So What’s So Significant about the Relatio?

By Michael Bayer

In my previous post, I looked at the context for understanding the Relatio post Disceptationem

Okay, so now I know what’s at stake; what does the document actually say?
Let’s go to the text itself. The Introduction states:

In the light of the same discourse we have gathered together the results of our reflections and our dialogues in the following three parts: listening, to look at the situation of the family today, in the complexity of its light and shade; looking, our gaze fixed on Christ, to re-evaluate with renewed freshness and enthusiasm what the revelation transmitted in the faith of the Church tells us about the beauty and dignity of the family; and discussion in the light of the Lord Jesus to discern the ways in which the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family. (Paragraph 4)

Already, that’s huge. The fact that the Synod participants list their task as (1) listening; (2) looking; and (3) discussion, is an immensely important indicator of the shift taking place among the leadership of the Church as they seek to engage both the faithful and the larger society with respect to issues of marriage and the family. Most Church documents begin with a formulation of abstract, incontrovertible first principles, then descend slowly through a deductive line of reasoning that concludes with a practical pastoral prescription. The tone is generally one of instruction and explication. The Church maintains the full deposit of truth, and it is up to the successors of the apostles to draw from that Tradition in order to teach and form the faithful.

couples at synodBy contrast, here, we encounter an inverse methodology, one that is inductive rather than deductive. The bishops are beginning not with a theological exposition of first principles about the nature of sacramental marriage, but with an on-the-ground survey of real human experience as it is currently playing out around the world. This inductive, “What is actually going on in the world?” approach might seem mundane, but its importance cannot be over-stated. Famously, the groundbreaking documents of Vatican II, most notably Gaudium et Spes, utilize this same method of surveying the world in its present form, rather than reformulating neoscholastic maxims.

Anthropological and cultural change today influences all aspects of life and requires an analytic and diversified approach, able to discern the positive forms of individual freedom. (Paragraph 5)

We’re just beginning the first section of the document proper, entitled “Listening.” (Again, big deal.) And already, we’re seeing that tools from the secular culture, e.g. anthropology, are not to be rejected as external to the Church’s mission of salvation, but instead to be conscripted as instruments for analysis and discernment. The culture is changing; we need to disentangle which changes are for the better, and which are not so. So what’s happening?

Lots, the document attests in short space. For many, solitude, particularly as it relates to employment and family life, is a pressing issue. Pope Francis has repeatedly sounded the refrain with regard to the dangers of unemployment and youth who becoming increasingly “isolated” from society. Moreover, this isolation plays into the narcissism and emotional immaturity of many young adults, another theme the Pope has taken up and has linked with the perilous loneliness of old age without children. These challenges would seem to speak more to the experience of those in the Western, industrialized world, but these same paragraphs address arranged marriages, polygamy, and the impediment to family life posed by societies ceaselessly afflicted by war (Paragraphs 7/8). Clearly, the participants of the Synod represent a global church, for these three issues, ones that are relatively unbeknownst to American or European Catholics, undoubtedly define the experience of family life in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

So those are the challenges the Synod has identified; what do we do next?
The Church is called to respond, first, by fixing its gaze on Jesus. This is significant. Rather than to begin by citing previous Vatican documents, we should return our sight to Jesus, and we will see that:

Jesus looked upon the women and the men he met with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps with patience and mercy, in proclaiming the demands of the Kingdom of God. (Paragraph 12)

Love, tenderness, patience, and mercy. Words at the heart of the Gospel message, but not always so prominent in Magisterial pronouncements with respect to marriage and human sexuality. More often, we have grown accustomed to hearing about “natural law,” “grave sin,” and “intrinsically disordered” acts. When it comes to the Catholic Church, tone IS substance, and both the tone and language of this convey unequivocally: when it comes to matters related to the family, our primary role as Church must be as pastors, not canon lawyers.

