-first century is healthier, wealthier, and (with the exception of those countries on the immediate borders of Putin’s Russia) safer than it has ever been before. So what explains today’s Euro-demographic winter?

There are, obviously, multiple and complex variables in play. Technology, in the form of readily-available contraception, is surely one factor. So are changes in the structure of economic life (often requiring two-income families), and in gender roles and expectations. Still, when you add up all the empirical data, there is still a hole in the analytic doughnut: why this extraordinarily low level of fertility, for which the demographers have had to create the neologism “lowest low?” And to fill in that hole, it seems to me that we have to look to the realm of the human spirit.

When an entire continent that is – to repeat – healthier, wealthier, and more secure than ever before ceases to produce the human future in the most elemental sense of “human future” – by refusing to have children – something is seriously awry. Something has gone dry in the soul. Whatever the economic, ideological, and cultural pressures involved, a lack of generosity toward the future is manifesting itself in wilful barrenness. And that is, in the broad sense of the term “human spirit,” a spiritual problem. Indeed it is a spiritual crisis.

That crisis is one for which the Catholic Church in Europe – the local churches of western Europe for a longer period, and the local churches of the new democracies since 1989 – must accept some measure of responsibility. Thus one of the failures for which Synod-2015 ought to elicit a Euro-Catholic examination of conscience is located precisely here: the Church’s failure to inspire and inculcate an ethic of generosity toward the future that expresses itself by the begetting and raising of children.

There is another facet of this knotty and disturbing problem that bears reflection. Beneath some of the proposals being advanced at Synod-2015 from northern European bishops – proposals that were also being pressed at Synod-2014 and in the year between the synods – it is not difficult to discern a wish to re-adjudicate Humanae Vitae (Blessed Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the morally appropriate means of regulating fertility) and Veritatis Splendor (Saint John Paul II’s 1983 encyclical on the reform of Catholic moral theology).

Leave the latter debate for another day. Here, with an eye on Europe’s demographic meltdown and the role of the Catholic Church in that, it ought to be remembered that, in his encyclical, Paul VI (who by no means taught an ethic of reproduction-at-all-costs) was deeply concerned that a “contraceptive mentality” would result from the technological sundering of the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage, whose unity and complementarity the Church had long affirmed – a unity and complementarity that would be threatened by ready access to artificial means of contraception.

Widely ridiculed at the time as a Hamlet-like pessimist – today, he would be pilloried as a “culture warrior bishop” – Paul VI now looks more and more like a prophet who looked into the signs of his times and saw, clearly, the future dangers  encoded therein. Now, as I have suggested in several books, I think the goals of Pope Paul’s teaching would have been better served had Humanae Vitae been framed in the more personalistic categories and vocabulary proposed to the Pope by a commission of Krakow-based theologians assembled by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła. But that’s not the issue here. In terms of prophetic insight, Humanae Vitae was spectacularly right about the effects of the “contraceptive mentality” on the human future, as Pope Francis has readily acknowledged. And it requires wilful blindness, historical obtuseness, and/or intellectual pride to deny that, especially when looking at Europe.

So if there is going to be a Eurocentric dimension to the discussions of Synod 2015, perhaps the spotlight should focus on the facts of Europe’s deliberate and self-induced demographic winter; on the Church’s complex role in that; and on the pastoral strategies most likely to invite what was once the centrr of world-civilisational initiative – and the centre of the world Church – to a more generous view of the future.

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Centre

The Manufacture of News

H.L. Mencken, writing in his memoir Newspaper Days, told the tale of how he and a fellow editor at the old Baltimore Herald had basically invented a detailed report of the Battle of Tsushima Straits, at which the Japanese navy sunk a large part of the Russian Navy in 1905, in order to put out an exclusive and beat their rivals to the journalistic punch. Mencken recalled that he and his colleague had sweated a bit in the days afterwards, fearing that they had “pulled some very sour ones”. But when the real reports began coming in from the scene itself, they breathed more easily. For not only had they “pulled no such sour ones” but had “improved” on the true story in many respects (!). It was, HLM recalled, the high point of his experience of “the synthesis of news”.

Something not altogether dissimilar goes on at synods, conclaves, consistories, and other Roman gatherings of the great Catholic family. Why? In part because Rome is the capital of a country in which the border between fact and fiction in journalism is more permeable than in other cultural environments; indeed, in other cultures, what would be thought a border is in fact a membrane, across which nutrients and other materials flow in both directions. Then there is Sourcing Rule #1 in Vaticanology 101: “Those who don’t know, tell; those who do know, don’t tell.” And then there are the problems posed by the deeply engrained institutional culture of the Vatican, where the attitude of the late Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who famously said that “We don’t care what they print as long as we can do what we want to do,” remains at work in more than a few quarters. There’s been some improvement on the latter score, in that savvy Vatican officials know 1) that what “they” print, broadcast, blog, or tweet has a lot to do with whether the Church’s evangelical message gets through the atmospheric interference to reach the audience for which it’s intended (which is everyone), and 2) that blatant disinformation or completely obvious spin impedes the Church’s primary work, which as Pope Francis constantly reminds us is to be “permanently in mission”.

