23 October 2014, The Tablet

Married couples are the experts

The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome ended with a superb exposition of Catholic teaching on marriage and family life by Pope Francis, which rightly received a standing ovation. That was a much clearer demonstration of a consensus around fundamental principles than the voting on the various clauses of the final report. Those concerning homosexuality and divorce gained only a simple majority but failed to reach a two-thirds one. That was despite the fact that the text had already been amended in an attempt to make it more acceptable to the more conservative bishops.

The Pope’s sermon needs to be widely disseminated, partly because it sets the context in which to move forward on the issues not yet resolved, but more importantly because it could inspire the whole Church to a positive evaluation of marriage and family life and the role that sexuality plays in it according to God’s design. It is a change of tone to an optimistic, compassionate and realistic language that will lift the spirits of families and their pastors everywhere. They will see that the Pope understands them and stands with them both in their joys and their tribulations. 

That is all the more necessary as some of what went on at the synod did not convey any such message. The suggestion emerged, for instance, that couples in a second marriage after divorce might be allowed to receive Holy Communion at Mass after they had undergone what has been called “a very demanding and long penitential pathway”. It sounded as if the Church was being urged to impose further suffering on those who had already suffered much – divorce is a well-known trigger of mental illness and a major factor in suicide. And married couples invited to follow that pathway might question why it is not also being required of murderers, rapists, bank robbers and child abusers. Furthermore, they might ask, is not the entire Christian spiritual life, Lent especially, meant to be one very demanding penitential pathway?

This illustrates the danger of failing to start with the reality of everyday life and reflecting on it in the light of the Gospel, but instead starting from first principles and trying to apply them to circumstances where they do not fit. The way to avoid this is to make sure married lay people, women especially, are intimately involved in the next stage of the process leading up to the synod to be held next autumn. And women include, of course, mothers of gay men and women. One of the most telling moments of the last fortnight was when a couple addressing the synod described how they knew of a gay man who was welcomed home with his partner by his loving Catholic family which embraced him warmly because “He is our son”.

That the Catholic Church has not yet reached the point where it can say that officially to gay people is a measure of how far it has still to travel. On that journey there needs to be much greater participation from the whole Church, and much more trust in married lay opinion.

The married laity – more than the bishops, it has to be said – are the Church’s own experts on marriage and family life. After all, that is where they live.

What do you think?


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