The Synod: A Couple Good Things Among the Rumors, Theories, & Noise

I have, for once, followed my own advise and not followed any of the goings on at the just completed Synod on the Family. If it seems pertinent, I’ll read whatever final document, if any, the Pope cares to issue. Otherwise, odd as it seems to an American to say, it’s just none of my business. More importantly, are rumors, allegations, proof-texting of preliminary output and premature hand-wringing likely to make me any holier or help me in my feeble efforts to love my neighbor? No. So let it go – just as a sane person doesn’t read those checkout counter gossip sheets, a sane Catholic doesn’t get worked up over the alleged machinations of various parties among the bishops and Vatican personnel, let alone over how such maneuverings get reported on in the idiot press and speculated on on the web.

Not helpful. Just don’t do it.

However, I will go as far as to point to a couple good items that have recently come up that reveal how people, especially Catholics, think about issues of mercy, truth and love in difficult situations. First up, over at Darwin Catholic, is Living in Sin, which is a commentary of sorts on an article in the National Catholic Reporter, in which the author, a Jesuit Fr. Reese, says:

The problem is that conservatives do not see divorce and remarriage as simply one sin, which can be confessed and forgiven. They see it as a continuing sin each time the couple has sex. Since they will not stop having sex, they cannot go to Communion. There is no willingness to accept the first marriage as irrevocably broken and destroyed, which would allow the parties to move on with their lives.

Perhaps this is an example of what Conservatives often accuse Progressives of – projecting their own preoccupations onto their opponents. I don’t know, but if there’s a side in this discussion obsessed with sex, it’s Fr. Reese’s. If conservatives, whatever that may mean in this case, are obsessed with anything, it would be the idea that a ‘first marriage’ could be ‘irrevocably broken’. If it can – and Fr. Reese is as sure it can as Jesus is that it can’t – then all sorts of issues are in play. But if it can’t, then another set of issues must be discussed. Sex is not the primary issue, except if you refuse to see any other issues.

Be that as it may, the biggest single problem I have here is the framing of the issue: Fr. Reese and others of similar convictions, in my experience, want to invoke a certain type of first and second marriages, ones where, in the first case, the marriage is ‘irrevocably broken’ and, in the second, it’s nothing but good people doing their best to do good under difficult circumstances. This is similar to the way abortion is always portrayed – it’s always some poor woman who’s life is presumed to be ruined if she has a baby, never mind that no one knows what the outcome really will be, whether the abortion or the baby would be more devastating to – what, exactly? Some preconceived notion of what the future *should* be? We are supposed to be cruel if we’re unwilling to support granting such a woman a Mulligan, which in turn requires we assume a magical Ground Hog’s Day view of reality. There is no going back, there is only pretending.

Along those lines, Simcha Fisher wrote Not everything is fixable (God have mercy on us all), in which she tries to express the full horror of sin: every sin ‘irrevocably’ changes things, so that the sunny outcome, where everything is returned to sweetness and light, is just not possible. Sure, sometimes good outcomes are possible, but even in those cases, they are not a do-over. We are sometimes granted to perceive or even participate in how God turns all evil to good. That’s the message of the Crucifixion, which is at the same time the greatest evil man has done, and the greatest blessing God has ever granted.

But often, there is no good outcome, at least none that we humans stuck in time can ever see. Such is the case in divorce and remarriage, or, perhaps more accurately and commonly, something more like: shacking up, shacking up again, having a baby, marriage, divorce, shacking up yet again, maybe having another kid, maybe getting married again. Being completely subjective here, but in my experience, the bulk of the complications that make finding a good solution are self-inflicted. The poor woman whose philandering husband has abandoned her and their children – that’s what is put on the poster. I know personally of exactly one case like that – of a faithful Catholic woman who married a guy who turned out, four kids later, to be a cad of the lowest level and ran off with another woman. But I know personally of dozens of cases where friends and acquaintances have destroyed their marriages for reasons utterly trivial compared to the devastation their divorce visits upon their children and families.

It’s true historically in this country that the single biggest group among people who are married are those who got married and stayed married until death did them part, and the second largest group are those that got married one, divorced once, then got married and stayed married. But the trend has for years been away from marriage and toward living together. Among non-Catholics and Catholics alike, the trend of living together first, sometimes for years, and only then maybe trying out marriage, seems to have become the norm.(1)

And I do know a couple of those families where a first marriage ended in divorce, yet the second marriage lasted for decades, produced beautiful, well-loved children who, like their parents, are at mass every Sunday and active in their parishes. It happens. Not being  their pastor or confessor or their closest friend, I don’t ask if the first marriages were properly annulled. I would assume they were.

