Recent comments about the letter given to Pope Francis by 13 members of the College of Cardinals on the first working day of Synod-2015 have, unfortunately, continued a controversy that should have been put to rest several days ago. Some reflections on the functions of cardinals in the Catholic Church, and the exercise of those functions in this case, are thus in order.
Canon 349. The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special College, whose prerogative it is to elect the Roman Pontiff in accordance with the norms of a special law. The Cardinals are also available to the Roman Pontiff, either acting collegially, when they are summoned together to deal with questions of major importance, or acting individually, that is, in the offices which they hold in assisting the Roman Pontiff especially in the daily care of the universal Church.
Canon 356. Cardinals have the obligation of cooperating closely with the Roman Pontiff.
José H Gómez (b. 1951) is the Archbishop of Los Angeles, having previously served as Archbishop of San Antonio (2004-2010) and auxiliary bishop of Denver (2001-2004). A native of Monterrey, he was ordained a priest of the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei in 1978. We are pleased that he offered his reflections on the Synod’s closing days to Letters from the Synod, and even more pleased that he began his essay with a reference to this past Sunday’s canonisation ceremony, so important for grasping the purpose of Synod-2015: which, like any other such exercise, must foster the universal call to holiness.
As Synod-2015 began its final week of work, Pope Francis canonised a married couple, Louis and Zélie Martin, whose nine children included the Doctor of the Church, St Thérèse of Lisieux.
Louis and Zélie led a humble, hidden life. It was rooted in the rhythms of daily Mass and everyday duties – earning a living, making meals and doing the housework, teaching the children, serving in the community and simply enjoying time together as a family. The couple knew love and joy and also suffering and sadness – four of their children died as infants.
In his homily on Sunday, Pope Francis called them “holy spouses.”
Saints Louis and Zélie are not rarities. How many holy spouses there are, hidden saints of the everyday, in every time and every place in the Church. There are holy spouses and holy families in every part of the world today – ordinary men and women trying to live faithfully by the Church’s teachings and the grace of her sacraments.
This is what the Synod on the Family is meant to be all about – helping spouses in their vocations as husbands and wives, helping them to meet the challenges they confront in society, inspiring them to live out God’s beautiful plan for their lives.
In the media coverage of the Synod, we can be tempted to think that the Church’s doctrines and practices are a kind of political “policy” or a set of “positions” on issues. But the truth is that the Catholic faith is not programme or a set of rules. Catholicism is a vision of creation, a vision of the human person and the human family, a vision that is grand and transcendent. Everything in the Church – all our teachings, practices and disciplines – flows from this vision, which is given to us by God in the Scriptures and the Church’s living Tradition.
Pope Francis has said that in thinking about the family, we must be “led by the Word of God, on which rests the foundation of the holy edifice of the family, the domestic Church and the family of God.” This is true. And as we enter this final week of Synod, I think it is important for us to keep this “foundation” in mind, to try to see God’s vision for the family more clearly and to understand how important the family is for the Church’s future and the future of civilization.
St Paul called marriage a “great mystery.” This mystery is written into the pages of sacred Scripture from beginning to end – from the marriage of the first man and woman at creation to the cosmic wedding feast of Christ and his Bride when the new heavens and earth come and time is no more. Pope Francis speaks of the Creator’s design in terms of wonder and awe. At last year’s extraordinary consistory, he invoked “God’s magnificent plan for the family.” At the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and again in his homily opening the current synod, he called marriage “God’s dream for his beloved creation.” Jesus Christ revealed this dream by coming into the world in a human family. The Holy Family of Nazareth shows us that every family is meant to be an “icon” of God, an image of the Holy Trinity in the world.
I always remember the beautiful words of St John Paul II at Puebla, Mexico, at the beginning of his pontificate: “Our God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude but a family, since he has in himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love.”
This is God’s plan for the human family. Every family is called to be a “domestic church” reflecting the communion of love in the Trinity. Every married couple is given a vocation — to live their love forever in a mutual and complete gift of self; to renew the face of the earth with children, who are the fruits of their love and the precious love of our Creator. Married love is forever and cannot be dissolved because it is the sign of God’s own covenant with creation.
The Church’s mission is to continue God’s “family plan” for creation – to call men and women from every nation and people to form a single family of God, united in his Son, Jesus. So that is why the Church will always take these matters of human sexuality, marriage, family and children so seriously. That is why the litany of the Church’s great martyrs includes countless men and women who died defending the Church’s doctrines and practices – Agnes and Cecilia in ancient Rome; Thomas More and Charles Lwanga; the Franciscans martyred in Georgia during the evangelisation of the New World. And there were many more.
