The report merely reflects what Italian Jesuit theologians have been saying for decades
The first document to emerge from the Synod on the family – a sort of mid-term report, or ‘how things stand so far’ – has been described by John Thavis, the respected commentator on Vatican affairs, as ‘a pastoral earthquake’. One can read highlights of the report here, and the whole thing here.
Mr Thavis, for once, is completely wrong. This report reflects what theologians, especially Roman theologians, Jesuit theologians and Italian theologians, have been saying for some time. Nearly two decades ago, when I was at the Gregorian in Rome, being taught mainly by Italian Jesuits, the substance of what they were teaching was what is contained in this report. Indeed, the very wording of the report is reminiscent of those long ago lectures. Consider this:
Anthropological and cultural change today influences all aspects of life and requires an analytic and diversified approach, able to discern the positive forms of individual freedom. It is necessary to be aware of the growing danger represented by an exasperated individualism that distorts family bonds and ends up considering each component of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the prevalence of an idea of the subject formed according to his or her own wishes, which are assumed as absolute.
What on earth does that mean? Any translator worth his salt would simply cross that out, because whatever language it is, it sure isn’t English. No one who speaks English, or thinks in English, could come up with something like that.
But at the same time there are some observations that make one sit up and take note, and matter the word ‘True’ to oneself, such as the following:
The condition of women still needs to be defended and promoted, as situations of violence within the family are not rare. Children are frequently the object of contention between parents, and are the true victims of family breakdown. Societies riven by violence due to war, terrorism or the presence of organized crime experience deteriorating family situations. Furthermore, migration is another sign of the times, to be faced and understood in terms of the burden of consequences for family life.
That last point is important. In Britain we have thousands of migrants, many of whom have had to give up family life in order to come here to seek work. They may send money back home, but they rarely get to see spouses and children. The situation in some other countries, such as the Gulf States, is even worse. This situation is particularly acute among Filipinos. It is good the Synod has them in mind.
It is also good that the Synod has taken on board the question of money, and how so many people do not marry because it is beyond their means until they are much older than once was the case:
In the West as well there is an increasingly large number of those who, having lived together for a long period of time, ask to be married in the Church. Simple cohabitation is often a choice inspired by a general attitude, which is opposed to institutions and definitive undertakings, but also while waiting for a secure existence (a steady job and income). In other countries common-law marriages are very numerous, not because of a rejection of Christian values as regards the family and matrimony, but, above all, because getting married is a luxury, so that material poverty encourages people to live in common-law marriages. Furthermore in such unions it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them. Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects.
The last point here is really the key point in the entire document: let us engage with reality, and let us build on what is positive, wherever we can find it. Many people living together are doing so because somehow or another they want to be together, and the desire to find unity with someone is a positive phenomenon.
I have forgotten many of the things the good Jesuits tried to teach me at the Gregorian, but I do remember one thing that made me sit up. One professor, who was absolutely no liberal, said: “All sexual relations have a positive element to them; even when a man visits a prostitute, he may not know it, but he is looking for something good, and that is positive.” That tiny sliver of desire for the good, found in every human desire, is what the Synod Fathers wish the Church to educate, so that all, in the midst of this world’s troubles we may all seek the greater good, and come at last to the knowledge of Christ’s plan for us.
This is of course an interim report. My hopes for the final report is that it highlights the role of children and the pre-eminent importance of their needs. It strikes me that because the world has fallen for lust and romance so badly, it has forgotten what really matters – the next generation. We are not sex gods and sex goddesses, but mothers and father, in fact or in potency. That is what we need to deal with, and the bringing up of children is real true love.
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