Theological perspective: the synod and discussing difficult questions


By Corrine Winter

For a while one could hardly listen to network news or pick up the local paper without seeing something about the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. Popular media outlets seem to have moved on, at least for the present, but the discussion continues among leaders and members of the Church, as Pope Francis seems to wish. Some Catholics (and others) express fear that the discussion of issues that are emotionally charged and often highly personal might lead to divisions within the Church. Others seem frustrated that discussions have been reported before final review and editing, thus contributing to a sense of confusion. Should we, as Catholics, fear the discussion of issues on which we have strong and very different perspectives, or should we welcome them?
A number of fiery discussions mark the history of the Church, demonstrating that the work of bringing together faith and reason has proceeded through debate — often trough heated debate. A colleague reminded me of an observation from Catholic Scripture scholar Raymond Brown: “The Church has always been a mess.” One of my professors at the University of Notre Dame was fond of citing a fourth century theologian’s description of a situation in which one could not buy a loaf of bread without hearing the baker’s opinion as to whether Christ was equal in divinity with the Father. And even after that question was officially “settled” at the Council of Nicaea, philosophical and even physical battles continued. Similarly in the eighth century, the debate over the use of images to inspire prayer was fought on many levels, and the decision of a second council at Nicaea did not lead to immediate universal acceptance and reconciliation. And the list goes on to include the 11th -century East-West conflict over Trinitarian doctrine and papal authority, the Great Western Schism of the 15th century, the ensuing discussion of the authority of pope and council, the Reformation, and many more issues. A number of these discussions have certainly led to sad and enduring divisions. Further, we have recently witnessed a division within the Anglican Communion over issues of ordination.
Do those examples convince us that current discussions of pastoral approaches to divorced and remarried, to cohabiting couples, and to homosexual persons pose a danger to Church unity? Or can we see within the Church a capacity to endure while struggling to express itself more clearly and in ways consistent with the signs of the times as was the call of Vatican II?
Because Catholic Tradition includes a fundamental conviction that faith and reason are not only unopposed but necessary to one another, and because the gathering of bishops under the authority of the pope, as occurred in the Synod on the Family, is the long-established forum for discernment when new challenges arise, it seems to me that we have reason to hope rather than to fear.
St. John Paul II addressed the relationship between faith and reason in his lengthy and carefully argued encyclical Fides et Ratio. The pope argued both that “I believe in order to understand,” and “I understand in order to believe.” While he lamented some tendencies in contemporary philosophy that he viewed as opposed to faith, he asserted that both faith and reason are at their base oriented to the discovery of truth. Since truth is one, faith and reason tend in the same direction and thus support one another. Therefore, we should not be afraid to face questions raised by current scientific and social studies of human experience. But we should feel compelled to attend to them and to examine our faith response to them to see whether we address them adequately.
Twenty-one major councils and numerous synods both local and international are part of the Church’s history. While examining only the final documents from those gatherings might give the impression that the answers to questions they addressed were always already clear to those who gathered, a deeper study shows that discussions were always multi-sided and called for mutual challenge, and clarification.
Further, history shows growth and development in the Church’s understanding of and approach to a number of questions. With regard to marriage, for example, one can see development in the way the ends of marriage are discussed from an almost exclusive emphasis on procreation and education of children to recognition, in the documents of Vatican II and elsewhere, of marriage as a vocation in which wife and husband grow together in holiness of life through their mutual love. This growth in understanding occurred in part through discussions in which proponents of one perspective regarded dialogue partners with suspicion.
Pope Francis and the bishops engaged in the current dialogue are calling us to examine issues that already cause pain to many members of the Church. We must hope that through recognition and confrontation of the issues and their relationship to Church Tradition we might avoid rather than cause further division.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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