The family crisis
Some of my brother bishops have remarked on the sense of urgency – some even call it anxiety – that has been felt during this Synod. The somber mood is reflected in the working document that has formed the basis for our discussions during these past three weeks. Pope Francis has spoken often of the profound cultural crisis facing the family. And there is a sense in this Synod that the family “as we know it” is in danger of disappearing – threatened by forces that are economic, cultural and ideological.
At the root of the family crisis is a crisis of confidence in God – a loss of the sense that he is our Father and Creator, and that he has a plan, a “dream” for his creation, a plan for our lives. The family today is threatened by the same “anthropocentric” and “technocratic” mentality that Pope Francis warns about in Laudato Si’, his encyclical on creation. This mentality rejects the “realities” of creation and human nature. Everything – nature, the human body and mind, social institutions – is is seen as so much “raw material” to be “engineered” using technology, medicine, even law and public policy. What the Pope calls the “technocratic paradigm” underlies the existential threats that confront human life and the family today – from artificial contraception and embryonic experimentation, to the surgical manipulations of femininity and masculinity required for “transgenderism,” to the redefinition of marriage and the forced sterilisation and abortion policies prevalent in some parts of the world.
The way forward
In confronting this broad cultural crisis of the family, the Church needs to proclaim once more the beautiful truth about the human person and God’s loving plan for creation and the family. “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place … is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world,” Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’. At the centre of our Father’s plan for the world, we find the married couple and the family. That is why the Church cannot allow marriage and family to be reduced to cultural constructs or arbitrary living arrangements. Because if we lose the family, we lose God’s plan for our lives and for the world.
Marriage and the family are gifts from the Creator that are “written into” the order of his creation and expressed in the bodily differences of men and women and their vocation to a communion of love that is faithful for life and fruitful in creating new life. Pope Francis affirms this in Laudato Si’ and he emphasised it again during his year-long catechesis on the family. The human person is God’s “masterpiece,” created body and soul in his image and likeness, the Pope said. The natural differences between men and women and their “complementarity” stand at the “summit of divine creation,” and order the couple to “communion and generation, always in the image and likeness of God.”
These basic truths of creation are the source for everything that the Church believes, teaches and practices about marriage and family. The Church is called to proclaim these truths to the world in all their fullness and in all their beauty. We are called to do everything that we can to support those couples and families who are trying to live these truths – to be “holy spouses” and “holy families.” The Church is also called to reach out with tenderness to those who are having trouble understanding and living these truths. But Pope Francis has also urged us in strong words not to sacrifice the truths of creation in a vain effort to “please the people” or to make the Church’s teachings sound less demanding. At the end of the extraordinary synod last year he cautioned against “a destructive tendency … that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This is always a natural temptation when we are faced with human weakness and misunderstanding. But the Pope reminds us that kindness and compassion can never be separated from the truth of God’s plan. A person’s conscience is sacred. But our conscience is only reliable if it is formed according to the truth that God has written into our hearts and the loving plan he has for our lives.
The words we speak in mercy must always be the truth, or our words are not merciful at all, just sentimental feelings. Telling people what they want to hear will never do them any good, unless what we are saying is the truth they need to know.
All of us in the Church, in these difficult times, are called to accompany people, to meet them where they are at and to walk with them in charity and tenderness and compassion. But the journey of the Christian life is always a journey of conversion. Our “destination” is not where we want to go, but where God wants to lead us.
A moment for mission
So as we enter these final days of the Synod, I find myself turning to our newest saints. Not only the holy spouses Saints Louis and Zélie Martin. But also our newest American saint, St Junípero Serra, who blazed the trails of holiness in the New World.
I believe that all of us in the Church need a new missionary confidence and courage for the times we are living in. In fact, we are living in a time of hope, a new missionary moment – a time when the Church has a great opportunity for the new evangelisation of our continents and the world. Every day, as bishops from around the world gather in this Synod Hall, we are witnessing the reality that the Gospel has been inculturated in “every nation under heaven.” This has been striking for me, this experience of the universal Church: to realise that the Church today is able to truly pray, teach and evangelise in one voice – as one family of God, drawn from every nation, people and language, united in our faith in the Gospel and our communion with the Holy Father in Rome.
With the unity of our doctrine and practice, and the rich diversity of our local traditions of popular piety, the Church has tremendous resources to resist pressures and worldly powers and to proclaim the Gospel to a new generation.
