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November 12, 2014

Church in dialogue: Decree on Ecumenism's 50th anniversary - Values that create generosity - Road to 2015 synod - Quotes from 2014 synod's final report

In this edition:
1. Road to 2015 synod.
2. A central principle for pastoral care.
3. Synod's reflection on same-sex attraction.
4. Quotes from 2014 synod's final report.
5. Dialogue, five decades after Vatican II.
6. Ecumenical conversation and action.
7. Charity: Values that create generosity.

1. Road to 2015 Synod: Bishops' President

It is vital that the church "seek out those who suffer under the weight of the difficulties faced by families today, remembering to see the person first, walking with them and pointing the way toward God," Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville said in his presidential address opening the Nov. 10-13 meeting in Baltimore of the U.S. Catholic bishops.

As many others are doing at this moment, the archbishop called attention to the discussion that will unfold in the worldwide church during the year ahead as it prepares for the 2015 general assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family. Next October's synod assembly will carry forward the work begun during the synod's October 2014 extraordinary assembly.

It is safe to say that a church-wide discussion during the year ahead will explore what it means in pastoral ministry to accompany families of all kinds.

One key question certain to be asked is how the church can enter on a positive footing into the lives of divorced Catholics who remarry without receiving an annulment of their first marriage. Similarly, these discussions will ask what the church's relationship ought to be with unmarried couples raising children or with same-sex couples - how it is possible to affirm strengths in their relationships without compromising doctrine.

Archbishop Kurtz challenged the bishops to think of home visits they have made. He said, "When I'd come to someone's home, I wouldn't start by telling them how I'd rearrange their furniture. In the same way I wouldn't begin by giving them a list of rules to follow. Instead I'd first spend time with them, trying to appreciate the good that I saw in their hearts."

The archbishop said he would say during a home visit that he, too, "was in the process of conversion toward greater holiness." He would invite those he visited "to follow Christ." And he would "offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way."

An approach of this kind to families "isn't in opposition to church teachings" but is "an affirmation of them," he commented. He added, "Our call as bishops is to bring the good news to others as true missionary disciples, inspiring them to go forth and do the same."

As a participant in the 2014 synod sessions in Rome, Archbishop Kurtz said his prayer had been that the assembly would:

a) "Witness to the beauty of church teachings on marriage."

b) "Deepen the way we accompany those struggling with the many challenges families face today."

c) "Encourage -- even inspire -- married couples to have confidence in their ability to faithfully live the Gospel of the family."

The 2014 synod took some positive steps "to advance those efforts," he noted, adding that "we now have the [final report of the synod] to use as a working document as we prepare for the synod next October."

The archbishop made clear his hope that this entire process will "help restore hope in the vocation of married couples and families." He told the bishops:

"As part of a family, we're called to walk with our brothers and sisters, helping them grow closer to Jesus through his mercy. We're also called to give families hope in the abundant life promised by Jesus, inspiring their confidence in the truths of our faith by which we come to encounter him."

2. Synod: A Central Principle for Pastoral Care

Pastoral care is what the 2014 extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops was all about, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, said in an Oct. 25 pastoral letter.

"You may have heard or read that this synod has been about changing the teaching of the church on marriage, family life or sexual morality," but "this is not true," he wrote. "It was about the pastoral care that we try to offer each other, the motherly love of the church, especially when facing difficult moments and experiences in family life."

Central to the synod's work "was the desire to strengthen and reinvigorate the pastoral practice of the church," according to the cardinal.

He said that the following "central principle" for such pastoral care emerged clearly in the synod: "In trying to walk alongside people in difficult or exceptional situations it is important to see clearly and with humility all the good aspects of their lives. That is what comes first. From this point we learn to move together toward conversion and toward the goodness of life that God has for us and that Jesus opens for us all."

Cardinal Nichols said that "this positive approach flows right through" the synod's final report.

The central principle that he cited holds "especially true with regard to individuals who, for example, have decided to live together without marriage or for Catholics in second marriages," he commented. "These realities," he added, "are part of their journey in life, and while not in keeping with the pattern the Lord asks of us, their lives are often marked by real goodness."

That "is the basis for our care of them, for our approach to them, our invitation to them to come closer to the church and deepen their faith, and attend carefully to its call."

3. Synod's Reflection on Same-Sex Attraction

The way the 2014 synod "reflected on the situation of people of a same-sex attraction" became the topic of much discussion, Cardinal Nichols noted. It was not suggested, he said, that the church's teaching "might somehow give approval to the notion of 'same-sex marriage' or that its teaching on sexual morality is to change." But "two things were very clear."

The first point was "that we should never identify people by their sexual orientation." On this point, the cardinal observed that "every person is endowed with unique dignity, both as an individual and as a Christian. This dignity is always, always to be respected."

The second point concerned the church's teaching that people of a same-sex attraction "are not only to be respected but also always accepted, with compassion and with sensitivity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358)." Cardinal Nichols said that "this teaching has to be translated into loving care in our daily life in the church, in our parishes and indeed in society."

