The synod, catechetical practice, and the elephant in the room

elephant in the room

I’ve held back from weighing in on anything to do with Synod on the Family – firstly, because things got pretty hysterical in some camps; secondly, because I am not an expert on what has gone on; and thirdly, because I’ve had little time to follow all the debates. I thought many aspects of Cardinal Nichols’ pastoral letter this weekend were helpful in quelling the media distortions.

What intrigues me, though, (as always), are those elements that impact on catechetical and pastoral practice. For me, this is the daily reality of evangelisation in a parish setting. I have written many, many times on this blog about the nitty-gritty pastoral reality of both remaining faithful to the dignity of each human person we encounter, while at the same time – at some point! – raising the issue with them if necessary that they are in a situation of serious sin.

In my experience, you tend to get people camping on one side or the other –

  • Some who never quite get up the courage to tackle the couple who are cohabiting and in the RCIA process, or who find it too awkward to mention to someone who, for whatever reason, should not receive Communion (probably the majority approach)
  • Some who would launch in with an account of mortal sin the very first time they meet someone for whom this is an issue, without seeing the person in front of them (probably a minority approach)

I am aware it is enormously tricky, and that the approach of many parishes lies somewhere between the two extremes. (I would also add that I don’t think it is solely the role of the priest to tackle these problems. As lay people, we tend to act like it is. But, if we truly take to heart our baptismal calling, we realise that we have responsibility too for our brothers and sisters. I’m not suggesting we go in, all guns blazing; but to pray and discern how we can evangelise and help this person, be a friend to them, and gradually show them the truth, with great love, of the situation they’re in.)

Here is the paragraph from Cardinal Nichols’ letter which seems to have caused some debate:

A central principle for this pastoral care emerged clearly: that in trying to walk alongside people in difficult or exceptional situations, it is important to see clearly and with humility all the good aspects of their lives. That is what comes first. From this point, we learn to move together towards conversion and towards the goodness of life that God has for us and that Jesus opens for us all. This positive approach flows right through the ‘Synod Report’ and I hope will increasingly shape our attitude towards each other.

He says we must see “the good aspects” of the lives of those who co-habit, who are in a second marriage, etc. Yes, absolutely. Recognising the dignity of each and every person is foundational to catechesis. I have had countless couples who have come through RCIA who co-habit, blissfully ignorant of their situation, but who are good people – who love each other, whose relationship contains moments of selflessness and sacrifice, whom I – and other catechists and sponsors – have built up real friendships with. The cardinal hopes that this respectful recognition of their goodness will “increasingly shape our attitude towards each other.”

OK, but I don’t think this is the biggest problem. In fact, on the whole, I think parishes are pretty good at this.

If you ask me, the real question, the difficult question, is not addressed in the letter. The real question is this: How do you help someone “move [together] towards conversion and towards the goodness of life that God for us”? The really hard part is to say to someone, “Actually, there is a problem with the way you are living that we need to talk about.” That’s where the rubber hits the road. It’s the big elephant in the room, because no one speaks about how we do this, even if people reluctantly agree that we should probably should do something, somehow.

The third Part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is Life in Christ, and it opens by discussing the nature of catechesis for life in Christ. CCC 1696 and 1697 are below, but I would recommend reading the full section on a catechesis “for the newness of life”:

1696 The way of Christ “leads to life”; a contrary way “leads to destruction”. The Gospel parable of the two ways remains ever present in the catechesis of the Church; it shows the importance of moral decisions for our salvation: “There are two ways, the one of life, the other of death; but between the two, there is a great difference.”

1697 Catechesis has to reveal in all clarity the joy and the demands of the way of Christ.

This is so clear! Conversion requires change. Anyone you speak to who has encountered Christ in a personal way would say that they repented of their “old life”. I remember my own conversion, the first time I went to Confession properly for the first time in my life, and came home singing and full of joy at what God had done for me. I knew that things would never be the same again. I knew this was the beginning of a profound transformation.