All that being said, it remains the case that a good filter is necessary in order to distinguish between the real Synod and the media/blogosphere Synod. The real Synod is almost entirely closed off from direct reportorial scrutiny; the media/blogosphere Synod often, if not always, consists of people writing about what other people who aren’t in the real Synod have told them about what’s going on in the real Synod, as no less a keen observer of these rituals as John Allen of the Boston Globe has recently written.

So as Synod 2015 begins its fifth day of work, it might be useful to flag a few of the non-stories being constantly flogged as real stories in the media/blogosphere Synod, in a way somewhat reminiscent of Mencken’s of the “synthesis of news.”

First, it’s not “news” that there are differences of opinion among the Synod fathers, and that those differences are sometimes serious. That has been the case throughout Church history, beginning with the disputes that led to the “Council” of Jerusalem (cf Acts 15) and continuing in a robust form at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea, where the future St Nicholas is said to have punched out Arius for his Christological deficiencies; and this has it been ever since, unto ages of ages. The internal battles of Vatican II are widely documented in scholarly books from widely-diverging perspectives (think of Roberto de Mattei vs the Bologna School of Giuseppe Alberigo). And there have been serious contestations at most Synods since Pope Paul VI established the institution in 1964, including the 1980 Synod on the Family, where some fathers (including a very prominent American) tried to repeal Humanae Vitae, de facto if not de iure. So the obvious fact that there are differences of opinion among the bishop-fathers of the Synod is not “news.” The “news” touches the question of whether those differences engage true theological and doctrinal differences, and on that point there will be more clarity in the weeks ahead – although important hints are already in place.

Further, it is not “news” that there are widespread complaints at Synod-2015 over synodal process – complaints that are by no means confined to one regionally or theologically-defined group of fathers. There have been widespread complaints over synodal process since the late 1960s; no one not directly involved in the Synod general secretariat thinks that the current process is perfect (any more than previous Synod fathers thought earlier forms of the process were perfect); and expressions of concern about improving the process are entirely normal.

Moreover, it is not “news” that Pope Francis likes to stir the pot and seems to think that a bit of a kerfuffle in the Church is No Bad Thing. One may agree or disagree with that preference; one may think it wise or imprudent as an exercise of the Petrine Office. But it’s who Pope Francis is. And to deem it “news” makes as much sense as deeming the lucidity of Pope Benedict’s general audience addresses, or the ubiquity of Pope John Paul II’s travels, as “news.” It just isn’t.

Finally, it is, or should be, no “news” that, beneath the surface of the media/blogosphere Synod, there are competing “narratives” of this pontificate at play. Those competing narratives have been obvious since the first months of the pontificate; they will continue throughout the Synod and beyond. If there be such a word, the “narrativising” of this pontificate has arguably reached unprecedented dimensions, as various contesting parties seek to fit Pope Francis onto the Procrustean bed of their own agendas – a difficult task, given the Pope’s defiance of the usual journalistically-defined ecclesial pigeon holes. But this has been going on for a long time, and wise students and observers of these matters will take it into account when parsing reportage and commentary on Synod-2015.

All of which is, we suppose, yet more evidence that the Church is the earthen vessel of which St Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4.7. But for all that, the assurance that it will all work out, finally, is given earlier in the New Testament when, after pronouncing the Great Commission, the Lord Jesus promised to be with his Church always, even to the end of the age (cf. Matthew 28.20). It’s a good promise for all hands to keep in mind, not as an excuse for insouciance or complacency, but as the basis of a measure of the calm that is often lacking amidst the synthesis of news.

Xavier Rynne II

…for the Synod and the Church to hear

Philip Egan has been Bishop of Portsmouth (England) since 2012. He holds a PhD in theology from the University of Birmingham, and prior to his ordination as bishop had served as a parish priest, a chaplain at Cambridge University, and a seminary professor. His answers to questions posed by LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD follow. XR2

In your ministry as bishop in Portsmouth, and in your previous pastoral work, how has the contemporary crisis of chastity, marriage, and the family presented itself? What are the “signs of the times” here?

I was ordained a priest in 1984. Over the last thirty years, much of my pastoral ministry has been like being a doctor in a casualty ward for husbands and wives who have left each other, for one-parent children, and for those suffering from a broken home. It is hard to exaggerate the immense psychological damage wrought by family breakdown.

Post-war Britain was transformed by the far-reaching social and sexual revolutions of the so-called “Swinging Sixties” (the contraceptive pill, youth culture and the music of the Beatles, the legalisation of abortion in 1967, the women’s liberation movement, easier divorce, and so on), while in the 1970s new gender roles for women emerged, as well as a strong gay rights movement. The result of all of this was a breakdown in traditional family life, together with a collapse in religious adherence and church membership.

