The Extraordinary Synod on the Family issued an interim “relatio” yesterday. This is a document meant to sum up the current state of discussion among the gathered bishops. George Weigel has written a definitive refutation of the media’s spin, which, predictably, interprets every sane (and commonplace) pastoral observation about the need for the Church to welcome sinners and accompany them in their efforts to seek sanctity as a sea change in Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. 

The liberal commentariat’s persistent strategy is to describe Catholicism as “rigid” about sex, when in fact they simply disagree with the Church’s teaching. This is a typical liberal strategy. Liberals tolerate everybody and don’t judge—except for bigots and “rigid” people, of course, who can’t be tolerated. In that sense, as we all know, liberals don’t disagree. They condemn. But enough of that. I need not repeat Weigel’s commentary. Instead, I want to comment on the “relatio” itself.

The first thing to say is that the Synod seems to be infected with an emotivist, subjectivist, and therapeutic tone. There are exhortations to “listening,” and lots of calls for more “dialog.” The document speaks of marriage allowing couples to find “ways to grow.” There is a mention of the hoary distinction between regulations and “putting forward values.” (Talk of “values” is always a bad sign.) Needless to say the former is tacitly condemned, while the latter championed. And there’s regular recourse to the claim that changing times have made things so very complicated and so we can’t be “content with theoretical meetings [meanings?] or general orientations.”

I experienced this sort of rhetoric as an Episcopalian, and I can report that it’s consistently used by authoritarian liberals to silence anyone who dares to speak about the truth. To do so “shuts down dialogue.” Truth-talk is “rigid” and “ignores human complexity.” And so I say to the bishops, beware. The dictatorship of relativism has a bureaucratic vocabulary that’s finding its way into the Synod. 

The second thing to say is that the discussion seems to want something impossible: ideals without judgments, goals without rules, principles without “discrimination.” This reflects the incoherence of modern liberal culture, which is also finding its way into the Synod. 

Paragraph 46 exemplifies. The topic is the one that generated the most controversy before the Synod: the status of divorced and remarried Catholics. We read that their situation requires “careful discernment”—certainly true. But the document continues by insisting that pastoral respect for them as children of God (my language) should “avoid any language or behavior that might make them feel discriminated against.” 

How is this possible? Wouldn’t the mere recitation of Mark 10:11 make a divorced and remarried person feel discriminated against? (That verse quotes Jesus: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”)

The misstep here is very, very significant. Paragraph 46 makes our feelings the criterion of the Church’s pastoral ministry. This is the express route to the dictatorship of relativism. Feelings are feelings, and nobody can question, refute, or debate them. If we make feelings the criterion, then the truth about discrimination (and much more) is subjective.

Two further thoughts: First, this document strikes me as an accurate picture of the Church’s current condition, at least in the West. For the most part we don’t know how to speak about the Church’s moral teachings about sex and marriage in ways that we are confident will help people conform themselves more fully to the moral truth. In this confusion, we drift toward therapeutic ways of talking and call for “dialogue.” But that’s not going to help. What we need is leadership, not dialogue.

Second, this interim report of episcopal deliberation shows very clearly the breakdown of theological competence in the Church. Today we have no functional theology capable of undergirding a coherent discussion of difficult and sensitive issues. 

A good example is paragraph 48. It reports that some bishops think that if spiritual communion with Christ in the liturgy of the Eucharist is possible, then why not allow the divorced and remarried to receive? What’s the difference? Of course, the same can be said of Protestants, whom Vatican II clearly teaches enjoy a partial but incomplete participation in the fullness of the Catholic Church. They too are capable of spiritual communion. (This is true of any person of good will who enters a Catholic Church and prays with a sincere desire to be united to Christ.) Why should they be barred from reception? What’s missing in this thinking is a basic Catholic commitment, articulated with great power at the Council of Trent, that the fullness of Christ’s truth takes on visible, embodied form. 

I don’t want to over-read this interim report. It’s a grab bag of summary points. But I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say I’m less than reassured. During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI the Church was dominated by men of great intellectual achievement and sound, integral theological education. Now the Church is being led by men educated during the Great Disruption that accompanied and followed Vatican II. They’re no doubt good and faithful men, but they’re working with fragments of the old theological synthesis (as are most of us). This makes them (and most of us) susceptible to the therapeutic ideologies of our time.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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