The 2014 synod sessions ended with a final report on which the participants voted, paragraph by paragraph, the cardinal noted. "The votes indicated, quite simply, where agreement was more or less total and where it was not." He said that the final report "now forms the starting point for the next synod on the family, to take place in a year's time."

4. Quotes From 2014 Synod's Final Report

The final report of the 2014 extraordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops touches upon a wide range of family-related issues, as I noted in the Oct. 19 edition of this jknirp.com newsletter. All 62 of the final report's paragraphs received a majority vote of the participants, and all 62 are included in the final report. Much has been made, however, of three paragraphs (Nos. 52, 53 and 55) that did not receive a two-thirds majority vote, topics on which there was considerable disagreement within the synod and calls for revision after the earlier release of a midterm synod report. Paragraphs 52 and 53 involve the question of Communion for divorced Catholics who remarry without receiving an annulment of their first marriage. On this issue the final report encourages additional study and reflection. Paragraph 55 addresses the church's relationship with homosexual persons. Its subhead reads, "Pastoral Attention Toward Persons With Homosexual Tendencies," a change from the synod midterm report, which included a subhead that read, "Welcoming Homosexual Persons." Because a Vatican translation of the final report now is available, perhaps it is worthwhile to take a look at precisely what these three paragraphs actually say, since they are expected to play a large role in discussions leading up to the October 2015 general assembly of the Synod of Bishops. In addition, Paragraph 51, approved by much more than a two-thirds vote, also deals with divorced-remarried Catholics; it appears below, after Nos. 52, 53 and 55.)

Paragraph 52: "The synod fathers also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. Some synod fathers insisted on maintaining the present regulations because of the constitutive relationship between participation in the Eucharist and communion with the church, as well as the teaching on the indissoluble character of marriage. Others expressed a more individualized approach, permitting access in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions, primarily in irreversible situations and those involving moral obligations toward children who would have to endure unjust suffering. Access to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice determined by the diocesan bishop. The subject needs to be thoroughly examined, bearing in mind the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances, given that 'imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments and other psychological or social factors' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735)."

Paragraph 53: "Some synod fathers maintained that divorced and remarried persons or those living together can have fruitful recourse to a spiritual communion. Others raised the question as to why, then, they cannot have access 'sacramentally.' As a result, the synod fathers requested that further theological study in the matter might point out the specifics of the two forms and their association with the theology of marriage."

Paragraph 55: "Some families have members who have a homosexual tendency. In this regard, the synod fathers asked themselves what pastoral attention might be appropriate for them in accordance with the church's teaching: 'There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.' Nevertheless, men and women with a homosexual tendency ought to be received with respect and sensitivity. 'Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided' (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 'Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons,' 4)."

Paragraph 51 in the final report also addresses the question of divorced Catholics who remarry without first receiving an annulment, and it received a strong two-thirds vote of the synod participants. It reads:

Paragraph 51: "Likewise, those who are divorced and remarried require careful discernment and an accompaniment of great respect. Language or behavior that might make them feel an object of discrimination should be avoided, all the while encouraging them to participate in the life of the community. The Christian community's care of such persons is not to be considered a weakening of its faith and testimony to the indissolubility of marriage, but precisely in this way the community is seen to express its charity."

5. Church in Dialogue: 50 Years After Vatican II

The 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism arrives Nov. 21. The anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on the ways Christians of differing denominations "have grown together in these five decades and to consider how we are being called to deepen our commitment to journey together with other Christians today," the Canadian Catholic bishops say in a new document released by their Commission for Christian Unity, Religious Relations With the Jews and Interfaith Dialogue.

The commission launched the document Nov. 9, titled "A Church in Dialogue: Toward the Restoration of Unity Among Christians." Focusing largely on ecumenical relationships among Christians, the document also notes that the 50th anniversary of Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions arrives in 2015.

Taken together, the two anniversaries call attention to the importance of dialogue in the life of the church today, the document observes.

"Everything in the church is intended to serve, and be a sign of, the saving dialogue of God with the world," the new document states. In fact, it adds, "we are called to be a church in dialogue because the triune God has entered into dialogue with us."

It is not the case that dialogue was foreign to the church before Vatican II, the document says. But "in the conciliar period dialogue was named as and became the predominant way of engaging with the world around us and with our fellow citizens."

What does dialogue require? "Pope Francis describes dialogue as requiring that we make room for the other's point of view; that we genuinely listen -- and not simply to those who would tell us what we want to hear -- with a willingness and even expectation to learn from the other," the document explains.

It quotes Pope Francis saying in 2013 that dialogue "is the only way for individuals, families and societies to grow, the only way for the life of peoples to progress. . . . Today, either we stand together with the culture of dialogue and encounter or we all lose, we all lose."

In the mind of Pope Francis, "there should be an essential bond between dialogue and proclamation in our relations with non-Christians," the document observes. It says, "Dialogue is a form of witness, a way in which the church respectfully walks alongside others, helping them to encounter Christ." Yet, for the pope, "genuine dialogue does not entail giving up one's identity, compromising one's faith and morals or falling into relativism."

