The Synod: A Real Church Soap Opera

Know the Truth:  Be Prepared for a Confusing and Bumpy Ride

by Rev. Stephen V. Hamilton,

The readings speak quite clearly about foundational matters of marriage. This is providential because today begins the Synod of Bishops in Rome focusing on the
“Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Modern World.” The readings are providential because they present some of the most authoritative and authentic foundations for our belief about marriage.

This foundation is important because of concerns and spin floating in the air from last year’s preparatory meeting of the Synod of Bishops. At last year’s meeting, as discussion points, some proposals were made that are not consistent with Catholic doctrine. The media and lobbying forces outside of the Church began their campaign hoping to change three doctrines of the Church:

  1. That remarriage after divorce (without an annulment) would change,
  2. That people in such situations might be admitted to receive Holy Communion,
  3. That there even might be some positive evaluation of same-sex marriages.

A serious problem is also that some high-ranking churchmen have made remarks in some cases simply vague and, in others, directly contrary to Church teaching. Add to that some reasonable signs of manipulating the outcome of the Synod by bishops in charge of running it and we had a real Church soap opera on our hands. This has resulted in a charged environment as this Ordinary Synod gets underway and runs for the next three weeks. I expect that forces outside the Church, and some inside, will make the next few weeks a confusing and bumpy ride.

Church Doctrine Cannot Change

We should be prepared. However, I do not lose hope and nor should you. Our hope is solid because it is anchored in Christ and because the Church cannot change fundamental teaching expressed in settled doctrine. To add clarity: It’s not just that the Church may not; it’s not should not; it’s not that the Church isn’t likely, but rather that she cannot change settled doctrine. She has no authority to change it. And it does not matter what color the churchman’s cassock is: black, violet, scarlet red, and even white: Settled doctrine cannot be changed. Period.
Today’s readings remind us why doctrine on marriage is so firm: We hear from Sacred Scripture, God’s Word, and still more specifically from Jesus himself in the
gospel. What Jesus says is teaching from God, the divine Master. His Church and any true disciple can only accept what the Master says and follow it. Where we don’t like or understand a given doctrine, our dislike in no way proves the doctrine needs to be changed or that it can be overlooked in some circumstances. No, where we don’t like or understand a given doctrine it is us, you and I, who need to reform and embrace the life giving teaching that keeps our souls with the Good Shepherd and keeps us on the path to Heaven. With all that being said, as the Synod unfolds, we may be disappointed at the confusion but we should still remain calm even if things look more like a Barnum & Bailey Church Circus.

 

Synods, because they promote open discussion, are messy things. Discussion doesn’t mean the impossible will happen. To view things positively, perhaps the confusion that is in the air is just the spark we each need to know the Scriptures and Church teaching better so that we can respond to Pope Francis’ call to go out and engage the world, even the margins, with the saving joy of the gospel!

 

Clarifying Divorce and Remarriage

With God’s Word instructing us about marriage, I’ll comment briefly on only three things that are in the air these days with the Synod. Remarriage: Marriage and divorce are always public matters. They are not hidden and they affect the common good. Jesus teaches that it was hardness of heart that led Moses to permit divorce. But Jesus calls us to circumcise our hearts. He teaches us God’s mind from the beginning. Marriage models in human form, in a sacramental form, the commitment, the fidelity, and the life-giving love of God Himself. Marriage is a sacrament of Jesus’ love for the Church. Thus, since God’s love is permanent, faithful, and life-giving, so spouses must model that by understanding their covenant to be:

  1. A permanent, life-long commitment;
  2. One that requires their fidelity;
  3. One that is open to children and does not impede their conception.

Yes, history proves that relationships experience difficulties and suffering, and some even end in divorce. But can the first marriage be overlooked and a new marriage entered into? Jesus says no. In fact, so clear is his teaching that he says to divorce and marry another is equivalent to adultery. The Church always seeks to accompany those who have experienced divorce and to aid those who have chosen to marry without an annulment. But we must be clear that equating remarriage after divorce with adultery tells us how serious this is. Where a previous marriage exists, it simply is not possible to presume a new marriage is morally acceptable.

What about the matter of reception of Holy Communion?

Reception of Holy Communion – for every Catholic – requires the person to first be living a communion with Jesus in three key areas: (1) Living a communion by sacramental life; (2) By believing the truth of the Church’s faith; and (3) by living a communion reflected in one’s moral choices. To remarry after divorce (without an annulment) fails to observe communion with Jesus in at least two of those areas: in the moral life and in the sacramental life. Since marriage is always a public matter, when a person marries without an annulment, it is not possible to receive Holy Communion without also compromising Jesus’ clear teaching that such a situation is equivalent to adultery.