That sounds like a new approach; what does that mean for particular issues related to marriage and the family?
To be clear, it is not a new approach, so much as it is recuperation of a very ancient approach, one paradigmatically depicted in the public ministry of Jesus himself. And because the emphasis is on Jesus, the Synod participants are intentional to state in several separate paragraphs that Jesus explicitly affirmed the indissolubility of marriage (Paragraphs 14, 15, 18). Many in the media who are reporting that the document, which as noted cannot change Church teaching, signals a shift, are choosing to skip blithely past these very important formulations. (This may be one reason why so many bishops are confused at the public fascination with and either excitement over or backlash to, purported changes in Church thinking on marriage.)

To be perfectly unambiguous: the participants at this Synod do not see themselves as capable of changing Church teaching on the permanent, indissoluble, sacramental nature of marriage, nor do they think that matter is even up for debate. Instead, they are attempting to facilitate a discussion over how best to undertake pastoral ministry, in the year 2014, given the unique socio-economic challenges currently posed.

One proposal that the Synod participants have been considering is the notion of gradualism. Gradualism is at once both an incredibly simple and breathtakingly complex theological concept. In its most basic formulation, gradualism postulates that many persons undergo a gradual process of conversion, rather than the more dramatic “Ah-ha!” moment we tend to think of. Paul may have fallen off the horse, and Augustine may have seen the error of his ways, but most human beings linger in some nebulous state of vacillation between an imperfect acceptance of God’s grace and an implicit rejection thereof by continued sinful activity. In other words, many people recognize that they are “living in sin,” in some particular way, and they sincerely do desire to work toward eliminating that sinful inclination or behavior from their daily life, but the process is just that… a process. How does the Church facilitate that process, the Synod is asking, rather than lay down unreasonable demands that those who receive the Sacraments be fully formed saints, thoroughly and unconditionally committed to a life of sanctity? How does the Church continue Jesus’ mission of sitting at table with sinners, even while calling them to more fullness of life through conformity to the Law?

In answer to this, the Synod participants invoke the theological method by which the Second Vatican Council sought to highlight the beauty and truth in other religions, even while reaffirming the unique fulfillment intrinsic to the Catholic faith (Paragraphs 17-20). Insofar as Vatican II “opens up the horizon for appreciating the positive elements in other religions,” (Paragraph 19) this Synod asks the question of whether it might be possible, similarly, for the Church to recognize “positive elements even the imperfect forms that may be found outside this nuptial situation,” i.e. traditional, sacramental marriage (Paragraph 18). The Church then “turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.” (Paragraph 20)

In sum: the Church is called to look at situations such as cohabitation, divorce, and homosexual unions, and to try and identify the positive elements of these partnerships that exist outside the bounds of traditional marriage, rather than focusing on their deficiencies.

Whoa! That’s huge! What does that mean?
Yes, yes it is. Usually the language of Vatican documents with regard to anything other than the ideal paradigm of marital love is one of contrast and condemnation. To suggest that elements of goodness might exist in alternative arrangements is a massive shift in the way we talk about the morality of marriage.

But before getting into the specific, hot-button issues, the Synod participants pause to iterate that this new pastoral approach must be grounded in evangelism, specifically with an eye toward missionary-conversion (Paragraphs 24-33). Recognizing the positive elements in, for example, cohabitation, is not an end in itself, but a first step toward helping a couple who is cohabitating come to the realization that fullness of relational love is found only in sacramental marriage. That is, the underlying goal of the accompaniment and dialogue must necessarily be the hope of ongoing conversion and eventual participation in the full life of the Church.

