The following is a preview segment of R. R. Reno's “The Public Square” from our upcoming November issue.
Last fall, in preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family, an extraordinary synod met in Rome. Between that meeting and this year’s, a Vatican-appointed committee produced a document. It’s called the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document to guide deliberation. Reading it is a depressing experience. It reminds me of how weak Catholicism’s intellectual culture has become, at least in some official circles.
The most striking feature of the working document is the minimal use of Scripture. This is ironic. The drafters lament “that Catholic families still lack a more direct contact with the Bible.” The content of the working document tells us something about the mental equipment of church leaders, who apparently don’t turn to Scripture as the foundation for their own reflection. Is it any wonder, therefore, that ordinary Catholics aren’t engaged with the Bible?
There is also very little from the Church’s rich tradition. The document does not define the intrinsic goods of marriage. It does not speak of the proper ends of our sexual impulses. There are no disciplined applications of Catholic social doctrine to the difficult question of what government and civil society can and must do to promote sexual morality, defend marriage, and support family life. Apparently, those drafting the working document think the contemporary challenges are unprecedented. Social science takes the place of theology.
Insofar as the document employs moral terms at all, they’re ersatz, postmodern ones. “People need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life.” “Everyone is entitled to be treated with understanding.” Elsewhere we read about the need to embrace diversity. We’re to be “open to dialogue and free from prejudice,” and we should avoid “exclusion.” Acceptance, entitlement, diversity, dialogue, exclusion—these are buzzwords used at corporate retreats and in human resource departments. It’s embarrassing to see them being used so uncritically in a church document, and the fact that Pope Francis himself uses them at times is not an excuse.
There’s also a strong therapeutic dimension, another sign of how captive this working document is to the spirit of our age. In a number of places, we’re warned against “judging,” the cardinal sin in a therapeutic culture. To avoid a moral tone, neutral terms are used, such as “loving relationship.” Sexual desire is referred to by the antiseptic word “affectivity,” as if sexual morality is a matter of feelings, not of actions by embodied creatures. What’s needed is a “constructive response” to help us “regain trust.” This is especially true in situations such as divorce, which “is always a defeat for everyone.” Again, it’s embarrassing to read something so naively reliant on contemporary turns of phrase and habits of mind.
At its worst, the working document combines pastoral pessimism with arrogant clericalism. One has the distinct impression that the drafters do not believe it is possible for people to live in accord with the moral truth about sex, marriage, and family. God’s healing grace? It’s a nice idea, but not strong enough to overcome the sexual revolution. Times have changed. There’s no going back. Etc., etc., etc. We all know the words to this song.
But ordinary Catholics like you and me need not despair! Our leaders recognize “the necessity for courageous pastoral choices.” They will set us on “a new pastoral course based on the present reality.” Divorce, cohabitation, contraception, homosexuality? No need to worry. Our loving pastors feel our pain. Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s famous tale, they’ll protect us from a God who doesn’t understand and affirm us in our weakness. They’ll make sure we feel accepted.
By the time this is published, the Synod on the Family will be underway. In all likelihood the bishops will have decided to put up with this poorly drafted document, amending it as best they can. But I dearly wish they’d chuck the whole thing, and with it the lazy, uncritical gestures and clichés that serve as substitutes for thinking.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.