Certain distinctions upon which the Church has long relied no longer work.
Sitting in the lounge at Dubai airport waiting for my flight to Rome, I’ve been thinking that the Synod needs to deal with facts – the world as it actually is rather than the world as we might wish it to be. Yes, we need to hold firmly to the vision of the way things ought to be (that we’ve received from Jesus) but also deal with the facts on the ground as they are at present.
Many of the facts may seem unfriendly to the Christian vision of things, but I’m reminded of Carl Rogers’ words: “The facts are friendly”. They mightn’t seem so at first, but the challenge is to discover how what seems to be unfriendly is, in the end, friendly. Perhaps the facts are friendly because God is in the facts, somewhere – and God is always friendly, even though that isn’t always obvious either.
One fact that has struck me is that certain distinctions upon which the Church has long relied no longer work. They did once, but not now – or at least not in the cultures I know best. Let me name just three, which will surface at the Synod sometime, somehow.
The first is the distinction between public and private. We have long held to a policy of speaking the truth in public, even when it can seem harsh, but negotiating mercy in private. The clarity of the pulpit has been tempered by the tenderness of the confessional. But that no longer works in cultures which prize transparency and authenticity and see such an approach as hypocritical and inauthentic. What we need now are public enactments of mercy, such as we see when Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?” in answer to a question about homosexuality, or when he washes the feet of a Muslim woman in a detention centre, or when he makes absolution for the sin of abortion less difficult during the Year of Mercy. He is very much the Pope of public mercy, and as such he points the way forward to the Church as we seek to reconfigure public and private, truth and mercy.
A second distinction that no longer works is the distinction between sin and sinner. We have long said that we condemn the sin but not the sinner. But this has broken down, especially in the area of sexuality. When we say that this or that act is “intrinsically disordered” or evil, we are taken to be saying that the person who commits the act is “intrinsically disordered” or evil. Because sexuality is no longer seen as being a matter of what a person does; it’s seen now as what a person is. It’s a matter of his or her whole being. So we can no longer condemn the sin but not the sinner. We need to think and act our way beyond that, and that’s not easy.
A third distinction I mention concerns the Church and her members. We have long said that the Church “in herself” is the sinless Bride of Christ but that her children can indeed be sinful and often are. It’s as if the Church has some ideal existence above and beyond her children. Of course there’s a way of explaining this theologically to make it sound perfectly sensible. The Church is more than her members; she is the Body of Christ who is the head of the Body. That’s true; but in the minds of most people these days, the distinction doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work at the level of communication. So we need at least to find other more communicative ways to explain what we’re trying to say about sin and the Church.
It’s challenging to rethink distinctions such as these to which we’ve held for so long because they’ve been so useful. But the fact now is that they are not as useful as they once were. A Synod which addresses the facts will therefore have to ponder new ways of communicating the crucial things we have to say to the world about sin and mercy.
Enough for now. It’s time to board the flight to Rome on this feast of the Little Flower whose parents will be canonised at the closing Mass of the Synod. Little Flower, in this hour show your power!