We need to challenge the “orthodoxies” and the “anthropology” of our culture. We need to find creative, positive ways to proclaim God as Creator and to show the beauty of his plan for the human person and the family.
Counting on the intercession of the Holy Family of Nazareth, my prayer in this final week is that all of us in the Church will stay united in our apostolic desire to be missionary disciples. And that we will use this new moment to carry the beauty of God’s plan for our lives and his original dream for creation – to the ends of the earth.
Back in the day, which is to say 40 years ago, I taught a course called “Critical Thinking” at the St Thomas Seminary School of Theology in Kenmore, Washington. “Critical Thinking” was a kind of crash course in logic, intended by the seminary leadership to satisfy the requirement that seminarians have an adequate grounding in philosophy before undertaking the formal study of theology. It didn’t quite work that way, because the students were taking introductory theology courses alongside “Critical Thinking;” and subsequent iterations of the Program of Priestly Formation in the US have appropriately stiffened the philosophy pre-requisite for seminarians’ theological study.
“Critical Thinking” was fun to teach, but I hadn’t thought of it for decades until I read an editorial – a “leader,” in British English newspaper-speak – in the Times of London, published on October 14.
A “leader” is also known as a “leading article” and in this case, the appellation was entirely appropriate, for the leader led readers into a wilderness of incomprehension about the Catholic Church, its teaching, and the way religions survive, or don’t, in the postmodern world.
So I thought it might be fun to treat that Times leader, which was entitled “Vatican III,” as an assignment in “Critical Thinking,” marking it up as I would have done an assigned paper in that long-ago class. So….
The Times: Never mind crusades, a few months after assuming his pontificate in 2013, Pope Francis embarked upon a Great Questionnaire. Roman Catholics the world over were requested to answer 39 questions about the church and “family life” (lingua ecclesiae for sex and relationships) which would form the basis of a new discussion about Catholic social teaching in the 21st century. [Please amplify the tacit critique of crusading implicit in the first phrase. Revise the next phrase to indicate recognition of the fact that the pope doesn’t “assume” his “pontificate.” Please note that the questionnaire mentioned was sent to national conferences of bishops, not to 1.2 billion Catholics; and why did you limit the distribution of the questionnaire to “Roman Catholics,” when in fact it was also sent to the Eastern Catholic Churches? Please justify your reduction of the meaning of “family life” in Catholic thought to “sex and relationships,” and further justify your locating these questions within the ambit of “Catholic social teaching.”]
At the time the head of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, represented the exercise as one of simply hearing what people had to say. There was nothing wrong with listening. “God gave us one mouth and two ears,” he told the BBC. “The fact that we hear things that make us uncomfortable, that’s fine.” [Why the lower-case “c” in “Roman Catholic church;” is there only one such building in England and Wales? And are you suggesting that the bishops of England and Wales did not already know what the people under their care thought about chastity, marriage and the family?]
But global organisations, even ones based on faith, do not undertake such complex exercises for fun. It was widely believed among observers of Catholic affairs that the Pope was beginning the long, painful process of bringing church doctrine on sexual and family matters into line with what ordinary Catholics in many parts of the world do and think. On matters such as whether Catholics would want to see communion offered to divorced people or gay people in civil partnerships, an expectation was growing that Pope Francis was preparing the ground for change. An extraordinary meeting of bishops was held in Rome this time last year and from that emerged plans for the ordinary synod on the family, which began on October 4 in the Vatican and which is due to conclude this month. [Who are these “observers of Catholic affairs,” what are their qualifications, and what position do they occupy on the spectrum Catholic opinion? On what basis in fact did they assert their belief that Pope Francis wanted to change the Church’s teaching on chastity, marriage and the family? What is your notion of “doctrine,” such that you suggest it be tailored to “what ordinary Catholics…do and think”? (Please re-read, or read, St Paul’s First and Second Letters to the Corinthians and his Letter to the Galatians.) What was the source of this “expectation” that Pope Francis was “preparing the ground for change” in the Church’s longstanding teaching on worthiness to receive Holy Communion: informed analysis of the Pope’s statements, or wishful thinking in some quarters?]
