The synod, catechetical practice, and the 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.