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A Reflection on the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome
THE CHURCH: A CITY BUILT ON A HILLTOP
Like a city built on a hilltop, the Church is once again in the limelight. The recently concluded Extraordinary Synod on the Family held in Rome (Oct.5-19) has smacked off a flurry of reactions in and outside the Church. The information making rounds gives an erroneous impression that the Church’s stance on homosexuality and her teachings on the status of the divorced and re-married with reference to the Eucharist, family life and other matters pertaining thereto, has changed.
We understand the hysteria and confusion that such misconceptions can create amongst the faithful; with many wandering what to believe and what not to. This worry is exacerbated by media propaganda and the many discordant voices of unauthorized persons who undertake to interpret the propositions of the Synod Fathers. It is therefore expedient under these circumstances, to allay these rampaging fears, uphold the orthodoxy of our faith and reassure the people of God that the Church’s teaching which draws from Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium is unharmed.
Between October 5 and 19, Pastors and lay people from every part of the world gathered in Rome to discuss the difficulties and innumerable challenges confronting the family with the hope of finding concrete solutions to these problems and providing pastoral direction to care for families in these situations. Such discussions are by no means poised at proposing unprecedented doctrine or altering the teachings of the Church on matters of faith and morals. Rather, to promote dialogue between faith and reason, and reexamine the relationship between doctrine and discipline in order to better understand the revealed truth, enrich the Christian doctrine and communicate the deposit of faith to men and women of today in a language they understand and can relate to.
Synod literally means “Journeying/Walking together.” Every Synod is a journey of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Unlike other journeys of life, Christ is the pacesetter of this journey. That some were tempted to move too fast and others too slow during the Synod cannot be gainsaid. In his concluding message at the Synod, Pope Francis noted five temptations that a gathering like the Synod, and perhaps, our anxiety over its outcome, can expose us to, namely, (i) The temptation to a hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself with the written word…From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and the so called traditionalists and intellectuals … (ii.) The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness, that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the do-gooders…the so called “progressive and liberals.” (iii.) The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (Lk.4:1-4), and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak and the sick (Jn.8:7), that is to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk.11:46) (iv.) The temptation to come down off the cross, to please the people…to bow down to worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God… and (v) And the temptation to neglect the deposit of faith… We all must avoid these temptations. The barque of Peter always weathers the storm as long as Christ is the captain for “the gate of the underworld cannot prevail against it.” (Matt.16:18)
The contentious issues came from the mid-term report of the Synod which gave the impression that the Church has endorsed homosexuality and approved the reception of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried.
Let us set the records straight. The Church is a mother and a teacher. As a Mother she welcomes all her children, saints and sinners alike. She loves the sinner but hates the sin. She judges actions not persons. With fraternal charity and compassion she goes after the weak, the lost, the abandoned, the condemned seeking new ways of caring for them pastorally and bringing them back to fold. As a teacher, she instructs, corrects, directs, and rebukes where necessary (1Tim.5:20). This was the overriding approach of the Synod fathers. “And when the Church in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err.” (Pope Francis)
On homosexuality and homosexual persons, the Synod in no way altered the teaching of the Church. From time immemorial, the Church has always condemned homosexuality as a disordered sexual action that is intrinsically evil, gravely immoral and entirely unnatural (i.e contrary to natural and divine law; Rom.1:22-28; 1Tim.1:10; Jude1:7; Lev.20:13). The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it thus: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, Tradition always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural order. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstance can they be approved.’” (CCC 2357) However, the Church indentifies persons with homosexual tendencies and calls for tolerance, sympathy and love in the bid to help them overcome this challenge. The Church teaches: “They do not choose their sexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination should be avoided” (CCC 2358).
The Synod Fathers proposed that we receive such persons with respect and sensitivity (Relatio Synodi,55). The Church, in the image of Christ the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10), has always desired to welcome people who knock on its door, a door open to all, who are to be received with respect, compassion, and with the recognition of the dignity of each individual. But she does this in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia puts it, “none of us are welcome in our own terms in the Church. We are welcome on Jesus’ terms. That is what it means to be a Christian – you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.”
