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What We Don’t Already Know

When I read in the National Catholic Reporter blog that thirteen German moral theologians and pastoral theologians signed a document critiquing Catholic moral teaching on sexual issues, it did not surprise me or raise my expectations for the Synod on the Family. After all, theologians have been reflecting on sexual morality in various thoughtful and rigorous ways for years. Not all of their conclusions match those which have been proposed by the magisterium. But almost no one in the hierarchy seems to listen to those whose conclusions do not match theirs, so it has virtually no effect on deliberations in Rome.

To be sure, the theologians made some worthwhile suggestions. These included a “new paradigm for evaluating sexual acts” that would consist of at least three dimensions: a caring dimension to protect what is fragile; an emancipatory dimension which takes  “the side of those who lose in relationships, the ones who are left and hurt to the core;” and a reflexive dimension which honors the joy of intimacy along with the vulnerability it entails. All good thoughts. But who is listening?

The recent observations, on the other hand, made by Martin Gächter, auxiliary bishop of Basel in Switzerland and published in his diocesan newspaper and the Swiss Catholic publication KIPA, did surprise me—both for their candor about the extent of the problem and for the bishop's admission that the Church doesn’t have all the answers. He said we must seek a common understanding through respectful, open exchange and patient listening. In his own words:

There is today, within and outside the church, no common understanding of marriage, family, and sexuality. In order to arrive at one, we presently need much exchange, openness, and patience. Each must listen closely to others. Every life experience must be taken seriously. It is important in this that we not reject or judge others. Only God can rightly evaluate a person. And also the Church can never say of someone that God condemns them, or certainly not that they are going to hell.  (HT and tr. Anthony Ruff, OSB)

Can you imagine an American bishop saying something like this? I can’t. Our episcopate may contain bishops who think such thoughts, but they would never say so in public. The expression of anything other than total affirmation of traditional magisterial certitudes concerning sexual morality has been taboo for decades. And indeed many give the impression that they are fine with this state of affairs. Why listen, if you already know all the answers? You’d only be encouraging error and false hope of changes in Church teaching.

In fact, so cold has been the deep freeze on free discussion around such topics that when I first heard about the Synod on the Family I wondered who would speak any words at all, except to echo the Church’s already-decided positions. I thought everyone who had a different point of view had been silenced or dismissed long ago.

It certainly is true that Pope Francis has been attempting to change the frame by the pastoral priorities he embodies and the words he speaks. In his worldview, the experience of the poor is important. Mercy is important. Advancing a bishop’s career is not important. Speaking the truth is important. Listening is important. Maintaining appearances is not important.

What I have been waiting for, however, is some sign that there are bishops out there who are ready to step into that new frame. Because if they don’t, the Synod on the Family will be nothing more than an echo chamber, another chance to reaffirm What We Already Know.

One Swiss bishop does not a discussion make, of course. If Bishop Gächter is the only one convinced there is something bishops must discover by means of listening, we might as well resign ourselves to a lot of surveys filled out in vain. But maybe there other bishops too who believe that “Each must listen closely to others. Every life experience must be taken seriously.” If so, the Synod might actually turn out to be interesting.


Commenting Guidelines

Ann, the question of how marriage came to be understood as a sacrament, and what is entailed by such an understanding today, is (as you might imagine) complex. Augustine indeed led the way in the West by referring to marriage as a sacramentum, but this is the Latin translation of the Greek term in Ephesians, mysterion. In Latin, the word sacramentum means oath, which made an easy bridge to the idea of permanance in terms of lifelong fidelity of the spouses, but other sorts of depth are called to mind by the word mysterion. In any case, Paul's objective is Christological; he is not defining marriage so much as using it as a metaphor for Christ's relationship with the Church. 

Leaving aside St. Paul for a minute, the contrast between patristic and scholastic understandings with respect to the indissolubitilty of marriage is also important to note. It was usefully pinpointed by J. Martos in his book on the history of the sacraments as follows:

Following the lead of Augustine, the scholastics argued that this metaphysical bond [of matrimony] was unbreakable since it was a sign of the equally unbreakable union between Christ and the church. It was not, as in the early church, that marriage as a sacred reality should not be dissolved; now it was argued that the marriage bond as a sacred reality could not be dissolved. According to the church fathers the dissolution of marriage was possible but not permissible; according to the schoolmen it was not permissible because it was not possible. Thus the absolute prohibition against divorce arose in the twelfth century both as a canonical regulation supported by a sacramental theory, and as a theological doctrine buttressed by ecclesiastical law. The two came hand in hand.

(Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church, revised edition, Ligouri/Triumph, 2001, p. 377)

So, in brief, the history of the sacraments holds more than one way to understand the phenomenon of marriage. The sacramental-legal synthesis which we have inherited is venerable, but is itself the result of development which can and must be revisited when pressing pastoral realities demand it. 

I think we can all agree that within the context of revelation that marriage is intended as a stable, permanent union that provides the foundational building block of society. Further, Jesus affirmed the indisolubility of marriage especially for those seeking to live in the kingdom of God. These principles say nothing about how people who fail in marriage should live their lives, nor about how members of the church are to deal with this sad but irreversible fact of life. Interestingly, the clerical class with their belief in celibacy as a superior state in life established laws which forbad remarriage while the prior spouse is still alive. Is this not clearly a teaching that has not been received by those most affected by it? How did we arrive at a sacramental economy which treats remarriage for those whose prior unions are irretrievably lost as an unforgivable sin? The obvious solution for those still seeking God's love is for pastors to be generous dispensers of God's mercy. And that solution has been available from pastors for a very long time. There is nothing novel about it. Our own experience of God's unconditional love demands it. 