It’s good to emphasise the “goodness” of people’s lives pre-conversion; and then – at the appropriate point – to tell them about a deeper goodness, about life in Christ. We can slip into a moralistic vision of what it means to be Christian – “so-and-so is a good person because they do good things” – when truly, our goodness flows from Christ, from an intimate life in him. The letter discusses those

individuals who, for example, have decided to live together without marriage, or for Catholics in second marriages. These realities are part of their journey in life and while not in keeping with the pattern the Lord asks of us, their lives are often marked by real goodness.

And the deepest source of goodness flows from the newness of encounter with Jesus, who transforms everything. We have experienced the joy of life in Christ, and we would want everyone to experience it. We know, without a doubt, that life with Him is worth everything – obedience which might be costly, sacrifice which might be painful…

As reflection on these pastoral issues continues to challenge us over the next year, I think the Church in the west needs to be courageous – to affirm the goodness of those whose lives have not yet been transformed by Christ, and then to announce the Gospel, the life-changing encounter with Jesus.

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10 Responses

  1. William says:

    Hannah,
    Great reflection and thoughts to ponder.

  2. Anne says:

    Really well written and thoughtful Hannah. We must never be afraid to preach the Gospel and the one thing the Church needs is good catechesis from the beginning of a spiritual journey till the end, so get writing!!

  3. I really appreciate this approach to what must be one of the most challenging, not to say complex, issues of our time. We have God’s clear establishment of family relationships in Genesis 2:18-25 (see also CCC 2201-3), a position reinforced by Jesus as he speaks on the vexed issue of Divorce in Matthew 19:3-12. However, whilst sexuality, marriage and interpersonal relationships are where we meet the challenging issues within our Parishes, we also operate against a backdrop of a society that has reframed both the gender and the sexuality debate for us. We are called to respond to individual situations as well as to address the rapidly changing social context into which our children are growing up to encounter.

    It is hard to compete against the radical sexualisation of humanity through popular music and cinema. For Hollywood it seems sexual intercourse is the first fruit of any fleeting glance of desire, intercourse that demands and offers no commitments beyond immediate gratification. If such an argument were followed to its logical conclusion, the very fabric of law and order would fail as I might choose to seize whatever goods I want for my gratification, regardless of any legitimacy or entitlement to such ownership.

    Crudely, a society in which consumption provides the means to securing personal peace, affluence and self worth have become the primary goals held out to everyone as the principal objectives of a life well lived, cannot but conflict with a God who speaks of both a citizenship located outside of this world (Phillipians 3:20) and the responsibility of the disciple in putting others interests above their own (Phillipians 2:4). Thereis a responsibility placed upon the shoulders of the Church, as well as myself as a member of that Church, to contradict society’s ‘message’ carried primarily through the Media in all its forms, through its actions and its words. It is perhaps worth considering the extent to which we as the Church have allowed ourselves to be ‘conformed to this present age’ at the price of ‘being transformed by Christ’ (Romans 12:1-2). God invites us to accept responsibility to ‘discern the will of God; what is good, what pleases, what is perfect’.

    And so we have a Macro task in addressing the shape and form of society, yet also a Micro one of engaging with everyday people all around us, themselves chasing the Societal ‘Dream’, often without deep conviction and experiencing a deep inner sense of dislocation and unhappiness. For, which one of us can fail to identify with the reality that we met Christ for ourselves at a point of personal need?

    So Hannah’s questions flow and are valuable for personal reflection. For me the first question around confronting the situation of personal sin recalls the warning to Ezekiel when God points out the role of a watchman. If said watchman issues a warning that is ignored and as a reesult the people perish, their blood is upon their own hands. However, if such a watchman fails to issue the warning, then the peoples’ blood is upon the watchman’s hands (Ezekiel 33). Therefore I am to be both convinced and confident in my own perspective, speak clearly, live effectively by its values and communicate is specifically. Yet, I am not in a position to persuade, this is the work of the Holy Spirit and as St Paul writes, ‘Therefore do not judge before the time, until the coming of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 4:5). We can continue in friendship, yet agree to disagree. God alone is judge (Romans 12:19). Of course constant prayer is a Divine initiative that can move mountains, so perspectives and convictions are easily changed when we pray for folk.

