While the eyes of many have, in recent weeks, been focused on the Special Synod on the Family in Rome because of debate around issues such as divorce, same-sex unions and communion, it has been pointed out by many, including Pope Francis, that the Synod is about much more than the issue of whether the Church should admit the divorced and remarried (but un-annulled) to the Sacrament of the Eucharist at Sunday Mass.
This is undoubtedly true.
The Synod is a major undertaking of Pope Francis and the Church which has sought to better understand the family and its needs in the Church and the world precisely because of the fundamental importance of marriage and the family to both. The Church is doing what no-one else will because the Church understands that the state of the family affects not only the global community and history but is a major determinant in the Church’s mission in time. In other words, this Synod on the family is really a synod about the lay vocation in the Church and its evangelising presence in the world.
The problem is, however, that now that the issue of communion for the un-annulled and those living in same sex relationships has been so visibly raised (both at the 2014 precursor synod and the current gathering) it is understandable that it has eclipsed other issues in the eyes of many of the faithful who want to know what is going on in Rome and are interested in what the outcome will be. Many Catholics still grasp the fundamental nature of communion.
The debate is really a contest between two visions of how the Church should respond to the very difficult situations of those who marry in the church, subsequently lose their marriages, and ultimately find happiness in a new relationship. The problem is real. There would probably not be a Catholic family in the country that has not been affected by this problem, especially given that, statistically speaking, the overwhelming majority of Catholics are demographically and religiously indistinguishable from most of contemporary secular Australia.
The two visions competing at the Synod might therefore be described in theological shorthand as the dilutionist understanding of marriage and family on one hand, and the Christological-spousal view on the other.
The dilutionists, in the end, see no decisive obstacle to someone living in contradiction to the Gospel on marriage and receiving the Eucharist if that person earnestly and sincerely desires it. This raises an interesting theoretical problem, at least, as to where one should reasonably draw the line – for example, the euthanasia practitioner who still earnestly desires to receive the Eucharist. If same-sex relationships or multiple marriages can be accepted as sufficient for full participation in the Church – i.e. they are not obstacles to the Christian life – what about other things? This question has not been explored yet.
The Christological-spousal thinkers, on the other hand, see a decisive divine reality and dimension to marriage originating in Christ which cannot be compromised. This has the disadvantage of making their argument for a merciful approach to such moral issues – which is at the same time tempered and ultimately informed by fidelity to Christ – much easier to attack as ‘hardline’ and not apparently in step with the majority approach to marriage and relationships in modern societies such as the US, Europe and Australia.
However, there is one group who do not seem to have been considered in the context of this synod – which is interesting in itself – and, to this extent, the theologians may be guilty of having formulated their theories in remote theological laboratories too far removed from the concrete situations and realities of daily life.
This group is the children of divorce who, were the dilutionist viewpoint ultimately to prevail, would find themselves confronted by a Church that has effectively rubber-stamped and partly-facilitated the destruction of their own families. Sociological research over the past five decades has revealed that the hurt on the part of children of divorce is intense, worse than the experience of death – and lifelong. Children who witnessed the Church facilitating their parents’ divorce and the destruction of their families could effectively become a new kind and a new wave of abuse victims, but this time not merely by rogue individuals in the Church or risk-averse clerics and bureaucrats, but by the official visible Church itself which claimed to do this in the name of Christ. This is a hurt they would find hard – quite understandably – to forgive.