Like my colleague David, I have been following the synod of bishops with interest, with my preferred sources being mainly the refreshingly unfiltered (and often quite detailed) reports from the Vatican Information Service via email subscription, and the incomparably lucid reporting of John Allen and his team at Crux. Allen does us a particularly valuable service through his ability to describe and juxtapose the different spins being spun and then getting past them to the bigger picture, without at all papering over any real and serious challenges. (A couple of good representative examples are here and here, and his “now what?” summary offers a helpful reminder of the responsibility that rests on all of us Catholics in how we respond to the concerns the synod has raised.)
Much could be said about the synod’s content and proceedings, and much indeed deserves to be said about a number of topics that may be less “hot-button” to us Americans but are no less pressing for the Church overall. Yet the particular concern I have to raise, in my own attempt at juxtaposing the narratives, is that much of the cheerleading from the sidelines expressing hopes and fears for the synod’s outcome has been essentially divided between what can be described as an idealist right and a realist left. Or to put it another way, the synod is largely portrayed as a standoff between doctrinal rigidity and pastoral laxity, which casts a pretty dim light on both doctrine and pastoral care.
If I may be allowed a couple of admitted caricatures for the sake of argument, it’s as if there are some who want the synod fathers to say to couples and families, “Here are the rules, and don’t come crying to us if you mess up,” while others are hoping for something more like, “Well, here’s the ideal, but we don’t really expect you to live up to it.”
Can’t we do better than that?
That was essentially the question raised last year by USCCB president Joseph Kurtz, who voiced a concern for safeguarding not simply marriage in the abstract, but already existing marriages – and therefore a wariness of losing “the bigger picture of improving the Church’s support for married couples still trying to make it work,” or of sending those couples an implicitly pessimistic message. Apparently, some of the bishops at this year’s synod have answered that question with a resounding, “Yes, we can!”, calling for greater emphasis on helping the Church’s members to live its teachings.
This appears to have been a recurring point throughout the synod, especially in some of the smaller working groups. It’s especially strong in the report on the third part of the synod’s working document from English-language working group C, which reported being struck “that so much attention is paid to families in trouble that there is not enough focus on the need to support all families.” They added, “Our sense was that the final document should stress that all families, troubled or not, need to be accompanied in an ongoing way. It also needed to make the point that families should minister to families, especially to those in difficulty.” The English group D similarly “stressed the need to support the many families that already live the Catholic understanding of marriage and family life joyfully.”This theme makes me think back to Bishop Robert Barron’s keynote address at the World Meeting of Families, where he made the point that the moral demands of Christian discipleship and the radical mercy we are offered and called to offer in turn do not make a zero-sum equation, as if we could only emphasize one by downplaying the other. Rather, just as we affirm our Lord to be both fully human and fully divine, Christian life is “the moral demand all the way and mercy all the way.” He also described a golfing lesson which, even after following instructions that (literally) stretched him, in the end made such a difference that he was begging for more. That, he explained, brought home what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “Lord, I love your law!”
Perhaps one thing the bishops are trying to demonstrate, and this very much as pastors, is what moral demand and mercy look like in combination. And perhaps what it adds up to is encouragement.
At the risk of making a somewhat paternalistic analogy, I am reminded of a commercial I saw somewhere recently which shows a French mother teaching her child to ride a bike. As the child takes off, the mother can be heard saying, “Tu peux, tu peux, tu peux!” You can, you can, you can! Perhaps this is just the sort of image of encouragement Pope Francis means to evoke by constantly referring to the Church as mother.
Perhaps it is also the third way, not so much between condemnation and laxity as something radically other than either: “to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord,” as Pope Francis said in his concluding address to the synod fathers. Conversion is a continual part of the entire Christian life, and it isn’t easy. Nor can it be subsumed by an ideology: if we are tempted to pitch our tents too squarely in the “idealist vs. realist” camps in relation to a Catholic vision of family life, it’s worth recalling that the same dichotomy easily skews in the other direction when it comes to, say, practicing social justice and peacemaking. Yet these are inseparable parts of the life of discipleship to whose very possibility the Church must bear witness.
Imagine if, instead of the caricatured statements above, the Church’s message to anyone embarking on married life (or ordained or religious life, or indeed the Christian life through the sacraments of initiation) were clearly heard as something like the following:
“This is no easy thing you’re doing. There will be challenges. There will be hardships. There will be mistakes. There will be demands made of you. You will even be asked to die to yourself. And you may at times struggle to fulfill the commitment you’re making. But here’s the good news: with the help of God, your parish community, and the whole Church, you can. And we will be here to help you every step of the way.”
And the Church – a family writ large – will need, in her own turn, the help of all her members to live out this commitment.