Random Reflections on the Synod

Random Reflections on the Synod October 22, 2015

I have been more or less following the news from Rome about the meeting of the Synod of Bishops.  There has been the flap about the letter from 13 cardinals to Pope Francis, first revealed by Sandro Magister, and of course there has been extended discussion about the question of admitting the divorced and remarried to communion.  In this regard, there was an excellent reflection by Elizabeth Scalia (which, she later wrote, even startled her when she read it).

But I have been thinking about some of the deeper, more complicated issues related to marriage and the family, ones that I think the Church must address (or perhaps I should say, address better) if we are going to get anywhere in the modern world.  In no particular order, and with no particular claim that these are deep thoughts, I want to raise four points.

1) How can we make sense of the difference between a marriage that never was (i.e. null) and irretrievably broken?  When a marriage fails after 20 years and a civil divorce follows, this is a critically important distinction for determining whether to grant an annulment and permit remarriage.    But to many people, including many Catholics, this is a distinction without a difference:  in both cases, the marriage no longer exists.   The Church can talk about marriage as a permanent union of man and woman, and quote the NT “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mt 19:6), but when they are separated (in all senses), it seems counter-intuitive to insist on the dichotomy that either the bond never was or in fact still exists (despite all the evidence to the contrary).

2) Is traditional Catholic teaching on marriage able to cope with the seismic shift caused by modern medical technology?  One could read this question narrowly as being about artificial contraception, and this is clearly an important issue:  we have thrashed the statistics multiple times in the past, but I think it is agreed that a majority (or at least a large plurality) of Catholics in the US reject Church teaching on this subject. (This does not mean that Catholic teaching is wrong, but it does mean that it is not being heard.)  However, I think this question needs to be understood more broadly, since birth control is but one facet of this issue.  I think more important is the fact that within a century, maternal and infant mortality rates have plummeted in the developed world, and a universally accepted goal of development work is lowering these rates in the third world.   A century ago, maternal death rates throughout the world were on the order of 1,000 per 100,000 live births; currently in the US (an outlier in the developed world) they are around 20 per 100,000  (see the pdf document here).  Infant mortality rates have plunged from between 100 and 200 per 1,000 live births to 1-2 per 1,000 (see data here).  For 1900 years, Catholic understanding of marriage and family was shaped by this grim reality, and in a relatively short time, everything has changed.  Has our understanding of marriage been able to adapt?   Obviously,  transcendent realities are not affected, but these are more than epiphenomena—they are fundamental changes in the lives of the faithful, and it is worth asking if our theological understanding of marriage has kept up with the pastoral circumstances.

3)  It is now generally accepted that Aristotelian biology, as science, is wrong.  This calls into question Scholastic theology that is based on Aristotelian biology.  This point was explored recently in a guest post by T. Renee Kozinski.  To what extent has Catholic teaching on marriage been shaped by an incorrect understanding of biology?  Again, this point often comes up in debates about artificial contraception, but it has broader import.  For example, I have multiple times blogged about how Catholic understanding of gender roles are nominally based on eternal, biological truths, but often seem to be shaped social norms of a previous age.  (See, for example, here and here.)  In asking this question I am not (necessarily) giving credence to every post-modernist theory about the fluidity and socially constructed nature of gender identity, but I think we need to ask it.  In the same way, we need to scrutinize other “facts” about marriage and family life that seem at odds with today’s understanding.  The “world” may well be wrong, but that does not mean that we are automatically right.

4) In helping to define the 1992 presidential campaign, James Carville coined the now famous epigram “[It’s] the economy, stupid.”  To what extent does economic systems, in particular, post-industrial capitalism, affect marriage, and does Catholic teaching adequately address these issues?  I actually got thinking about this question last year when I ran into a pre-capitalist example.   We were on vacation in Nova Scotia and touring the Fortress of Louisbourg, a reconstruction of an 18th century French fort and town.  Part of the economic importance of the town lay in the cod fisheries in the area.  Large numbers of men (thousands, perhaps tens of thousands) came from Europe annually to work in the fishing industry.  They did not live there permanently; they came for the fishing season and then returned home (mostly to France, but there were Irish, Spaniards and others as well).    What impact did this have on marriage and family life?  Were these men married, or did they delay marriage until later?  What happened to the marriages at home when the men “went native” and decided to stay in the New World?   But just as medical technology has had a significant impact on marriage and family life, so has capitalism.   Has Catholic teaching on marriage adapted to this changing reality?  Catholic social teaching has, and this has indirectly reflected on marriage and family life.  For instance, consider Pope Leo XIII and his teaching on a just wage being necessary to support a family.   But many of these things are tangential to the heart of Catholic teaching on marriage.

In retrospect, having written these points, I see that I mostly have a lot of questions.  I will be interested in hearing your answers, or even whether I have asked the right questions.


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