Just like a family, the Catholic Church should challenge members to grow and behave better, but also like a family, it should not exclude those who still have some growing to do, said Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio.
Bishop Murry and other members of the Synod of Bishops on the family spoke on Saturday about finding a way to affirm Gospel principles and Church teaching while accompanying all Catholics on the path to perfection and holiness.
Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin spoke later about the Irish referendum in favour of same-sex marriage, about faith and about finding language to share Church teaching with a new generation of Catholics.
The Youngstown bishop told the assembly that while there are many “effective, traditional families” among Catholics in the United States, there are also single-parent families, divorced couples, blended families, families separated by migration and many others.
“Many of these adults and children feel left out of pastoral care,” Bishop Murry said.
“One universal and distinguishing feature of all families is that family members, regardless of how errant they become, are not rejected from the family,” the bishop said. “For them, the light is always on; the door is always open. Good families use ‘tough love’ among themselves to challenge each other to grow, but they never exclude.”
The Catholic Church, he said, must continue to advocate for traditional families and explain the Scriptures that present them as God’s plan for human beings.
At the same time, Bishop Murry said, “we also intentionally should reach out to those families that do not fit into traditional categories. We must help them to see the benefits of following Jesus Christ. That requires that we welcome them, be open to listen to their needs, walk with them and be courageous in inviting them into the fullness of the truth of the Gospel.”
Many of them, he said, will disagree with the Church’s teaching on morality, but Catholics cannot be faithful to the Gospel while allowing “these new families to continue to be alienated from the Church.”
Archbishop Martin told the synod, “What the Irish referendum showed was a breakdown between two languages,” the traditional language of the Church and the language of an “antagonistic social culture.”
At the same time, he said, the referendum showed “that when the demanding teaching of Jesus is presented in a way which appears to lack mercy, then we open the doors to a false language of cheap mercy.”
Ireland still has a high number of Christian marriages and a low divorce rate compared to the rest of Europe, he said. “Families are strong and generous. That has not changed substantially.”
The Irish referendum, he said, demonstrated how “people struggle to understand abstract moral principles” like those often presented by the church. “What they do understand is the predicament of individuals whom they wish to see happy and included. It is a very individualistic culture, but not necessarily an uncaring one. Indeed, those in favour of same-sex marriage based their campaign on what was traditionally our language: equality, compassion, respect and tolerance.”
The challenge of the synod, Archbishop Martin said, is to help the Church find language that presents the fullness of its teaching about marriage and family life in a way that touches the reality of people’s experience. For example, he said, few couples would speak of the “indissolubility” of their bond, but “they live fidelity and closeness and care in ways we underestimate.”
Like Bishop Murry, Maltese Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo told the synod on Saturday that some families feel “discouraged in the Church because they sense that some of us give more importance to principles than to the person in his or her concrete situation.”
The Church, like Moses and like St. Paul, is called to be “an instrument of pastoral mediation,” upholding the ideals of marriage while accompanying the “fragile person,” he said. The Christian life is a journey toward perfection, something that every human being fails at occasionally. Church teaching points out the ideals, while the Church’s pastoral ministry encourages people to get up after a failure and to keep walking toward perfection.
Bishop Grech pointed to the Orthodox churches’ principle of “oikonomia,” meaning economy or dispensation, which is at the basis of their permitting, in some cases, a second church marriage. The Orthodox recognise marriage as indissoluble and see the breakdown of a marriage as a result of sin, but through “oikonomia” they give people a second chance, although the liturgy for a second marriage is different and includes penitential prayers.
The Orthodox principle, Bishop Grech said, is similar to a Catholic insistence on a relationship between “justice — understood as observance of the law — and pastoral mercy. These are not two aspects in opposition, but two dimensions of one reality.”
If theology and Church practice are reduced to a “‘closed system’ theology becomes an ideology” and is no longer Christian, he said. “We must be careful that knowledge of Jesus is not transformed into an ideological and also regulatory knowledge and that we close the doors with many rules.”