It may be that the Pope thought the good press he received on his accession would translate into acquiescence to his desire for change. Perhaps, one anonymous prelate speculated, he thought he could convene “another Vatican II,” the momentous liberalising synod presided over by Pope John XXIII. If so, events in the past week must have disappointed him. [What is the ground of your speculation that Pope Francis governs the Church through the medium of press surveys or opinion polls? Please note that John XXIII presided over one session of Vatican II, while Paul VI presided over three sessions and two inter-sessions. Please consult “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia,” John XXIII’s opening address to the Council – during which he said its “greatest concern” must be “that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously” – and then justify your suggestion that Vatican II was intended to lead the Catholic Church into an imitation of 20th-century Liberal Protestantism. Please re-consult your “anonymous prelate” and ask him where Pope Francis would convene “another Vatican II,” St Peter’s Basilica having been filled to capacity in 1962-1965 by some 2,500 bishops, and there now being over 5,000 bishops – Wembley Stadium? Lord’s Cricket Ground? The Millennium Dome? In the latter case, would the Council in question be known as “Greenwich I”?]
This week details were leaked of what can best be described as a “rebel” letter from some of the most eminent Catholic clergy in the world. The signatories warned the Pope and his allies about the course they were taking. “The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern era, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice,” they wrote, “warrants great caution in our own synodal discussion.” In other words, liberalise and be damned for it. [Why are you citing a sentence from a draft of this letter, which the signatories have already said was not included in the actual letter sent to Pope Francis? On what basis do you characterise the letter as rebellious? (In answering, please define “ultramontanism” in less than 20 words.) Please identify circumstances in which “liberalising” has led to an increase in Christian church membership, an increase in church practice, or an increase in the effectiveness of Christian work with and for the poor.]
The rebels, however, were not just worried about the direction of travel, they were critical of the vessel itself. They seemed to be saying that the whole process, which stemmed from Francis, was flawed, distorted toward liberalism, and chaotic. In this, they have a point. [Again, on what basis do you assert knowledge of the contents and intention of a letter you have not read?]
This matters to Catholic and non-Catholics alike. There are 1.2 billion adherents to the faith worldwide and the church is an important part of the fabric of many societies. The impact of its teachings are felt far beyond its institutions or even the homes of the faithful. Broadly, it is in society’s interests for the church to thrive and be relevant. [Consult H W Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, on the proper deployment of “is” and “are,” and then reformulate the beginning of the second sentence. Please justify the assertion that “relevance,” presumably meaning acquiescence to prevailing cultural, social and political norms, is the appropriate goal for a Christian community to seek. In formulating your answer, analyse the experience of the Church of England since it broke ranks with centuries of Christian tradition and gave its moral endorsement to contraception at the 1930 Lambeth Conference.]
It is seemingly wise to want to see church doctrine more closely and sympathetically reflect the lives of both believers and non-believers. It can only be hoped that Francis has the patience and the diplomatic skill to persuade his critics and senior churchmen that they want it too. [Please define “doctrine” and explain its relationship to “the lives of believers and non-believers,” using as examples the experience of both the regime-inspired Deutsche Christen and the anti-Nazi Confessing Church during the Third Reich. And once more, please offer evidence of Pope Francis’s desire to change Catholic doctrine.]
Distinguished Senior Fellow and
William E Simon Chair in Catholic Studies,
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Charles J Chaput (b. 1944), a Capuchin Franciscan, has served as Archbishop of Philadelphia since 2011, having previously served as Archbishop of Denver (1997-2011) and Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota (1988-1997). A native of Concordia, Kansas, he is the second priest of Native American ancestry to be raised to the episcopate. He is in Rome as an elected delegate of the US Catholic Bishops’ Conference, and gave the following interview by email to Samuel Pruvot of the French Catholic magazine, Famille Chretienne [FC]. We are grateful to the editors of FC for permission to reprint the interview, over which they hold the copyright.
“We Can Only Begin to Hope…When We Believe in Jesus Christ”
FC: During the first week of the Synod, many small groups mentioned the problem of gender theory, but this topic is not very prominent in the English-speaking groups. Why?
Archbishop Chaput: Cardinal Thomas Collins’s group, English circle D, did briefly mention gender theory, which is deeply anti-nature and anti-human in its implications. But the scope of the working document is large, and its flaws are many. So there just hasn’t been time to focus properly on that important issue.
Some Synod fathers have suggested that more power might be given to bishops’ conferences, in particular concerning the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics. What is your opinion about this?
It’s not a good idea. We live in a confused time. It’s an age of conflict and disruptive social forces. The Church needs unity in her doctrine and practices, not fragmentation. Cardinal [George] Pell is right about the imprudence of delegating decisions like sacramental discipline to local bishops or bishops’ conferences. Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried is a perfect example. What amounts to a sacrilege for a person in one country can’t be a source of grace for exactly the same person in another country.