Here’s another example of the outcomes from sins of infidelity, from a post on Dante:

…he (Dante) makes real the nature of sin – that it’s not some arbitrary concept, or mere instrument for generating guilt feelings, but a real force at work in the world, with real, horrible consequences. Paolo’s and Francesca’s ever-popular sin results in not only their own damnation (the outcome Moderns are most likely to recoil from) but in the (hinted) damnation of Francesca’s husband for murdering them, who thereby loses his wife and younger brother in a moment of passion, the loss of a mother to Giovanni’s and Francesca’s children, of a husband to Paolo’s wife, of a son to Paolo’s parents, and the probable destruction of the family and political relationship that the marriage between Francesca da Rimini and Giovanni Malatesta represented. All this, from a little private affair – and this is in the highest circle of Hell, where the least sins are punished.

What happened was that Francesca da Rimini, daughter of a powerful family, was in an arranged marriage with Giovanni Malatesta, the eldest son of a competing family. The marriage was intended to mark and strengthen the newly-established peace between the warring families. Now Giovanni was nothing to look at (he was nick-named ‘lo Sciancato’ – the lame one), while his younger brother Paolo won the looks lottery. Francesca and Paolo, who was likewise married, hit it off, and kept a running affair going for years. When, finally, Giovanni surprised them one day, he killed them both.

I wonder how Fr. Reese would counsel the families involved. Giovanni’s and Francesca’s marriage and Paolo’s marriage seem to be irrevocably broken, given that Paolo and Francesca no longer seem committed to them. Should not the Church have spared their lives by providing a means by which they could be released from their vows to their current spouses and allowed to wed each other? Would not Fr. Reese advise Giovanni to calm the heck down – he could then pursue another bride more faithful than Francesca. No need for bloodshed, and no need to stay away from Communion, either.

And I suppose he could also counsel the Malatesti and  Polenti families to just accept that some marriages get broken, and that this doesn’t mean the families have to go back to waging war on each other.

And then, counsel the children, who, after all, embody the hopes for peace between the families: sometimes, mommy and daddy fall out of love and, you know, betray their vows, but this doesn’t mean that you children are allowed to make the connection between the ending of your parents love for each other and the potential that their love for YOU may likewise end, neither are you allowed to see the casual disregard of your legitimate desire to live with both parents as just such a betrayal of their claims to love you. Nope – you’ll be Just Fine. That’s an order. No great injustice has been done to you. Those thoughts and feeling you are having are just your problems that you’ll need to get over over time….

Aaaannnd – that’s where it all breaks down. That’s why I would suppose that a Synod on the Family might not be primarily guided by a desire to make life any easier on those who would harm the family. Not that they would want to make life any harder, but rather it is a mistake to think that the hardness of the situation is somehow something the Church did to the people involved, rather than being the inescapable result of real, active sin. The sin may be their own, their spouses, or both, and may be accompanied by the sins of commission and omission of those around them – parents, friends, family, pastors, writers – who do not support the marriage. Marriages don’t just die – they are, and must be, murdered.  And that’s just the physical form – spiritually, we are taught, they never die as long as the spouses both live.

Sometimes, especially in the case of children, there are innocents who suffer. This is the tragedy of Original Sin, by which we all suffer as a group for sins we did not personally commit. This is not something the Church can change, except insofar as she is the crucified and risen Body of Christ. That sort of change is accomplished through embracing the Cross, which isn’t a very popular idea today. It’s not fair, but then again, neither is it fair that Christ should die for our sins, and that we should be saved by the Blood of Another.

The Church, like the people involved in all the divorce/remarriage permutations, is in an impossible spot: as Simcha says, not everything is fixable. Things are not going to be better for any of the parties involved if the Church were to grant, effectively, its blessings on remarried Catholics who have not honored the Church’s process or decisions via seeking annulments. We’d love to think that if the Church would just Be Nicer, everything would be Nicer. The Church is Just Mean. But those kids – and their grandparents, their uncles and aunts, their friends – will be the ones to pay a price. This is not theory – if you love the people involved, you will share in the pain. That pain is not caused by the Church, and the Church cannot make it go away, at least in this life.

I would expect the Synod to try to explain how we can love people as we would like to be loved, without enabling behaviors that tend to destroy love. Very difficult, impossible, in fact – for man. As Simcha says, may God have mercy on us all.

  1. Friends of mine who minister to the Spanish-speaking members of the local parishes have told me the young couples they work with are almost all unmarried – and these are the people who are coming to church and sign their kids up for faith formation classes! The reason they give: they associate getting married with this huge expensive party which they cannot afford – so they don’t get married. So we can fairly assume the level of catechesis is none too high. Sometimes, these friends of mine have managed to arrange group weddings followed by giant pot lucks at the parish, so that they can have their wedding and the big party without going broke. That seems very ‘pastoral’ to me!

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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