Again, the Synod did not in any way propose a change in the doctrine of the Church regarding the indissolubility of marriage and the non-admission of re-married divorcees to the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. While maintaining the indissolubility of marriage, the Synod fathers made effort to apply the constant doctrine of the Church to diverse and painful situations of our day and time with a renewed perspective of compassion and mercy with regard to individuals in such situations. To this end the Synod fathers made the following submissions:
Divorced people who have not remarried, who oftentimes bear witness to their promise of faithfulness in marriage, ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life. The local community and pastors ought to accompany these people with solicitude, particularly when children are involved or when in serious financial difficulty. (Relatio Synodi, 50)
Likewise those who are divorced and remarried require careful discernment and accompaniment of great respect. Despite consideration of possibility of giving these people access to the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, the Synod fathers insisted on maintaining the present regulations, because of the constitutive relationship between participation in the Eucharist and communion with the Church as well as the teaching on the indissoluble character of marriage (Relatio Synodi, 53).
Come to think of it, the Church is the bride of Christ, and marriage is modeled after this inseparable bond of love between Christ and the Church (Eph.5:25-27). It follows then that just as Christ cannot divorce his bride, the Church, so also, divorce has no place in marriage, for no man can tear asunder what God has joined together (Mark 10:19).
While it is true that marriage is under great attack in our secularized and counter cultural world, we must also bear in mind that the truth about marriage is at the foundation of the life of the Church and her teachings on God’s love for us, because marriage is the sacrament of divine love, of God’s faithful, enduring and fruitful love for his people. The Church is aware of this and cannot afford to get it wrong. Church documents such as “Casti connubii” of Pope Pius XI, “Humanae Vitae” of Pope Paul VI, “Familiaris consortio” of John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly spell out the Teaching of the Church on marriage as enshrined in the Sacred Scripture.
What we all must take away from the Synod and most importantly from the pastoral approach of the pontificate of Pope Francis is the Christocentric call to love the sinner but hate the sin. In doing this however, we must avoid the extremes of bigotry and liberalism. The bigot as Jacque Maritain argues begins by hating the sin but then transfer his hatred to the sinner and ends up, hating them both. The liberal on the other hand, begins by his love, sympathy and tolerance of the sinner and ends up, transferring his love, sympathy and affection to the sin, sometimes even to the point of attempting the sin. Both bigots and liberals are at odds with Christ. As Christians, we are called to make a distinction between the sin and the sinner; we are to hate the sin but love the sinner.
But most importantly, we are called to love in truth. Out of love and compassion for the sinner, the Christian is duty-bound to caution the sinner about the sin and its consequences for the salvation of his or her soul. Despite his hatred for cancer, the love for the patient does not prevent the physician from telling him he has cancer. The Church calls this truth-telling, fraternal correction – “for in love there is no fear”. In Caritas in Veritate, Emeritus Pontiff noted: “Only in truth can charity shine forth. Without truth charity degenerates into sentimentality, love becomes an empty shell, to be filled with an arbitrary way. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotion and opinion.” (CV, 3). This must be avoided. Invariably, Truth without Charity degenerates into arrogance, self-righteousness and insensitivity. This also must be avoided. Like Jesus Christ, our role-model, we are called to hate sin and love the sinner. We are called to be the light of the world (Matt.5:14).
Over and above all, we owe the Synod fathers our prayers, spiritual support and obedience of faith. Instead of distracting ourselves with media speculations and getting anxious about the outcome of the General Synod coming up in the Fall of 2015, let us turn inwards and pay attention to own our lives. All of us are individually answerable to God. Whether we are lay persons or clerics or religious, we shall all give account of our stewardship before the Almighty God. Let us therefore seize the opportunity that Advent provides to embrace interior conversion, renew our faith and rediscover Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.
Rev. Fr. Anthony Nwosu
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