Cardinal Dolan mentioned on his blog that “a new minority” needs the support of the synod. This minority is made of Christian families who are devoted, faithful, practising and exposed to mockery. What do you think?
Reaching out to alienated groups like persons with same-sex attraction is important. But our first priority needs to be the families and married couples who really believe in Jesus Christ and already live their faith vigorously. Going to the peripheries can’t be done unless we first nourish the faithful people who provide the cornerstone of our Church life. So Cardinal Dolan’s comments were articulate and very valuable.
Some think that the Church should leave more space for personal conscience. That would help the faithful to overcome the “obstacles” – so they say – which the Church creates for them on the question of birth-control or the sacraments (Reconciliation and the Eucharist) for divorced and remarried couples. What is your opinion?
Each of us has the duty to follow his or her conscience. But conscience doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s more than a matter of personal opinion or preference. The Church is not a collection of sovereign individuals. We’re a community, a family, organised around the person of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. We have an obligation to form our consciences in the truth. That means we need to allow ourselves to be guided by the wisdom and teaching of the Church that Jesus founded.
If my conscience disagrees with the guidance of the Church on a matter of moral substance, it’s probably not the Church that is wrong. Human beings – all of us – are very adroit at making excuses for what we want to do, whether it’s sinful or not.
Why do you recommend that we should start our pastoral reasoning from Jesus and the Scriptures rather than a sound analysis of the difficulties that today’s families are facing?
If we really believe in Jesus Christ – if he’s a living, daily reality for us, and not just the source of a good moral system – then he’s the centre and meaning of history, the Alpha and the Omega. “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” We need to begin at the beginning, in the embodied love of God who is Jesus Christ. If we don’t start with Jesus and the Scriptures, then the social problems and challenges that exist in every century will always overwhelm us.
We can only begin to hope, and we can only start to think clearly, when we believe in Jesus Christ and know that we’re loved by God. We’ll never have serenity if we start anywhere else.
Would you agree that very little is said in the Instrumentum Laboris about Catholic families who are really trying to remain faithful to the Gospel?
Yes, as I suggested earlier, the Synod’s working document is weak in its attention to faithful families. But there’s more. I’ve been surprised by how little the synod text says about the joys of having children, and especially the beauty and heroic witness of large families. Children are the future. They’re a gift from God. They renew the world. It’s sad to see so many couples today cheat themselves out of more love and more joy by having only two children. Life is meant to be an adventure, to be abundant – not to be strangled by worry. God provides. He never abandons hearts that are generous. I have tremendous esteem for large families. I wish we had many more of them. They’re the hope of the Church.
Why do you think that there is a risk of considering today’s social problems through too much of a Western lens?
The Church is alive and growing across most of the Southern Hemisphere. Catholics of the global South naturally have a different perspective on the world. They see the needs of the Church through fresh eyes, without the pessimism so common in Europe and even North America. We should never discount the wisdom and learned lessons of the Church in the North. But we do need to expand our thinking to include the experience of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America. In a sense, that’s where the Church of the future lies.
The message of the Gospel concerning couples and families is very demanding. How can this message reach the “peripheries” on which the Pope insists?
We need to be careful not to defeat ourselves. Jesus meant what he said in Matthew 11:30: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Married life can be demanding. So can every other vocation in Christian life. That’s obvious. But the rewards of unselfish love are always greater than the cost. Ask any parents of a child with Down syndrome. In the eyes of the world, they have a child who is “disabled.” In the eyes of the mother and father, they have a child who is a miracle and a mystery.
Geography and distance are only one way of thinking about the peripheries. The real unexplored, unconverted territories lie much closer to home – in the way we treat our families, our friends, the poor, the sick and the elderly in our own neighbourhoods. The darkest periphery is the point in our hearts where our generosity ends. And, at the same time, there’s no more powerful witness anywhere on earth than an ordinary Catholic family radiating the love of God. With enough of those families, God could rebuild the world.
Following the Festival of Families in Philadelphia, how can the spirit of this event be maintained?
Big events always have an emotional high that subsides over the following months. That’s normal. The same will happen in Philadelphia. But a lot of people were uniquely moved by the World Meeting of Families, and many of them will remember and keep the experience alive in their hearts. God gave us the raw material of a wonderful success. My job after the synod is to help our priests and people turn that gift into a lasting renewal of our local Church. So please ask your readers to keep us in their prayers!
[Another interview with Archbishop Chaput, touching on several recent controversies at Synod-2015, may be found here.]
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