Recent statistics show that less than 5% of people in England and Wales regularly attend a church service (“regularly” defined as once a month) and in the Diocese of Portsmouth, Mass attendance has declined steeply from 58,000 in 1985 to 35,000 today, despite a large influx of immigrants from Catholic countries such as Poland.

42% of British marriages now end in divorce. 47% of children are born to unmarried parents. Women head up 92% of single parent households and one million children are raised without knowing their fathers. While getting married continues to be popular, cohabitation has become the norm, with two years the average duration. Moreover, easily available contraceptives, which split the two ‘ends’ of the sexual act, have led to redefinition of the nature and purpose of sexual intercourse. No longer confined to marriage or the sole preserve of male/female relationships, sex has become a kind of pleasure-seeking activity for its own sake.

All these social and cultural trends have had a huge impact on Catholic parishes. Indeed, whereas at one time large urban parishes had one or two marriages every weekend, today marriages tend to be few and far between. In the Diocese of Portsmouth in 1962 there were 1,319 marriages, but in 2012, just 566, and this despite the fact that the estimated Catholic population of the diocese rose by over 40%. A further complication has been the recent redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. This means that what many people in society now mean by marriage is radically different from what the Church means by the Sacrament of Matrimony.

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

One of the key things is diligent preparation of couples for marriage. When I was a parish priest, I used to insist that couples gave me at least twelve months notice of their intention to marry. I would meet with them at least once per month. Besides completing the paperwork and deciding on practical matters, and while trying to get to know the couple and their families, I used to give much attention to preparing the wedding Liturgy, especially the readings. I would work through all the biblical readings the Church provides in the lectionary for a wedding, in order to discuss the Church’s doctrinal vision of marriage and family life. I used to give blessings through the period of preparation and formation, underlining Matrimony as a “service-sacrament” in the Church, alongside the other sacrament of service, Holy Orders.

In the last parish I served, a neighbouring parish ran an excellent marriage preparation course, for which our parish and several others joined together. It involved five Sunday-afternoon sessions, each about two hours long, with a break and refreshments. It was an excellent, very sound, and at the same time practical course, with a range of speakers and multimedia presentations. It covered everything from natural family planning and advice on relationships to financial matters and testimonies from couples who had been married a long time. So in addition to the one-to-one meetings with the priest, I insisted that our engaged couples attended this communal preparation course and I joined them to offer support. There were usually about fifty couples present, from all the parishes around, with a fantastic atmosphere of joy and expectancy.

How could the Synod’s work have the most positive effect in your own ministry?

I would dearly love the Synod to articulate in a new, fresh and attractive way, the gospel of marriage and family life – the demanding yet beautiful vision of Jesus Christ for the family today. I hope it will re-present compellingly why the Church espouses the natural way of life with regard to fertility and family planning, as well as the call to chastity. We need to ask: How might we educate, form and support Catholics to embrace with joy the Church’s vision and to put it into practice? Our Catholic schools and their religious education curricula need to be involved in this, as well as our parishes and their marriage preparation courses. I hope and pray the Synod will help our diocesan Marriage and Family Life Team to develop new resources, not least a comprehensive marriage preparation programme, at once spiritual, theological and practical.

I also hope the Synod will help us find new ways of celebrating and supporting parents, married couples and Christian family life. I hope we can develop new ways of celebrating an engagement, the Rite of Marriage, and also a significant anniversary. We need to share wisdom and good practice in parenting skills, in bringing up children, in creating a happy home, in honouring grandparents and our relations, and in living as a family the routines of being “the domestic church” such as attending Sunday Mass (on this, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1655-1658). It would be wonderful to encourage the families of our diocese to keep fast days and feast days, to develop family activities for the liturgical seasons, to say the family rosary, to pray the Divine Office, to offer prayers at mealtimes, and to set up a small altar or sacred space in the home. I wonder too whether we might devise a “Diocesan Family Manual,” with helpful passages of Scripture and elements of Church teaching, with a suggested “plan of life” and with simple prayers to be said at meals, on special occasions, when someone is sick, or for departed loved ones on a visit to a cemetery?

Finally, I hope the Synod might give renewed attention to the situation of non-Catholics who wish to be received into the Church but who find themselves prevented by an irregularity in their own or their partner’s marital status.

…being other items of interest   

Fraternal Correction

We note with regret that a Tweet from the Holy See Press Office on Wednesday, October 7, inaccurately reported remarks by Philadelphia archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap at that day’s Synod press conference, as follows:

“Chaput: There were concerns this morning in the English speaking group that the Instrumentum Laboris does not reflect the Universal Church.”

That is not what Archbishop Chaput said, and no one else we’ve talked with who was there heard him say that, or anything like that. What he said was that concerns were raised in his discussion group about the Eurocentricity of the Instrumentum Laboris. Period.

Recognising as we do the limits of Twitter-world and the pressures put on Sala Stampa personnel by the demands of insta-reporting, it would nonetheless be helpful if the Holy See Press Office would strive toward greater accuracy in its tweeting in the weeks ahead. That would help promote the frank and charitable discussion for which the Holy Father has called. XR2

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