Thanks, Jim P. I'll try it.

And thanks too to Rita and John Feehily for their comments. I learned something helpful from Riita's comment on the difference between the patristic and the scholastic views  and appreciate John Feehily's perspective.

Ann and Crystal:  I think that children deserve care by people who love them.  Ideally this will be a couple who either birthed or adopted them, but there can be other arrangements that, if they are capable of lovingly raising children, that is good, too.

Regarding the necessity of a mother and a father:  don't forget that most people were born into that situation and look at some of the horrible results!  As my father told me:  any damned fool can breed (any way too many do), but it takes good people to be parents.

Jim P and Rita - thanks for following up on JPII and his lack of mercy toward resigned priests.  If my sources are correct, various key bishops/cardinals worked on him for years to change his stance (one thinks of what he learned by observing the communist appartchiks) and that what finally moved him was the argument that these men's wives and children were left in *limbo* - obviously, most of these men moved on; married; had families and yet many of these children and wives were left in a sacramental void - thus, they argued from one of his passions, family support, that his stance did more harm than good.

This may be a *church myth* but remember that my canon lawyer gave this explanation.

Sorry, don't have and can't locate any documentation around this process or decision.

Rita --

Thanks a bunch for all that information about the early fathers' and the scholastics' views on  marriage.  I had no idea they were so different.  I was taught the straight scholastic view as if there were no other.  And I wonder if they're really compatible.

For instance, it would seem that a contract that is essentially a mystery (in *any* sense) would be impossible, at least not a contract in the ordinary sense of the term.  And if it's not being used in an ordinary sense, then just what does/did it mean?

As to the analogy of the relationship of Christ to the Church and Holy Matrimony == which is the primary analogate?  I mean which is the relationship which tells us something about the other relationship?  And regardless of which is which, metaphorical uses of terms in theology are very dangerous because metaphors are *always* dangerous in argumentation.  

And isn't that word "mysterion" always an admission of a lack of knowledge and some sort of uncertainty?

Obviously, the conception of marriage as a lifelong commitment, sacramental or otherwise, is incredibly important even if it is no longer ubiquitous.  It is still normative, even if it is not exactly "normal."  So my complaint isn't so much with the ideals or definitions surrounding marriage, but with the ferocious coupling of marriage with all sexual activity in a way that makes it difficult to  counsel or even just to be honest with one's children in how to behave ethically and responsibly outside of marriage.  Most people are sexually active before marriage, and for most of these people, this sexual activity not only doesn't ruin their lives, but if it forestalls early and improvident marriage, it probably is pragmatically helpful.  I know the rejoinders, what about unwanted pregnancies and the Church's dogma surrounding contraception and on and on.  But that's sort of my point -- to a certain extent the Church has locked itself into a stance on marriage that is itself the pragmatic (or even essential) outcome of not wanting to revisit anything related to sexuality, rather than an organic understanding of the married state.   Arguing about who has the right to get married in the church is so far afield from is really at stake in this debate that you can't really blame people for seeing the withholding of sacramental blessing as being an increasingly meaningless stigma -- look at how many people don't get married at all, even when they have children. 

Rita - one of my scriptural and sacramental profs used the term - *covenant* to describe both the relationship of the Trinity to the Church and then the relationship in marriage.

As they described and drilled down on *covenant* you learn that the core of this relationship is not *legal* (in the western sense) nor is it a *contract* (again, in the Western sense).

The defintion has much more to do with loving trust; forgivenss; walking together on a journey; etc.

Many of these discussions appear to completely ignore this reality - would call this a ressouorcement.

There's been a lot of talk since the announcement of the October meeting on the family about divorced people and the Church extending mercy to them.  I can't help but feel that there needs to be some talk about mercy towards the children of problem marriages, not just discussion of mercy towards the parents.  Who, if anyone, will speak for the children at the meeting?

My best friend is a lawyer and a law school honor graduate.  Years ago she attempted to start a practice that specialized in representing children.  To her surprise she found that there was relatively little law which required that a child have legal representation even when the child seems to need it.  For instance, as I remember, no states require that children have their own lawyers to represent their interests in their parents' divorce proceedings.  And there apparently wasn't a demand for lawyers for children in other matters, so the practice went nowhere.

I just can't see separating the interests of children from the problems of their parents. 

Interesting development here:

"Colorado proposal would require pre-marriage education classes

Published January 21, 2014


A California group has proposed a ballot initiative in Colorado that would require couples who want to get married to take mandatory pre-marriage education classes. "


The question, of course, is would this kind of class be equal to or better than the results that come from Pre-Cana and Cana classes?


I can imagine a U.S. Bishop saying this: Walter F. Sullivan, late of Richmond, Virginia. But he has been dead now for over a year and we will never see his like again.

Judith, thanks for remembering Bishop Sullivan. Let's hope he is praying for us.

It's interesting to me that the two American bishops named in the thread are Sullivan and Gumbleton, both "peace" bishops, and both iconic figures of a style of leadership which is now rare to the point of extinction in the American episcopate.