Annulments:

The Church takes seriously the divine teaching of Jesus and she also desires to offer pastoral help to those who find themselves having experienced divorce and who may desire to enter a new marriage. For this reason, the Church developed the annulment process. That process is a judicial process that aims to learn the truth about a failed marriage. Was that marriage valid as God designed it to be? If so, then no new marriage can be accepted. Was that marriage defective from the beginning in some significant way that strikes at the very constitution of what God revealed marriage to be? If so, then, after careful study the Church declares that she believes the marriage to be null. Such declaration means there was not an indissoluble marriage, because in fact, a true marriage did not exist. When such a declaration of nullity has been granted then a person is free to marry in the Church.

To be clear about this matter: Divorce itself is not the problem that prevents someone from taking Holy Communion. Rather, it is remarriage after a divorce when an annulment has not been granted that presents the moral problem. If a person has remarried and does not have an annulment then it is necessary to refrain from coming forward for Holy Communion and to engage in an annulment process in the hopes that the Church can find cause for an annulment. Priests assist people in this situation all the time. If this is your situation, I urge you to contact your priests and to refrain from Holy Communion until an annulment can be granted.

Mercy is not Equivalent to Tolerance

Finally, you will hear some suggest that the Church should tolerate remarriage without annulment due to an appeal to mercy. The Church is sympathetic to those in difficult situations. Many good people and good disciples face these difficulties, sometimes for no fault of their own. However, mercy is not simply equivalent to tolerance. If mercy is only tolerance then it really is indulgence and license. Mercy and truth always go together. In fact, as we approach the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy it would be good to be clear about what mercy is. The fullest image of mercy is that (pointing to crucifix). There we see the truth of what sin is and what sin does. Sin separates us from God. And there we also see the depths of God’s mercy. Namely, he dies for us so that we would choose not to go on living in sin, but rather choose to avoid those things that jeopardize our souls. Furthermore, he makes it possible for us to embrace his teaching – even difficult teaching – as a saving remedy that keeps us living in communion with the one who loves us and who saves us. Some suggest this false mercy, this tolerance, is the solution for the remarried because in history you find some cases where the Church went along with divorce and remarriage. But why might we find some instances of this? Because the Church had the challenge of bringing the gospel and its moral commands to places where Christianity had not existed.

There were social and political pressures that prevented the Church from succeeding in some situations where remarriage had taken place. But while isolated and complicated cases of remarriage can be found where the Church even accepted the less than ideal situation, the Church did this as she gradually formed the culture and shifted the expectations to the permanence and the indissolubility of marriage in accord with divine teaching. Thus, the doctrine of indissolubility advanced and progressed in a proper way. Just as Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in today’s gospel, the society was gradually transformed away from solutions based on hardness of heart in favor of what Jesus reveals about the true and full nature of marriage. It is false to hold that the challenges of the past are signs that the Church had a softer stance that can now be recuperated. Such suggestions would be going in reverse, rather than moving forward from the hardness of the human heart to the fullness of what Jesus taught.

All of these things give us a glimpse of the hard work of the Church to proclaim the gospel where it is not always welcome. This is hard work the Church did in ages past. It is clearly hard work she must continue to do today. And it begins in your heart and in mine. May we have the grace to embrace what is required to remain in the truth of Christ!

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2 comments to The Synod: A Real Church Soap Opera

  • tg

    The gay mafia is coming out. That’s what I’m worried about. (At least the wolves will be exposed.)

  • Mariann

    Thank you so much Fr. Hamilton. This is all quite clear, and is clearly truth. So, the question the Faithful have is…Why is the synod necessary? You state,

    “A serious problem is also that some high-ranking churchmen have made remarks in some cases simply vague and, in others, directly contrary to Church teaching. Add to that some reasonable signs of manipulating the outcome of the Synod by bishops in charge of running it and we had a real Church soap opera on our hands.”

    It would seem to me that those high-ranking churchmen need to be corrected; their heretical comments do souls great harm (as well as their own souls). Wouldn’t reason dictate admonish the sinner (in this case the high-ranking churchmen)?

    In addition, it appears that bishops in charge of running the synod are being led into temptation. How does one manipulate an outcome when the purpose is the promotion of discussion? Are we saying that those manipulating are not sinning? These are bishops–successors to the Apostles. So no one is replacing them knowing or even highly suspecting this? Again, why are those in charge over those running the synod not admonishing, severely, since we are talking about the Bride of Christ?

    The depth of Church teaching is magnificent. Those bishops or cardinals who are sewing confusion are seriously placing their souls and the souls of many in jeopardy. May they realize the depth of sin before acting on it.

    One last thought–we are living at a time where evil and lies from those in the hierarchy of the Church and the country weigh heavily on the shoulders of Faithful Catholics and honest citizens. How much it would assist the Faithful to be strong and bring others to the Church if the sin and shenanigans were handled by the Pope and those who are in the position to do so! Pope Francis clearly stated the Mayor of Rome is a “pretend Catholic”…should those same words be used here…Mrs. Pelosi first comes to mind.

    Thanks, again, Fr. Hamilton!

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