The Church needs new language in explaining its sexual morality
Friday, Nov. 07, 2014
The recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops convened at the Vatican to discuss the challenges facing the family today was, if the media be heeded, a gathering to discuss primarily sexual morality.
Yet, the issues of ministry to homosexuals, Communion for those in invalid marriages, and cohabitation kept coming to the fore not because the bishops planned for this, but because these are today hot-button issues that could not be avoided.
As I followed the Synod through the daily communications it produced and the commentaries of experts, I was particularly taken by the conviction of many bishops that the Church needs a new language when it speaks about sexual morality.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, a liaison for English-speaking journalists, stated: “Language appeared many, many times. ... There’s a great desire that our language has to change in order to meet the very complex situations” that people face.
One bishop, whom Rosica did not identify, told the assembled bishops that “language such as ‘living in sin,’ ‘intrinsically disordered’ [the traditional language use for homosexual acts], or ‘contraceptive mentality’ are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church.”
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin repeated this theme when he said: “To many, the language of the Church appears to be a disincarnated language of telling people what to do, a one-way dialogue.” He continued: “The lived experience and struggle of spouses can help find more effective ways of expression of the fundamental elements of Church teaching.”
Even the “conservative” Archbishop Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris, a strong supporter of the status quo regarding sexual morality, stated that the Church must find “new modes of expression and modes of communication that will allow it to announce the good news so that it may be heard.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity (and said to be the favorite theologian of Pope Francis) had become something of a lightning rod because of a talk he gave to the College of Cardinals before the Synod, which proposed that the Church should make it easier for divorced Catholics in a second marriage without an annulment to receive Communion at Mass. He argued that “the traditional description of such couples as practicing ‘perpetual adultery’ is not pastorally acceptable. If you tell people who live in this way and they do so in a responsible way that they are living in adultery, permanent adultery, I think they would feel offended and insulted. We must be very careful … in our language.”
Bishop Johann Bonny of Antwerp wrote a widely circulated letter to the Synod (although he himself was not a participant). He argued that couples living together outside of marriage, using [artificial] contraception, or resorting to in vitro fertilization (all activities prohibited by the Church) “deserve more respect and a more nuanced evaluation than the language of certain Church documents appear to prescribe. The mechanisms of accusation and exclusion ... can only block the way to evangelization.”
What may we expect when the Synod of Bishops reconvenes in 2015? I expect the emergence of a unified consensus on the issues of the Synod that just ended. While there will be no doctrinal changes, there will hopefully emerge positive strategies for dealing pastorally with difficult issues regarding marriage and sexuality.
As has often occurred in the Church in the past in dealing with pastoral matters, the next Synod may take two steps forward and one step backwards – a realistic expectation for a Church that thinks in centuries.