The Synod and Being Afraid of the Gospel

joseph-mary-marriageAs editor here at Catholic Lane, we’ve received a lot of submissions regarding the synod. Our correspondent Karee Santos has been busy giving you her thoughts on the Synod from the standpoint of someone who deals with marriage prep in the real world. I’ve received several submissions from readers who wish to offer their own thoughts, and I’m hoping to get those starting next week, once we have the final relatio from the Synod.

The current “Relatio post disceptationem” (think of it as a summary of the debate at the Synod) is deeply flawed, but not necessarily for the reasons discussed. The Church really does need to find ways to do outreach to those in irregular situations, whether it be those who are gay or divorced or cohabitation. The same must happen with annulment reform. We need to be realistic about the depth of the problem of invalid marriages, but also do our best to make sure that the annulment process isn’t even more of a caricature than it already is.

While we need to deal with these things, we also need to present the Church’s teaching on the family. The authors and defenders of the document are correct that this document changes nothing about official Church doctrine. Yet this is the soft bigotry of low expectations.  Is that really the best we should aim for when it comes to the leaders of our Church? “They won’t change Church doctrine?” Should we not also wish them to actually put forth the doctrines of the Church, and why they are good?

This is ultimately the problem of the document. If you were to read it, you would get the impression that the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church are impossible for humanity to fulfill. While they are impossible, they also cannot be changed. This reduces them to merely nice ideas and sentiments. Since two people abstaining from sex and living together before marriage isn’t realistic, we must “meet people where they are” and work with them from that context.

Nobody denies that the teachings of Christ’s Church are “easy.” Nor can one possibly deny that sometimes, when following the Gospel, you will, from time to time, be sacrificing immediate comfort and pleasure for something better down the road. This document never speaks about what that is.

Let us give a short comparison of what the document teaches on the family. Under the section “The Family in God’s Salvific Plan”, the document states the following, which is the entirety of what they have to say about what the faith actually teaches about marriage:

  15.        Since, by their commitment to mutual acceptance and with the grace of Christ couples promise fidelity to one another and openness to life, they acknowledge as constitutive elements of marriage the gifts God offers them, taking their mutual responsability seriously, in His name and before the Church. Now, in faith it is possible to assume the goods of marriage as commitments best maintained with the help of the grace of the sacrament. God consecrates love between spouses and confirms its indissolubility, offering them help in living in fidelity and openness to life. Therefore, the gaze of the Church turns not only to the couple, but to the family.

     16.        We are able to distinguish three fundamental phases in the divine plan for the family: the family of origins, when God the creator instituted the primordial marriage between Adam and Eve, as a solid foundation for the family: he created them male and female (cg. Gn 1,24-31; 2,4b); the historic family, wounded by sin (cf. Gn 3) and the family redeemed by Christ (cf. Eph 5,21-32), in the image of the Holy Trinity, the mystery from which every true love springs. The spousal covenant, inaugurated in creation and revealed in the history of God and Israel, reaches its fullest expression with Christ in the Church.

  1. Illuminated by the faith that gives her an understanding of all the truth concerning the great value of marriage and the family and their deepest meaning, the Church once again feels the pressing need to proclaim the Gospel, that is the “good news,” to all people without exception, in particular to all those who are called to marriage and are preparing for it, to all married couples and parents in the world.


Let us compare these words with the last time the Bishops of the world gathered to talk about the family, back in 1980 under the direction of St. John Paul II. The following is from the Introduction of Familaris Consortio, the Apostolic Exhortation of that Synod

The Church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled.

Willed by God in the very act of creation, marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ and have need of His graces in order to be healed from the wounds of sin and restored to their “beginning,” that is, to full understanding and the full realization of God’s plan.

At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.

According to that exhortation, marriage is something willed by God for our benefit and mutual fulfillment of the spouses. Yet the only way one finds this true fulfillment is if their marriage is centered on Christ. When it is centered on Christ, society and the Church are renewed. Elsewhere throughout the document there is a clear understanding that the Christian understanding of marriage and the family is not only true, but something truly wondrous to behold.

