The synod’s struggle to balance charity with truth

Pope Francis wipes his eyes at the start of the morning session of the synod yesterday (CNS)

Following my last blog, which raised certain themes from the debates on the current Synod on the Family, there was a post made by one Basilius which criticised me for “talking up the Synod” and saying the blog was a “whitewash.” Well, generally you should take (just) criticism on the chin and learn from it (the personal insults you have to learn to ignore.) But I wish to courteously demur from what Basilius writes because I think it is a smidgeon unjust: I wrote about the Synod because it is an important event in the life and workings of the Church and it would be strange to ignore it altogether. Further, to raise some of the issues being debated is hardly a “whitewash”.

Perhaps Basilius thinks I am in what Michael Voris calls “the Church of Nice” and which others describe as being a “liberal Catholic”? Let me assure him that I am not in the so-called Church of Nice – or the Church of Nasty for that matter. I love my Faith – indeed, as Evelyn Waugh once said of himself, I wouldn’t be alive today without it – and accept all Her teachings unreservedly, though I don’t always live up to them. That is to say, I am a sinner.

Back to the Synod and the wider questions it raises on the perennial question of charity and truth (which is what I think Basilius is referring to). We all know that the two go together; false “compassion” – the Church of Nice – leads people away from the truth; and truth without love or mercy – the kind of Church of Nasty portrayed in the film Philomena, for instance – causes immense suffering and drives people away. An interview with Cardinal Raymond Burke during the Synod is a fine lesson on how the two should be balanced.

The media has relentlessly pushed Pope Francis into the mould of “niceness” (in contrast to Benedict XVI perhaps?), simply because he has shown the merciful face of the Church in some of his public pronouncements, even though there is no evidence that he would wish to change the Church’s moral teachings even if it were in his power to do so. From this step the media has made the assumption that certain moral teachings will “change” after the Synod. They can’t and they won’t. But given the huge chasm between what the Church has always taught – about the nature of marriage for instance – and the way many Catholics lives their lives, there is good reason to discuss what can be done pastorally within the context of doctrinal truth.

This question of truth and love is played out again and again in our lives as Catholics. What do we say to friends or family members who talk about IVF, contraception, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion and so on, as if they can all be somehow accommodated within a “compassionate Church”? Dwight Longenecker, a American priest who writes a no-nonsense, punchy blog, “Standing on My Head”, raises this very tension in his recent post when he talks about how to prepare a young Catholic couple for marriage who attend Mass erratically, are already living together, have no understanding that this is wrong and who become angry with him when he (gently) tries to explain what a Catholic marriage – as opposed to a church wedding – means.

Should he sweep things under the carpet, as probably often happens, and let them go ahead in their ignorance, or should he make it clear that they have to understand why their behaviour is objectively wrong? As he writes, the Church can hardly offer forgiveness to people who won’t believe or understand or confess that they are in the wrong. He wonders whether, in the future, he should simply refuse to prepare couples for a church wedding, if they approach him with the attitude of the young couple he describes – and thus run the risk of be labelled as hard-hearted and lacking in compassion. For conscientious priests like Fr Longenecker, who won’t duck their pastoral obligations, some of the Holy Father’s public pronouncements have made their task rather harder than it was before.


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