I have a “blog-pal” who is a retired physician who commented today that after a dearth of entries during this past summer, I now seem to be back to snuff with stuff. I suppose four in four days is more than alarming but good doctor, don’t get used to it.
I want to offer some personal thoughts about the USCCB meeting just concluded as I had two hours on a quite turbulent flight back from Baltimore to do little more than think about it. The Francis vision of Church will require much more time to morph from the John Paul II view of Church just as it took the late Pope a decade to partially morph from the Paul VI/ II Vatican Council view of Church. No one should be alarmed at this. If anything, those looking to a more responsive, less rigid approach to ecclesial life need to take heart that for an organization which normally moves at glacial speed, Francis has the machinery of the present Church running in overdrive. He is moving from “monarchy” to “synodality” with an alacrity and rapidity unseen and unheard of for centuries. Structural change is at the top of his agenda and then it will be followed by personal and personnel change. That the need for this has not yet reached the episcopal conference of the United States was apparent to me this week in Baltimore. We discussed, acted, voted like we have for the thirty-five years I have been attending these meetings. The Conference remains largely unchanged even though the times, they are a-changing.
So what will it take to bring the structure in line with the present Pope’s vision? That one is simple for me to answer, a new cast of bishops willing to acknowledge that we need not lose the faithful in the numbers we are losing while holding the line on clearly definitive doctrinal teaching. Let me give an amateur’s example of what I am thinking and writing about. When we were kids we learned that the seven sacraments were “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” Right?
We spoke a lot at this meeting about the sacrament of marriage. Each sacrament consists of two parts: matter and form. Traditionally, matter consists of something tangible like water in Baptism, chrism in confirmation, etc. In marriage the matter is the man and woman and the form is their exchange of consent (the vows) in the presence of the Church’s minister. Where in the Gospels does one find the text of Christ’s words or even his actions instituting marriage (the power to forgive sins like the institution of the Eucharist, by way of example is very clear)? Indeed, with his mother Jesus attended a wedding at Cana and was a great help to the families of the newlyweds. In fact both the understanding and teaching of marriage as a sacrament evolved over a long period of time and centuries passed after the death of Christ before the theology of marriage as a sacrament became full-blown and a part of Church doctrine.
Now before my critics take aim, I also need to point out that in at least two instances in the Gospel Jesus made it very clear that multiple marriages were wrong and that living with another person’s spouse and having sex with them was also a violation of the sixth commandment. So there is central teaching (which I do not believe will change) that sacramental marriage is between one man and one woman. But Jesus did not envision an annulment process for either his time or the future. Our disciplinary practices have evolved.
Today’s argument in the Church is partly between those who believe that the indissolubility of marriage reigns absolute overall and allows of few to no exceptions and those who are trying to get into the mind of Jesus and ask what would he do if he were to encounter this moment?
The Catholic leadership (Cardinals) in Germany argues for a compassionate response to a growing problem. The Church leadership in Africa says that one of the things which works well on their continent is marriage so please don’t introduce a theology and/or praxis which would weaken what they enjoy and is largely a first world issue.
The bishops’ conference of the United States (Orioles) is struggling between towing the line and formulating a compassionate response to those whose marriages have failed. There is a division of the house. The same struggle can be said to be true for matters like same-sex civil marriages and a number of other “hot button” issues. It is simply a “battle” (used loosely by myself) between doctrine and accompaniment with Pope Francis prodding us to embrace the latter which is by no means easy.
So, in conclusion, Catholics should not hit any panic buttons from what did or did not happen this week in Baltimore. Approximately two-hundred and thirty-five good bishops from various personal histories and theological education met to try to find a path through which many are considering a “swamp”. The pendulum is swinging again towards the center which makes some of us older people nervous but which gives courage and comfort to a younger generation. The Conference is not yet ready to begin to debate the important issues for the future and for myself, for the moment, I far prefer waiting to retrenching.