We seem to live in a time when many (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) don’t seem to be very well-informed about how the average Catholic priest responds to situations like cohabitation before marriage, the use of contraception, the needs of a person who experiences same sex attraction and other similar situations. A striking illustration of this ignorance occurred last year when Pope Francis presided at a wedding for 20 couples. Certainly this was an unusual group wedding and the Pope was making a gesture to signal his support for good pastoral practice that supports marriage. The news media reacted with shock that the Pope had married couples who had been living together previously or who had been divorced and had received annulments so that they could form a sacramental union. What a revolutionary!
The New York Times headline read, “In Weddings, Pope Looks Past Tradition.” CBS called the ceremony “progressive.” Really? In my own experience working for the Church the whole thing seemed pretty normal to me. Commenting on the media response writer R. R. Reno asked, “What planet do these reporters live on? Anyone with experience in the trenches of twenty-first century Catholicism knows that priests are often trying to prepare people for marriage who aren’t living in accord with Catholic teaching on sex and marriage… Welcome to the human condition. There is nothing ‘progressive’ about marrying such people.”
This is a time of great difficulties and challenges for the family. While there is a debate taking place in our country about the very meaning of marriage another debate has been taking place among many in the Catholic Church over concerns that current pastoral practice does not properly help those who are most in need because of difficulties in their marriage, broken marriages, cohabitation before marriage, and many other issues.
In this atmosphere of debate we may be wise to consider the counsel of Pope Francis who cautioned against looking at the proceedings of the Synod on the Family in 2014 according to the “vision of the media” which was often “in the style of sports events, or political coverage.” He made this comment as part of his Wednesday Audience last December 10th in which he began a series of (mostly) weekly teachings on the family that has not yet concluded. He spoke of the Synod process as a debate where “there are different points of view and there is debate and this is not a bad thing! Providing it be done in humility, seeking God’s will.” And despite what one may have read, Pope Francis said “No intervention called into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of Marriage, namely: indissolubility, unity, fidelity and openness to life. This was not touched.” So then what was the debate about? Pastoral practice.
This phrase, pastoral practice, has been used to mean different things in the past few decades. For some it seems to mean that while Church teaching on some aspect of the faith doesn’t have to change in the Catechism, it may be changed “in practice” by offering guidance or teaching that under-emphasizes (or even ignores) the demands of the moral life. This is not a proper understanding of pastoral practice. The purpose of pastoral theology and its application in pastoral practice is to make the ministry of the Church more effective by the use of proven methods. Authentic pastoral practice unites the truth of the Gospel (and its demands) with the needs of the individual believer who seeks to live in God’s mercy. As Pope Francis put it in his recent Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, “Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.” Authentic pastoral practice expresses mercy precisely in this way, as a call to conversion and a new life of fidelity to the Gospel. One cannot receive forgiveness if one is not sorry for an evil that one has done. Moral relativism makes it impossible to be merciful to another.
To prepare for the Synod on the Family that will begin on October 4, 2015 the Vatican issued a preparatory document last December called a Lineamenta. In order to provide a foundation for the discussion to take place at the Synod, the document points out two things that need to be done. First, “Faithful to Christ’s teaching, we look to the reality of the family today in all its complexity, with both its lights and shadows.” Then, having surveyed “the great poverty of contemporary culture” the Church will look to “The Christian message [which] always contains in itself the reality and the dynamic of mercy and truth that meet in Christ.”
As we pray for the upcoming Synod on the Family, The Catholic Key will present a series of articles that will examine the reality of authentic pastoral practice in relation to the major themes of the preparatory document for the Synod. The next article will be on the theme of the truth and beauty of the family and how the Church brings mercy to broken and fragile families.
Dino Durando is director of the Office for Family Life for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.