On cohabitation, the document makes plain, any number of factors unrelated to a deliberate rejection of sacramental marriage might play a role, including cultural mores and financial insecurity (Paragraphs 37/38). With respect to divorce, the document moves quickly past the reasons why persons might find themselves in such a state and spends several paragraphs detailing appropriate pastoral responses to whose who have suffered a divorce. The Synod participants emphasize that children must be protected in the difficult process of a divorce, that great care must be taken to make sure that those going through a divorce do not feel discriminated against, and that those who have not remarried should be encouraged to participate in regular reception of the Eucharist and Sacraments (Paragraphs 41-47). Moreover, the language of the document appears to reflect a general consensus that the annulment process needs to be “more accessible and flexible,” and that certain administrative impediments might be removed in order to more expeditiously come to an accurate ascertainment of the truth with regard to the nullity of a given marriage, i.e. a complicated way of saying we need to speed up the process to get to the bottom of the petition. (Paragraphs 43/44)

The document does reveal divides among those in attendance at the Synod regarding the question of whether those who are currently barred, by discipline, from reception of the Sacraments might be permitted to do so in certain pastoral circumstances. A discipline is the sort of thing that the Synod next October could, actually, change. It is not on the level of a doctrine. For instance, the Roman Church regards mandatory celibacy of Diocesan clergy to be a discipline (one in effect since the 11th century), that could, hypothetically, be altered in the near future, whereas it considers the matter of priesthood being pertinent properly to males as one of doctrine, and, thus, not open to change.

In terms of practical outcomes of the Synod, a relaxation with respect to who, among divorced Catholics, is eligible to receive Communion is the one most likely to be modified. But this would not occur until October 2015 at the earliest, and consensus is far from imminent or inevitable.

Finally, the document addresses the topic that has received the most attention on this side of the Atlantic, i.e. the question of homosexual relationships. In a line that would appear to be poised to become nearly so oft-invoked as Pope Francis’ admittedly more pithy, “Who am I to judge,” the Synod document begins:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? (Paragraph 50)

As if that initial formulation were not sufficiently significant, the document continues:

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. (Paragraph 53)

This is, to put it mildly, a remarkable phrase to appear in an official Vatican text of any sort. This line above is the one that is most frequently cited as justifying the language quoted at the outset of this piece, dubbing the Synod document “an earthquake,” “a bombshell,” and a “stunning,” “revolutionary” way to discuss human sexuality from a Catholic perspective. It’s also probably the one that has sent Cardinal Raymond Burke, a curial conservative who has deemed the document “unacceptable,” into near-apoplexy.

The un-spun truth of the matter is that we are witnessing a classic Catholic Both/And moment. It is truth both that (1) the Church has not changed any substantive teaching on the nature of homosexual actions or same-sex relationships; and (2) that this way of recognizing the positive elements in homosexual unions is of enormous significance. Media reports that the Catholic Church is softening its stance on gay marriage is as problematically misleading as the equally exaggerative response from more conservative Catholic circles basically amounting to, “Nothing to see here, nothing to see here.” And it definitely does not warrant the self-parodying hyperventilation of neo-traditionalists or American-based “pro-family” groups.

So where does that leave us?
At an exciting moment in time, for lack of a better analysis. The Synod has lived up to Pope Francis’ hope that the conversations would be frank and charitable, and it has unquestionably surpassed the wildest hopes of digital media producers monitoring web metrics. The messiness of the discussion reflects the messiness of the modern family, constituted as it is by the staggering plurality of persons inhabiting worldly circumstances that run from committed homosexual life partners playing the organ at neighboring parishes in Massachusetts, to the witchcraft-infused, polygamous arrangements of patriarchal tribes in Nigeria, to the involuntary marital arrangements of young brides in Malaysia.

Marriage, and the family, take many forms, and disentangling the positive elements from the negative, discerning what is of God, and what leads us down a path away from human flourishing, will ineluctably be an inexact and exhausting process. But for the first time in many years, the conversations being held at the highest level of the Vatican actually reflect this confusing reality on the ground. And the working document from the Synod accurately summarizes that.

Michael Bayer is a graduate of Georgetown University and The Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. He has served as Campus Minister at the University of San Francisco and the University of Michigan, and he currently lives in Iowa City, where he is the Director of Outreach and Education at The University of Iowa Newman Catholic Student Center.