The reaction to the Synod interim relatio rumbles on. I have read the document, which perhaps many have not, and a model of clarity, concision and elegance it is not. I note that the language of the Synod is not Latin but Italian, and goodness does that show! However, the Synod Fathers will be meeting in language groups, from which one can hope, in certain cases, for less waffle and more clear communication.
The question of communication is one that I have often written about in the past. Bad communication is aesthetically unpleasing to say the least. I have inherited from my old English master a horror at the way some people misuse and abuse language. The Church should be the repository and guardian of good usage. After all, language is the gift that God gave us which distinguishes us most clearly from the animals, and we should not abuse or undervalue this gift. The Church ought to be a place where words are respected. If we cannot respect words, how will we honour the Word? There used to be so many beautiful turns of phrase and expressions that were utterly Catholic and closely associated with the Church. Alas, that is no longer the case.
The English version of the Synod document is quite frankly a disgrace. Whoever is responsible for it should be ashamed. Nor is this the first time that the Vatican has produced such substandard work. There are some quite bright lads up at the North American College in Rome who can hold a pen and, I am sure, could do a lot better, stylistically, than this. Why didn’t someone go up that hill and ask them to lend a hand? After all, English is the world’s most important language, or are there some people win the Vatican who have not woken up to that?
But this is not just a matter of style. Style matters a great deal in itself, but also, as the masters of the Counter-Reformation knew so well, as a vehicle for theological truth. There is truth in this document, but reading the document resembles searching for bits of coal in a huge slagheap.
The truth the document tries to convey – and which it does not convey very well – is one of the central truths of the Gospel. Jesus came to call sinners, to repentance, and to new life. How can we make sure that all people, whatever their situation, hear and profit by the universal message of salvation proclaimed by Our Lord?
If the document itself is a car crash, what can we say about the press conference that followed its publication? Here embarrassment is the only charitable feeling. I was not there, but here and here are two people who were. I urge you to read what they have to say. It is astonishing, for this is what it amounts to: three Cardinals and one Archbishop between them had the task of presenting Catholic teaching to the world, and they mucked it up. They were asked straightforward questions, and they waffled. Princes of the Church are supposed to communicate the truth that the Church teaches, and they failed to do so. I am dumbstruck by their failure.
Our Blessed Lord, as I said above, came to call sinners, and sinners responded to His call. His teaching was very clear. The Church too needs to be clear: it needs to be like a lighthouse shining above a dark and troubled sea, a beacon of hope to all who are tossed and turned on the waves.
I mentioned the virtues of beautiful language above. How beautiful is the language of God, and the words of Jesus Christ! How beautiful was the Latin that once made its home in the Catholic Church! How beautiful were some of our vernacular hymns, and the language of our architecture and art! Many Anglicans know this too, and are devoted to Cranmer, an undoubted master of prose style. (How good that they have brought this reverence for words into the Ordinariate with them!) In a recent conversation with an Anglican friend of mine, I heard him lament the way the Catholic Church seemed to be abandoning clarity in its teaching on marriage. He pointed to the example of his own church. Some fifteen years ago the Anglicans decided to show mercy, no doubt with the best of intentions, to those in second unions, and celebrate some second marriages in church, with appropriate safeguards and under certain defined conditions. But now, though there are many Anglican clergy who hold to traditional Christian teaching on marriage, the celebration of ‘second marriages’ has become more or less routine, and the teaching of the Anglican Church on matters matrimonial and sexual has become pretty hard to discern. The Catholic Church, he told me, must heed the warning and not go down this path.
He is right, and for many reasons. We need to hear, all of us, the clear strong teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, because without it we are all lost. This teaching, on the way man and woman become “one flesh” tells us a truth about ourselves, a truth that is important to those married, but also to those who have never been married as well. People in irregular unions need to hear it as much as anyone else. No one would be helped by obfuscating this truth.
Let us hope that he Synod Fathers will listen carefully to the reaction that his document has elicited. The people of God are speaking. And may the soon to be Blessed Pope Paul VI, who gave us such beautiful and clear teaching on marriage and sexuality in Humanae Vitae, intercede for us all from his place in heaven! I will be in Rome from tomorrow for his beatification and I shall be offering up fervent prayers for this intention.
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