A supposed "earthquake" hit the Vatican this week with the release of an obscure document, a mid-play summary of the proceedings of the synod of bishops convened by Pope Francis on the question of the family.
What did all the shaking? The Vatican's supposedly new approach to affirming the good even in irregular family situations — e.g. couples that are unmarried, were previously divorced and remarried, or are same-sex — and to leading people "gradually" to a fuller understanding of Church teaching. But much of what has been hailed as a great discovery in this document is in fact not a discovery at all, but a truth so plain and old that it seems odd to call it revolutionary.
The report, it should be noted, is not an authoritative document of the Church, and has already been subject to criticism and some measure of disavowal. One of the signatories said he couldn't even explain some of it.
That said, the document is not entirely without weight. Even a rejected document like the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control can be a source of controversy and debate for decades. So what, exactly, is at its core?
Cardinal Erdo explained that the Church should not deny "the possibility of recognizing positive elements" in relationships that fall short of the Catholic marital ideal. The report itself said, "It is not wise to think of unique solutions or those inspired by a logic of 'all or nothing.'"
These statements are dressed up as arguments, but they have no opponent. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine taught that sin, evil, or imperfection is the absence of some good, not the absence of all good. When the Church condemns adulterous "re-marriage" it is not condemning the adulterer for paying his electric bills on time, or providing loving attention to his children. It's just condemning the adultery part of adultery.
The other headline-grabbing concept from this synod is the "law of graduality," which is based on the idea that people are not always able to rectify their lives immediately, but can change slowly. Understood this way, "the law of graduality" is just another commonplace. It would be difficult to find a good confessor in the church who did not already apply it, along with the previous counsel of affirming the good. Premising a revolution of the Church's self-understanding on these ideas seems odd.
Unless of course you affirm "graduality" in a more broadly conceived way. The Church's teaching on marriage is not a set of unreachable ideals, it's the normal vocation for most members. It is a lived reality, and certain faults are not just falling short of some Catholic Stepford wives ideal, but sins to be avoided. Endlessly dwelling on the good in the irregular situations can be a cowardly pastor's way of avoiding a confrontation with sin. And more sadly, it can rob us poor sinners of the chance to experience a transformation of life.
The synod's report talks about creating a church that welcomes everyone even when its members are in irregular situations. That's an odd way of putting it since one of the Ten Commandments not only welcomes people to the Church, but positively obliges them to come whatever their state of life. There are no bouncers at the door of your local Catholic Church looking up divorce records.
Considering the nearly negligent lack of marriage preparation offered across the Church (one acknowledged by at least some prelates), it is difficult to imagine the average priest striving heroically to "accompany" people through irregular situations if the synod's emphasis is not on calling them to transformation. When confronted with the argument that those in a state of grave sin — which an adulterous civil re-marriage most certainly is — are required to amend their state of life before receiving communion, Cardinal Kasper sniffed that he "admired" those who do, but it was "a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian."
It is an irony that the synod documents acknowledge the way that the Western world is increasingly turning marriage into a capstone, or economic "luxury" item, but one of the major proposals considered in Rome makes it into a moral luxury. Christian marriage is quietly transformed into supererogatory virtue, an ideal for the "heroic" few. The synod risks leaving the doctrine of marriage unchanged, but also placing the reality of marriage further away from a culture in want of it.
Churchmen in Rome must remember that their own teaching on marriage is not some punishing law, but an invitation to participate in the life of God himself. It is premised on a full Christian understanding of God's relationship to man and to history. It has a power of attraction.
Pope Benedict XVI said that "the inexpressible fact, the mystery of God's love for men and women, receives its linguistic form from the vocabulary of marriage and the family, both positive and negative" How so? The openness to life required in Christian marriage reflects God's generosity in Creation itself. The sins of Israel in the Old Testament, namely of idolatry, are conceived of as a form of adultery. Meanwhile the indissolubility of marriage is premised on Christ's faithfulness to the Church. The entirety Gospel of John can be read as a romantic epic about the "true bridegroom" coming to rescue his beloved. It is this understanding, so clearly articulated that gives people hope and the power to transform their lives.
It would be a shame if the Church, in its rush to meet people where they are, forgot the way to bring them back home.