Beyond Yes or No: The Anti-Dichotomy Queen Takes On the Synod

Beyond Yes or No: The Anti-Dichotomy Queen Takes On the Synod October 25, 2015

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.

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  • OK, Julia Smucker, I get what you’re saying and partially agree with you, but I DON’T believe that the Catholic Church is giving enough encouragement to those whom local cultures find “disgraceful” or “shameful.” The Catholic system SHOULD be able to embrace the stigmatized in all cultures and to encourage them to “take up their crosses”–and, perhaps, indeed, to be proud of them, but you know, as well as I do, that it has NOT been able to do that historically.

    In addition to that, here is something I wrote over at the London Spectator, which has been featuring long, tedious and extremely biased, tendentious arguments about the Synod in which I was myself provoked to join in:

    I thoroughly agree with you. However, as much as I DO sympathize with the situations of the divorced and remarried, and of the situations of “gay” folk who would like to be accepted as legitimate members of the Catholic community, and in no wise stigmatized as “intrinsically disordered,” for me–and I strongly suspect, for Pope Francis–these are “wedge issues” within the worldwide Catholic community, on which he and I and millions of other “liberal Catholics” are willing to compromise with the “Traditionalists” (and even with the cruelly doctrinaire and pharisaical one below). The issues that Robert F. Kennedy–who, unlike some members of his family, is a firm Catholic–identifies HERE, however, are those that we are NOT willing to compromise on, and around which I and others who think like me are willing to form alliances with those whose theological temperaments are not like ours. I believe that Pope Francis feels that the “culture wars” within the Catholic Church are diversionary tactics, to encourage the Catholic peoples of the world to give tacit support to the forces of Mammon and Moloch that wish to create a demonic empire of greed that aspires to “commodify” all of human and sentient life on this planet. The issues of the divorcing and remarrying, of the merely divorced, like my dear sister, of the miniscule part of the population who identify as “same-sex-attracted,” pale in comparison with the problems of the world’s poor, who are being crucified by unregulated, Socially Darwinist, “intrinsically” atheistic, neo-liberal economics.

    • Also, Robert F. Kennedy’s article is HERE , and, to me, at least, he sounds remarkably like Pope Francis in his concerns for the world’s poor.

    • Julia Smucker

      Actually, Dismas, I agree with you.

      (Except that I wouldn’t classify Pope Francis as a “liberal” or as sounding like Kennedy, but since there is so much else here on which we are in agreement, perhaps I shouldn’t spoil the occasion with a quibble!)

      • Julia, RFK Jr. isn’t running for any office, to my knowledge, and, therefore, his opinions may justly be taken to be those of one who is simply morally outraged. I think Pope Francis is ALSO “morally outraged” when he voices opinions that are consistent with the teaching of other popes and clergy regarding the “social justice” doctrines of the Church, as they’ve been outlined in previous popes’ encyclicals and pronouncements..

        • Julia Smucker

          True enough. But there is a pretty stark contrast in tone and content, which I see as a difference in their occupational approaches. By which I mean that although Kennedy is not running for office, his rhetoric is that of a politician, making everything a war to the point of getting quite literally apocalyptic about his antagonists. Pope Francis is probably disturbed by many of the same problems, but he approaches them as a pastor, whose aim is not so much the defeat of an enemy as the conversion of all.

          And to be clear, I’m talking about conversion in a broad sense which lets none of us off the hook. Listening to Kennedy’s fiery speech, it gets easy to see oneself on the side of the angels and be content in one’s self-righteousness. Francis, though he speaks with a much gentler tone, is ultimately much more challenging. When no one is demonized, no one is excused.

  • Agellius

    ‘“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.”’

    I certainly agree with this as far as it goes. It seems the only thing you’re not willing to say is “you must”.

    • Julia Smucker

      I understood that to be implicit in the gravity of the commitment (whether to the vocational sacraments or the Christian/Catholic faith in general) and the demands it makes on the people undertaking it. There are good and bad ways to say it. A “you can” seems to me far more likely to encourage fulfillment of Christian obligations than a “you must” by itself.

      Although I suppose the implication is “you can, with help, do what you must,” if you want to think of it that way.

      • Agellius

        I don’t see “you must” to be necessarily implicit in the wording you used. You could interpret it that way, or you could interpret it otherwise. I could easily see the statement, “And if you fail, no one will judge you” added to the end as part of the “good news”.

        I just think that clearly stating obligatory things as obligatory helps people to fulfill their obligations. For one thing, they will understand more clearly what they’re getting into before getting into it.

        • Julia Smucker

          I agree it’s important to know what one is getting into. I think we’re pretty much circling around the same point.

          What I’m trying to stress is that along with a clear understanding of the obligations that certain commitments entail, people need just as much to hear, “And we’re not here to sit back and watch for you to fail so we can judge you; we’re here to help you succeed.”

          Which of course is also a far cry from, “But if you ever decide you can’t keep the promises you’re making, it’s no big deal.” Of course it’s a big deal. And that’s exactly why it should be taken seriously as everyone’s responsibility, not merely that of the individual or the couple alone.

  • Chris

    “But here’s the good news: with the help of God, your parish community, and the whole Church, you can.”

    I appreciate the sentiment in this post and I think there is a sense in which this concluding statement is true.

    But there is another sense in which it is not true: pastoral experience, Catholic doctrine, and cannon law recognise that there are situations in which spouses lack the wherewithall to fulfull their marriage vows.

    Those also are cases in which “And we will be here to help you every step of the way” is important.

    God Bless

  • Agellius


    I agree that we’re not necessarily disagreeing. But I am surprised at how often people speak as though over-strictness and judgmentalism are bigger and more widespread problems in today’s Church than liturgical and moral laxity.

    • Julia Smucker

      We all like to pick our poison, I suppose. And I believe the pope and bishops are ultimately trying to navigate a way between this Scylla and Charybdis of Church polity.

  • Mark VA

    Julia: a very well thought out post!

    I would like to contribute with several observations:

    (a) It seems to me that in our society, and I assume in others as well, family breakdown
    (such as lack of family formation in the first place, single parent households, stresses from low educational and socioeconomic status, etc) is often treated as if it was a natural force, something akin to a hurricane or an earthquake. This is regrettable, since it insinuates feelings of hopelessness with respect to its prevention (I believe David King, in another post, named this “learned helplessness” – well put!), plus an air of fatalism regarding the scope of its effects. Thus, your emphasis on community solidarity and support in forming and strengthening the family (the “Yes, you can!” message) is spot on;

    (b) The effects of family breakdown are very far reaching for individuals and the culture. Here is but one small sample:

    (c) The “idealist vs. realist” dichotomy is a known phenomenon regarding the often overwhelming stresses of life. Norman Davies analyzes this phenomenon in his book “Heart of Europe”:

    Though it contains a highly contextualized historical analysis of the positivist (realist) and romantic (idealist) forces acting in one culture, I believe its lessons are universal. I also hope that you, Julia, as the reigning Queen of all Dichotomies, may give Professor Davies your imprimatur for his elegant (in my view) analysis and resolution. Quick note: he does not tend to the pusillanimous middle in this debate;

    (d) We need concrete examples of contemporary American communities successfully resisting family breakdown, and promoting healthy family life. The Amish and the Mennonite communities come to my mind. I believe that some of their core culture is transferable to the wider society, and would be enormously and universally appealing, if made better known (Matthew 5:14-15 comes to my mind). Perhaps one day you may write for us some of your thoughts on this, Julia.