Sunday, 5 October 2014

Abortion, Contraception, Homosexuality and Divorce

According to the BBC those are the topics of the two-week Roman Catholic synod starting today.
According to the Vatican the purpose of the synod is to discuss the family. Spot the difference.

More specifically, the official title of the meeting is "Pastoral Challenges To The Family in the Context of Evangelisation". To put it in slightly plainer English, this meeting is to look at "proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner", whilst a second meeting next year looks at "pastoral care of the person and the family".

It is important to note that the preparatory document puts relating the Gospel to the family in the context of "preaching the Gospel to all creation". Unlike much of the comment which has arisen from various pressure groups, this official position does not directly reflect the commonly held church prejudice that focuses on marriage to the exclusion of single people.

The preparatory document lists many new concerns about the family:
The many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system; a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life; underlying trends of thought in legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right. Within the Church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage and the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance show signs of weakness or total abandonment.
That's a long list and, creditably, it does not just focus on the concerns of relatively wealthy Westerners.

The classic church response to challenges has been to focus on rules and restrictions: "Thou shalt not". It is just possible that the new Pope's approach over these meetings will be different:
By simply calling to mind the fact that, as a result of the current situation, many children and young people will never see their parents receive the sacraments, then we understand just how urgent are the challenges to evangelization arising from the current situation, which can be seen in almost every part of the “global village”. Corresponding in a particular manner to this reality today is the wide acceptance of the teaching on divine mercy and concern towards people who suffer on the periphery of societies, globally and in existential situations.
"The current situation" quoted being that remarried divorcees are excluded  from taking communion in Roman Catholic churches. Focussing on divine mercy and concern for the marginalised is a new approach (in this context). Hopefully it will lead the Catholic Church, which has around a billion followers, onto a new path which is less focussed on social control than in the past, and more focussed on helping people where they actually are.

Personally I think it would be good to see that extending to an affirmation of committed gay marriages, and an encouragement for such couples to have children - whether by adoption or artificial insemination - and so form the faithful stable families that Roman Catholic teachings say they are so keen on. Although I suspect that would be many steps too far.

Not that a different approach is guaranteed. The (US-based) Catholic News Agency is busy reporting on (plugging) more conservative views on the family and pressing for simple restatement of old teachings. For example:
“Men and women need desperately to hear the truth about why they should get married in the first place,” the letter states. “And, once married, why Christ and the Church desire that they should remain faithful to each other throughout their lives on this earth.” The letter said that men and women need to know that in times of marital difficulty the Church will be “a source of support, not just for individual spouses, but for the marriage itself.”
In other words the pastoral needs of individuals should be secondary to protecting and promoting the institution. The letter they are reporting on also describes marriage and the family as "indispensible", a real kick in the teeth to the vast army of single people who faithfully serve Jesus as part of the Roman Catholic church.

So this synod is an opportunity for a major change of tone and focus for the Roman Catholic church (although not on the underlying fundamental values). However the forces of conservatism and authoritarianism are mobilising to stop that happening.

I am a bit dubious about the operation of the Holy Spirit through church denominations, indeed through organised religion in general, but if ever there was a time for prayer that the Spirit's movement might be truly effective, this is surely it. The lives of a billion people could be affected, for better or for worse.

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