Pastoral versus Doctrinal.
Pope Francis has convoked an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2014 which will be followed by a regular Synod of Bishops the following year to consider the challenges facing the family in present day (western) societies. This itself is a clear indication of how important Pope Francis considers the family to be.
In addition to the family being discussed in the Extraordinary Synod and the following Synod, the recent Consistory of Cardinals also spent time deliberating on the challenges facing the family and the kind of pastoral approach that the Church needs to develop to meet these challenges.
Unfortunately, an impression has been created that the need for new pastoral approaches will require that traditional doctrines about the nature and integrity of the family, and the nature and purpose of marriage will need to be jettisoned.
Some Catholic journalists and even news services have conveyed the (unfortunate) impression that changing circumstances require that the Catholic Church abandon her traditional teachings on divorce, live-in relationships, contraception and homosexual or 'same-sex' unions. A recent statement by Pope Francis was misinterpreted by some to indicate that the Holy Father is in favour of endorsing same-sex unions and that the Church is on the verge of changing her position on the immorality of homosexuality.
Even more unfortunately, the media (including some Catholic media) have given the impression that moral laws are the outcome of "public opinion polls." Thus, a few Bishops' Conferences have made public the results of the surveys which they have conducted on issues like "live-in" (or de facto) relationships, on contraception and on the question of divorced and re-married Catholics being admitted to receive the Eucharist.
These published reports have implied that just because a very large number of Catholics disagree with the Church's stand on contraception (for example), the next Synod of Bishops - and the Holy Father - should now abandon the Church's position on the evil of contraception. The issue of abortion, likewise, appears to have divided lay Catholics, many of whom have fallen prey to the "freedom of choice" arguments advanced by the radical movements.
What needs to be clarified and strongly emphasized is that the Moral Law is not the result of public consensus. Just because several European countries, and some States within the United States of America, have "decriminalized" same-sex unions does not mean that homosexual activities have now become morally acceptable.
There is a sharp and clear distinction between what is known as Positive Law and the Moral Law. Positive Law is legitimately within the domain of freely elected governments and has to be obeyed by all citizens subject only to the condition that these laws are in conformity with the Moral Law.
If Positive Laws contravene the Moral Law - like in the case of "same-sex" unions -- citizens not only can refuse to obey them; they have the obligation to defy these immoral Laws.
It is not possible within the limited scope of an opinion piece to enter into consideration of the relative importance of Positive Laws and the Moral Law. It should suffice just to clarify that Positive Laws are made by humans, but the Moral Law is God-given and therefore is beyond the authority of any human institution - Parliaments, Presidents or ruling juntas. History bears witness to the fact that many human (Positive) laws which contravened the Moral Law brought indescribable sufferings on people. The two World Wars are a sufficient and cogent example of what happens when human laws (based on "public opinion") but which are in violation of the Moral Law, are imposed on people.
This brings us to the realization that no human authority can legitimize what is inherently immoral - not even the Pope or a Synod of Bishops. To demand, therefore, that the Church of Jesus Christ abandon her traditional teachings on homosexuality or adultery or contraception or divorce is to be unrealistic and delusional. It is not within the competence of the Church to modify or to discard moral laws which have been revealed to us by Jesus Christ.
In a recent article, George Weigel, an eminent Catholic thinker and member of the Ethics and Public Policy Centre said: "Popes, . . .are not authoritarian figures, who teach what they will and as they will. The Pope is the guardian of an authoritative tradition, of which he is the servant, not the master.
Pope Francis knows this as well as anyone, as he has emphasized by repeating that he is a "son of the Church" who believes and teaches what the Church believes and teaches." In the same article, Weigel stated: "Although it is very difficult for those who see Catholicism through political lenses to grasp this, popes are not like presidents or state governors, and doctrine is not like public policy. Which means that a change of papal "administration" does not - indeed cannot - mean a change of Catholic 'views'. Doctrine, as the Church understands it, is not a matter of anyone's 'views' but of settled understandings of the truth of things." There is no real conflict between pastoral concerns and doctrinal continuity. Doctrines remain immutable because they reflect the "reality" of Nature which has been revealed to us by Jesus Christ.
Pastoral efforts have to help people to "come to terms" with Reality.
Thus suicide (or the taking of one's own life) will always remain immoral, simply because life comes from God and will cease only when God wills it. To usurp the authority of God is to commit idolatry. This is why the Church has always held (and will always hold) that suicide is immoral. As a corollary, euthanasia (which is the taking of the life of another) and abortion (which is the killing of an unborn baby) will always remain immoral.
Just because some countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have legalized euthanasia does not make it moral to kill someone for whatever reason. Homosexuality, which is very much in the forefront of many public debates, also remains intrinsically immoral.
Any attempt to pressurize the Pope or the Synod to recognize homosexuality as "normal" or genetically preconditioned is futile and unrealistic.
Recent decisions by several Associations of Psychologists, including the Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists, have clearly declared that homosexuality is not a pathological condition; nor is it a mental disease. As the President of Uganda has said, while signing the recent Bill, these are normal people who do abnormal things, and like everyone else should be held responsible for their actions.
The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops has a challenging task ahead of it. It will have to analyze the cultural forces which underlie the present trends which are weakening the institution of the family, including ideologies which relegate "marriage" to a position of unimportance in society. Marriage has always been held to be "sacred" and has been protected both by civil societies as well as by Religions. The pressures to desacralize marriage and to dismantle the institution of the family are dangerous trends which need to be effectively countered by a more vigorous catechesis and a more active evangelical programme.
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Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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