Dialogue is characterized by Gospel simplicity, even as it requires "bringing to bear all our experience and intelligence," the document says. It notes that "Jesus entered into dialogue with those around him, radiating joy and good news as he did so."

6. Ecumenical Conversation and Action

The language it provides for speaking "of other Christians and Christian communities" is "one of the principal gifts" of the Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism, the Canadian bishops say in "A Church in Dialogue: Toward the Restoration of Unity Among Christians." The just-released document from the bishops' ecumenical and interreligious commission explains:

"Rather than speaking of heretics or schismatics, the Decree on Ecumenism confirmed that all those baptized into Christ and who believe in God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- are our brothers and sisters in Christ. . . . The communities to which they belong are 'ecclesial' communities, who live in a real but incomplete communion with the Catholic Church."

The Canadian document notes that "without losing sight of the reasons why our communion remains incomplete, the Decree on Ecumenism and subsequent church teaching have helped us to name how and where that communion -- which varies from one Christian community to another -- is real."

Divided Christians are "summoned to commit [themselves] to grow together in love, to seek the truth together and to share together in Christian life and witness," the document comments. "This commitment is embodied in the practice of dialogue," which the commission explores "under three categories: a dialogue of love, a dialogue of truth and a dialogue of life."

a) Dialogue of love: This form of dialogue "reaches in friendship past the fracturing and the suspicions to encounter other Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ," the commission states. The dialogue of love, it says, "is not principally between church leaders. Every act of kindness, every bond of friendship across denominational lines, is an example of the dialogue of love that is needed to heal our divisions."

b) Dialogue of truth: This form of dialogue "begins with a need to get to know the other." It requires study in order to grasp the doctrines of other Christians, their history, spiritual and worship life, etc. "Such dialogue seeks initially to overcome misunderstandings, clarify terminology and find consensus in the basic truths of the faith, recognizing that there is much we hold in common. It eventually must turn to a search for convergence on the disputed matters of doctrine, particularly those that have been the occasion of historic condemnations or disputes."

Churches not in full communion with each other "have genuine differences." Still, dialogue requires reciprocity and charity. In dialogue, each party recognizes the other as a partner, the document says.

c) Dialogue of life: "A dialogue of life compels us, as appropriate, to move out of our separate compartments, to learn to live our Christian life and mission together." However, "the fact is" that separated Christians do not do together all that their faith allows. "It is indeed more the case that we act separately except where extraordinary circumstances move us to act together."

The document lists a number of ways to pursue the dialogue of life. "Christian faithful and communities are encouraged to seek out appropriate ways to pray and worship God together, including prayer for unity," it says.

Finding ways for divided Christians to communicate more often with each other is one way to pursue the dialogue of life, the commission notes. "The initial causes of separation between our communities have been exacerbated by being out of communication with each other for centuries, during which time we have grown further apart."

The commission says that the "dialogue of life invites Christian communities to move toward reconciliation by learning to communicate frequently and effectively with one another and by creating structures that allow us to grow together."

The dialogue of life also takes shape in common witness in the world. "One of the principal means by which Christian communities give healthy witness is in their engagement in common mission at the service of those in need," the Canadian document states.

7. Charity: Values That Create Generosity

"The work of charity is not just about the delivery of services. It is about enabling people to experience or re-experience, the richness of their humanity," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, remarked in a Nov. 6 address in that city.

He expressed concern that the word "charity" is devalued nowadays. He asked: "How often do we hear it said that people need justice and not charity? Charity has been debased into an equivalent of handouts and do-goodism," looking out for "people's short-term needs, without looking at the root causes of deprivation."

But he questioned that understanding of charity and proceeded to ask how Christian charity "might bring 'added value' to social action in general."

Charity should be regarded as "an essential dimension of the Christian faith," Archbishop Martin stressed. "Christianity is a religion," he said, "which is called to witness to the love of God."

Two basic characteristics of God's love were underscored by the archbishop.

The first characteristic, Archbishop Martin said, is the "gratuity" of God's love. "God loves people without any conditions."

The second characteristic of God's love is its "superabundance." The love of God "is so generous that it turns you head over heels."

Archbishop Martin highlighted these two characteristics "because they do not easily match the thought patterns of a market-driven consumer society in which everything is precisely measured out."

However, "if we truly lived in an environment" in which everything is precisely measured out and people only get what they pay for, "none of us would be where we are today," he said.

"We are all where we are today because someone loved us and someone gave us a break; someone put enough trust in us to give us a chance and perhaps even invested in us just because they recognized us as who we were," Archbishop Martin commented.

The world "needs the values that create generosity, that make you care about another person even if that person is weak, that motivate you to make investments in people that are not linked to personal interest and gain," said the archbishop.

This suggests that "the basic ethic of all charitable institutions must be a basic ethic of humanity, which is the most challenging ethics of all." Archbishop Martin insisted that if this fundamental ethics of humanity is lacking, "all our other ethical projects will fall flat."