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.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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