    As we consider how we might move someone towards conversion it is by so loving and living Christ that their attention and gaze is directed increasingly toward God. It is only as I encounter God in all His majesty and His grace that I can understand my own need for conversion. God alone captures my heart, captivates my imagination and then directs my path along a road of ‘change’, the true fruit of repentance.

    Sadly, we are all fractured, a result of the Fall. God both meets us and accepts us in our fracture and then invites us to follow Him. Such following in the footsteps of Jesus leads us away from sin and perhaps is best captured in the wonderful story of the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1-11).

    In this Gospel account we hear Jesus’ command, ‘Go and sin no more’. However, we hear no additional updates on her progress. So it is, as a Church and as individual Christians, we can point the way forward, we can advocate family, we can describe and defend the sanctity of marriage, and to do so we must be well informed (CCC 2201ff). Yet, just as God invited Adam and Eve to exercise their freedom of choice at the moment of creation, so we have no capacity to overule that free will choice. What we do have is opportunity to create a picture of wholsesome family life within the Church as both a witness and an invitation. We need God’s grace in abundance, that we might offer such grace to others.

  4. Antonia says:

    “Some… who find it too awkward to mention to someone who, for whatever reason, should not receive Communion.” I hope you’re not referring to laypeople here. No Christian layperson should EVER presume to judge, let alone tell someone, that they should not receive Communion.

    • Transformed in Christ says:

      Hi Antonia, thanks for your comment. I’m not speaking about “judging”. Can I ask what you would do in the following situation? You have a good friend who is living in a situation where, objectively, from the position of Church teaching, she should not be receiving Communion, but perhaps no one has ever told her. (It is rarely mentioned, and if she goes to church only occasionally, she’s unlikely to hear it mentioned in a homily.)

      If we know the seriousness of what she is doing, our love for her will surely motivate us to say something? We know from what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians (“Therefore anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord”) and what the Catechism says, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” (CCC 1385) that receiving Communion is a serious matter – for every single one of us! I think that by failing to speak the truth in love to our friend, we are failing them very seriously.

      I do think that as Christians we are responsible for our friends (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Gen 4:9). I am not speaking about “acquaintances” here, I’m talking about friends. (There has to be a strong foundation of friendship before we can say something like this.) We are responsible for each other. Of course, if we are ever going to raise a matter like this with someone, it must be from a place of great humility and genuine love, we must examine our own consciences thoroughly and have a repentant heart for our own sins.

      I know that the attitude, “We should NEVER tell someone they should not receive Communion” is a common one – but I think it stems from an assumption that Holy Communion is a commodity that anyone can receive if they choose – that it is “between them and God” – it is coming from a subjectivist mentality, without regarding the objectivity of what we do in receiving Communion…

      If I were ever to say something like this to a friend, it would be because I love them – why would I judge my friend? Just some thoughts….

      • Antonia says:

        Thanks for your reply. I’d happily talk to them about the Church’s rules (I think most are already aware actually, whatever they choose to do about it) *if they asked* – wouldn’t wish to make any assumptions about what they do in the bedroom!

        I’d encourage them to talk to their parish priest/spiritual director/confessor most certainly, but I’d still say it’s not for me to ‘become’ someone else’s conscience and most certainly not for one lay person to tell another that they SHOULD NOT come to receive the healing gift of Christ’s Body & Blood (which I don’t see as a ‘commodity’, by the way – far too conscious of God’s undeserved mercy in my life for that – ‘Lord, I am not worthy…’)

        Blessings.

  5. MikefromED says:

    “Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ is revealed – and he is your life – you too will be revealed in all your glory with him. That is why you must kill everything in you that belongs only to earthly life: fornication, impurity, guilty passion, evil desires and especially greed, which is the same thing as worshipping a false god; all this is the sort of behaviour that makes God angry. And is the way in which you used to live when you were surrounded by people doing the same thing but now you, of all people, must give all these things up.” (St Pauli’s Epistle to the Colossians, 3:1-8)

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