The Instrumentum Laboris, or working paper, for next month’s synod has all the hallmarks of the product of a committee. It is also tiresomely moralistic in tone. Apart from an occasional nod in the direction of Africa and Asia, the text mostly reflects the cultural and social situation of the Church in the Western world. The document is, at best, theologically thin.
Before looking at the document’s two main weaknesses, some of its strengths should be noted. It does give due attention to preparation for marriage and accompaniment for married couples, as well as some understanding of the difficulties faced by many couples (paragraphs 94-7). The attempt to redefine marriage in favour of same-sex unions is also unequivocally rejected (91, 130, 132, 138). Pro-life issues are unambiguously mentioned (140-1).
Also included is a short description of today’s “bio-ethical challenge” (34), that is, assisted artificial reproduction. There seems to be a vague allusion in paragraph 134 to the development of alternatives to in vitro fertilisation (IVF) based on natural family planning, but it is ambiguous.
More important is the rejection of the underlying mentality that sees the child not as a value in itself but as a means to achieving one’s own desires (138).
One hopes the synod will develop these themes, given the wide use of IVF in the Western world, its impact on generations to come and the widespread ignorance, even among bishops and priests, of the Church’s authoritative moral evaluation
of the practice.
The working paper’s theology of the sacraments is one of its two main weaknesses. It stresses the continuity between natural marriage, as given in creation, and the sacrament of marriage (39) – which is true. But here the newness of the Christian sacrament is reduced to some vague “fullness” of natural marriage, suggesting it is merely a matter of degree.
There is no mention of the radical transformation in our relationship to the Triune God caused by baptism, making us “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The text reduces baptism to introducing the baptised into the Church community through the domestic Church (whatever that might mean).
The text also misunderstands the famous passage in Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (22) which says that Christ “fully reveals man to man himself”. (This was the key to St John Paul II’s anthropology). In the working paper the “fullness of the sacrament” seems to have been reduced to Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s controversial notion of Christianity as making explicit what is otherwise implicit (40).
The sections of the working paper on the sacrament of matrimony (46, 47, 54) are more theologically precise (apart from paragraph 64, which curiously refers to the sacrament as enriching a young couples’ “prospects of love”). But these sections seem to have had no influence on some of the text’s main recommendations. The latter take their cue from the German theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper’s contentious notion of the sacrament as a higher or fuller degree of what is already present in nature.
The working paper bizarrely applies a Patristic idea – that “seeds of the Word” are present in non-Christian wisdom traditions – to cohabitation and civil unions among Catholics. Thus, when dealing with these, we are told, the Church ought to show an appreciation of the commitment already made and acknowledge “adherence to those elements proper to the divine plan arising from the relation of the person created by God and God the Creator” (57; cf 102). Really?
When we are baptised, we no longer simply relate to God as creatures to the Creator, but as those who are reborn in Christ to the Father. The same implicit denial of the baptismal transformation (and how this defines the sacrament of marriage) applies to the various recommendations about remarried divorcees and their full admittance to the Eucharist. The sacrament is seen as a kind of private devotion solely dependent on the right subjective conditions.
The second major weakness in the working paper is the underlying attitude to morality, which is essentially that of the pre-Vatican II manualist tradition. It is casuistic and legalistic. The most blatant example is paragraph 137 on responsible parenthood. Writing recently in First Things, David Crawford and Stephan Kampowski submitted the paragraph to a devastating analysis and appealed to the synod fathers to reject it.
Why? The paragraph resurrects the false notion of conscience as subjective judgment. This view is rooted in pre-conciliar moral theology but was used by “modern” moral theologians and episcopal conferences in 1968 to dissent from Humanae Vitae. The older synod fathers, including Pope Francis, were trained in this pre-conciliar morality. It stressed obedience to rules and tended to rigorism.
Many welcomed the initial reform of post-conciliar moral theology known as proportionalism. This determines whether an action is right or wrong primarily by the person’s unique situation. It tends to be laxist.
Pre-conciliar moral theology and this early post-conciliar moral theology share the same legalistic mindset.
It should not be assumed (as in paragraph 137) that conscience should be in conflict with “an objective moral norm”. Rather, conscience (our moral sense) echoes those moral norms (the voice of God) needed to acquire virtue and integrity, and guide us to our full humanity. Church teaching confirms and clarifies these norms. The recent recovery of the classical understanding of morality in terms of virtue (see Part III of the Catechism of the Catholic Church) clearly had no influence on those who drew up the working paper.
Christian conjugal morality is essentially about the virtues of chastity and justice, embedded in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Chastity is mentioned but once in the entire working paper (94). And holiness – the vocation of all the family – likewise gets but a passing mention (49). Thereby hangs a tale.
Fr D Vincent Twomey SVD is a professor emeritus of moral theology and a former doctoral student of Joseph Ratzinger