This is missing not just from the document, but from the way our leaders speak of marriage and our understanding of the family today. The Church no longer speaks of the joy of marriage, but instead about how difficult it is and how so few can live according to its precepts. The danger here is that we create a self-fulfilling prophecy: if marriage and the family are not the joy and fulfillment of man, then we will continue to see less joy and more difficulty.

St. Paul tells us that he is not “ashamed of the Gospel.” Why is he not ashamed? The answer should make our leaders today pause.  “For it is the power of salvation of God unto everyone that believes” (Romans 1:16).  If we have learned nothing from the social teaching of the Church, from Leo XIII’s Arcanum to St. John Paul’s Theology of the Body, it is that not only is the truth of marriage part of Christ’s Gospel, but it is one of the primary ways Christians live out the virtues of the Gospel. Under the guise of “mercy”, we have stopped telling people not only the uncomfortable truths of the Gospel, but the joy they bring. I am living proof of that joy.

Like all faithful Catholics, I have not always lived out my faith accordingly. While I was a virgin before marriage, I could hardly be called pure of heart. During some unfortunate times, the only thing that separated me from a life apart from the Gospel was not desire, but opportunity. (You’d be amazed how little time you have to engage in debauchery when you work 50-60 hours a week on the afternoon and midnight shift for years on end.)

When I struggled with living out the moral teaching of the Church, I was never happy. Even when I was happy, I was less than I could be. Thanks to the design of God, that unhappiness drove me to seek answers, and it drove me to the confessional. While I obviously cannot disclose what was said during those sessions, never once did I find a priest who condemned and judged. All understood our struggles with life, and that a life of constant minor indiscretions can be even more dead than a life of only one or two major indiscretions. They practiced true graduality in slowly but surely guiding me towards living out the truth. Yet during all of this, these great priests did several things:

–  They reminded me that I was not called to live according to these sins. If God called me to something, it must be possible.

– As impossible as it may seem, my struggling would lead to peace if I let Christ give it to me.

– Following the Gospel provides a joy even during the lowest of times that all the pleasures and comforts of the world cannot match in their highest of times.

I understood that teaching fully when I married my wife and we brought a daughter into the world. I understood that while we aren’t (and likely will never be) rich, both of us abstaining from sex and living together before marriage led to a greater degree of emotional, financial and spiritual stability, and those things will be more valuable to my daughter Claire than any millionaire can.

When our friends commented during our dating phase how we always seemed to be happy and never engaged in serious fights (that they knew of!), they always wanted to know what our secret was. They were surprised when we said it was our faith and living according to the moral truths of the Church. They viewed that impossible, and nothing caught their attention more than someone who said not only was it possible, but your life was better off.  That presents a better opportunity to evangelize than a thousand concessions to human weakness.

Today we Christians, from the lowest to highest places in authority, have become ashamed of that Gospel. We no longer think it provides true freedom and liberation. That is why we do not Evangelize anymore.  What are we evangelizing? That Christ gives us a twelve year plan to eventually, maybe, help us and others be at peace with our own mediocrity? They honor the doctrine with their lips, but their heart is far from it.

One hopes, that as the Synod goes forward, the Bishops take after the heroic examples of those like Cardinals Burke and Napier, who were behind two lengthy interventions that spoke about precisely this. Cardinal Burke, in taking the understanding of so many faithful Catholics, wondered if, after reading this document, they would ask, “Why are we trying so hard to encourage our sons and daughters to live the Gospel and embrace Church teaching?” Likewise, the African bishops (led by the forceful example of Cardinal Napier) exhorted the Pope and the Bishops present to “encourage and inspire hope for those Christian families who despite many challenges and even failures – strive every day to live out faithfully and joyfully their mission and vocation within the Church and society.”

Over the next year before the full Ordinary Synod on the Family, we Catholics have a lot to pray for precisely this. Pray for these joyous examples, not only in our own lives, but in the lives of those around us. Pray that these joyous examples give us the power to evangelize, yet always with mercy. Pray that our leaders see within the lay faithful what a blessing the teachings of the Church are, and give them the grace to show the world what that blessing can do for them.

Kevin Tierney is an Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane.  He also blogs at http://commmonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com.  You may contact him on Facebook, Google+  or follow him on Twitter @CatholicSmark.