Last month, leading cardinals, bishops and theologians gathered in Rome with Pope Francis to discuss and debate modern challenges that threaten to undermine and weaken the strength, beauty and mission of the human family. This was the first of two such meetings. The next takes place in October 2015.
For two weeks these bishops, along with invited lay family advocates, pondered how the church can best reach out to both the suffering and wounded as well as those who struggle heroically to embrace the mission of family life as revealed by Christ and his church.
As anticipated discussions surrounding divorce and same-sex attraction stole most of the headlines. In fact, in the run up to the synod, there were innumerable news reports that the gathering would be the beginning of the Catholic Church’s long-overdue capitulation to the sexual revolution which has successfully normalized first divorce and now same-sex unions across much of Europe and North America. For many, the Catholic Church is the last and most formidable Christian institution that continues to teach that marriage is for life and sexual relations are reserved for marriage alone. Over the past 80 years or so, many Protestant churches have abandoned these once universally accepted Christian teachings. That the Catholic Church stands firm has caused not a little frustration for those seeking change.
While the synod certainly included energetic debates on how to best reach out to those who have suffered from divorce and those who live with same-sex attraction, in the end there was a resounding affirmation of the church’s long-standing teachings on these important issues.
That’s not to say that the church won’t make some changes, but the way she changes is different than how governments update their laws.
The Catholic Church exists to share, and defend against error, the revelation of God’s message to humanity — the Good News of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In offering this Gospel to the world, the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has assembled the books, letters, songs and poems that comprise the Bible, she has pondered and put into practice the teachings of Christ through celebrating the liturgy and sacraments, and she has offered concrete application of the moral and theological teachings of Christ and his Apostles.
All of this is done for one reason — that men and women might lay down their addictions, fears, ideologies, personal failures and weaknesses and take up their cross to follow Christ. This is the path by which suffering men and women join the roll call of the saints and become new creatures — eternal sons and daughters of God.
To foster this journey, the church establishes practices and disciplines that guide the faithful into greater understanding and love of God. These can and do change through the centuries to better reflect the immediate challenges and needs of each new generation.
For example, the church has modified mandatory fast and feast days, priestly celibacy, the date of Easter, the way that confession, baptism, confirmation and First Communion take place. Even the liturgy of the Mass, wherein Catholics celebrate the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life, has been tweaked over time.
The important thing to keep in mind is the way the church changes. She does not break from or abandon what has been revealed as true in ages past. Rather, she finds new ways to apply unchanging truths and new ways to assist the faithful in personally living them out.
In the lead up to next year’s follow up synod there will be much discussion on how to support the family. As part of these discussions the question of how to reach out to divorced couples and same-sex attracted people will certainly continue.
We must not be surprised if the church is unbending in affirming long-standing teachings even as it grapples with new applications. This is the kind of institution Christ established — a living church that moves through the variables of history while always inviting, urging and challenging each new generation to embrace the unchanging truth of Jesus Christ.
If Christ’s great love and personal sacrifice on the cross is our example, following him will not be without crosses and personal deaths. Christian writer C.S. Lewis captured this succinctly when he wrote of God’s great love for humankind.
“It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.”
The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the official newspaper and news website of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.