The Synod on the Family just released a working document. It is, emphatically, just a working document intended to stir discussion, not a final statement of anything. And boy, stirring discussion it is.
A proleptic remark, perhaps. The Church is still reeling from the Damage of the ’70s. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of people, including in the high ranks of the Church, who have contempt for orthodoxy and the Magisterium. The fact of the matter is that a typical modus operandi of those people is to speak in unctuous code to further their agenda. To take one clear example, is it the case that when some speak of “mercy” this is really code for “dynamiting Church teaching”? Yes, absolutely. And we should be forthright about this. But, at the same time, we should be aware of one unfortunate side effect, which is that there’s a kind of language–call it the “warm and fuzzy” lexicon of Catholicism, which has always been there–that’s now become “tainted” so that it’s impossible to use it without being accused in some quarters of being a destroyer of orthodoxy, because the straightforward meaning of your words is always interpreted as something else. Should we offer mercy (actual, Catholic mercy, not cheap-grace mercy) to married couples, and everyone else? YES! And we should be able to just say that straightforwardly without being accused of wanting to torch the Magisterium.
With that in mind, here are some things I liked in the document, while not having read all of it.
Gradualness. To use the canonical phrase, the law of gradualness does not mean the gradualness of the law. It means that pastors should take a gradual approach to leading people towards holiness. The concept of gradualness has been understudied. John Paul II evoked it a few decades ago, but never dug in. The concept itself is interesting. Can if be used to undermine Church teaching? Yes. Should we therefore rend our garments and anathematize anybody who uses the word and never mention it again ever ever? No. Is it a good idea to have more reflexion about it? I think so.
Recognizing and welcoming the gifts of our LGBT brethren. A lot of people have been struggling with this. Some people (including fellow Catholic Patheosi and Gay Catholic Hero Eve Tushnet) have been arguing that our gay brethren should not just seek to repress their sexuality and their sexual attractions, but rather bring them towards some good, holy and chaste end. That same-sex attraction can actually come with certain gifts. For example, a lot of serious, orthodox writers like Wesley Hill and Ron Belgau have argued that same-sex attraction can be sublimated into a true and holy vocation towards deep friendship. To say this in no way undermines Church teaching; indeed, I think it brings it out to its fullness, since it has always put the emphasis on the whole person, but many people have been, well, freaking out, that this affirms Teh Gays too much, and that they should only ever live in a cesspool of their own repressed self-loathing. So it was very nice to see this document write things like “Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
Concern over declining birth rates. There is some weird language about birth control in this document, but on the whole I’m happy to see it express concern over birth rates, which is one of our major problems.
Ecumenism as a metaphor for relationship with living in sin. One of the things that I love about orthodox Catholic theology is not just the capacity, but the ease with which it embraces the good everywhere it finds it, precisely because it rests easy in its knowledge of the possession of the ultimate Good. Think of Justin Martyr writing that because God is the ultimate Good, all good belongs by rights (by rights!) to the Church and, therefore, Socrates was a Christian. Think of Saint Paul on the aeropagus. Think of the Jesuit missionaries translating the Tao te king. “Take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah.” The synod document takes the Vatican II teaching that there are elements of truth to be found outside the Church as a metaphor for how the Church might relate to what you might call “objectively disordered states of life.” Yes, absolutely, there are objectively good things to be found in states of life contrary to Church teaching. And good evangelization requires making use of “whatsoever things are good.” Of course there are good things there. I don’t think a priest would be very successful evangelizing a gay husband who is caring for a dying husband by telling him there is nothing good in him doing that. Is there a potential pitfall in saying this? Sure. But is it an interesting line of thought? Yes.