Put Out into the Deep

A Pastoral Approach to Moral Principles

\My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

As the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family came to a close last Saturday, Pope Francis beatified Blessed Paul VI at the concluding Mass, praising him as a “humble and prophetic witness of love for Christ and his church.” Pope Paul VI, the writer of “Evangelii Nuntiani” and “Humanae Vitae,” confronted the great need for evangelization in the modern world, noting that the Church exists to evangelize. It is certainly not a coincidence that Pope Francis chose to beatify Blessed Paul VI on the last day of Part I of the Synod on Marriage and the Family.

The official midterm report focused on the challenges and virtues of traditional families, expressing solidarity with Christian families around the world, and offered possible new pastoral approaches to a wide-range of family and relationship situations. We must remember the process of a synod, with its final working document now presented to the Holy Father, who will review the suggestions offered to him by the synod. Pope Francis will then write a Post-Synodal document, which has the full teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff. Can the Pope use all of the suggestions that he receives, and does he agree with them? That is an unanswered question, whose answer we will not know until the Post-Synodal document is released, most probably sometime before next year’s World Meeting of Families to be held in Philadelphia in September.

What we do know about the synod has been interpreted in many ways by the press and commentators. Clearly, one principle has guided the discussion of the Synod Fathers, and that is the principle of gradualness. It is a simple pastoral principle, not invented by the synod, however, long in use, especially by confessors who patiently try to move their penitents from sin along the way of virtue. For most, this is a gradual process. Although conversion can be immediate, the results sometimes mean one step forward and one step back as is part of the human condition. In fact, one national newspaper headline read, “Catholic Changes, Step Forward or Back?” It seems to me that as the Church contemplates the world in which we live, it recognizes the moral situation, which to many can look like a step backward – backward in a sense of weakening and loosening moral principles once tightly held. To others who propose the application of a principle of gradualness, a more pastoral approach to making progress in virtue is preferable. For example, much of the world has moved away from the practice of polygamy. This was a gradual process; it did not happen overnight. While more primitive cultures might still practice polygamy, some accuse Western culture of practicing serial monogamy, and there is even evidence of a reversion to polygamy. Another example is the issue of divorce and remarriage. Can there be a more gradual approach in judging particular situations which objectively seem to be sinful? Yet another example treated by the synod is the issue of homosexual relations, or more directly our respect for the dignity of persons with homosexual attraction.

Personally, I do not believe that the synod will move us away from long-held objective moral principles. At the same time, however, we may discover a new pastoral approach that enhances our respect for the dignity of every human person, be they saint or sinner.

It is useless to speculate on what might happen and what results the synod will bring. I found one interesting religion commentator, a Protestant, putting in his two cents on something very important. Jacob Lupfer of Religion News Service said, “As a Protestant, I can live in the tension between wishing for compassion toward LGBT people and grace for remarried Catholics on the one hand, and an abiding sympathy for the Catholic Church’s comprehensive moral vision on the other. The Catholic Church is a humane bulwark against a destructively permissive and pornographic culture where everything is commodified and nothing is sacred. To that end, perhaps it would be better if more Catholics submitted to church teaching. But on some level, I remain grateful that Rome has no authority over my conscience. The trouble for the Church is that a lot of Catholics think like I do.”

Sometimes wisdom comes from the most unlikely places. The fact of the matter is that the Church is a former of conscience and has a responsibility to do so. The Church does not become the conscience of individual Catholics; however, the Church has the responsibility of forming those consciences by teaching moral principles derived not only from Sacred Scripture but also from the long moral tradition of the Church. This is the tension which we now feel. How can we best form our consciences to conform to what the truth is about the human person?

There is no question that the Synod on the Family has truly put out into the deep and sometimes murky waters of crafting a pastoral approach to the complex moral issues of our day. We know that the Church cannot fail to be a mother who teaches us the correct way. We all are concerned about the family in the modern world and all of the varieties of relationships that seem to substitute for family life. As the synod concludes, we pray that its results truly will enhance the teaching of the Church called to be a mother to all.

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