Rome is a city that juggles fixity and flux, changelessness and change, being and becoming. It’s a place that holds together past and present, with an unusual capacity to adapt while keeping a core intact. The historic monuments are everywhere, but the city is vibrant and contemporary. That’s part of what it means to call Rome “eternal”. What’s true of this city is true of the Church, especially as we look to #Synod2015.
Fifty years ago, Vatican II’s document on the Church in the modern world (Gaudium et Spes) said that “the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one” (5). What was true then is even truer now, as the language of the #Synod2015 Instrumentum Laboris shows, with its frequent use of words like “growth” and “journey”.
Marriage is seen now not so much as a state but as a process. It’s no longer experienced as a place where spouses live but as an essentially relational pattern of movement. In static terms, marriage is a space which you either do or do not inhabit; but in more dynamic terms it’s a journey towards and beyond a wedding. The vocation of marriage is seen today as growing into the fullness of love rather than dwelling in it from the day you meet and then marry. Yet our theology and law of marriage tend to inhabit an older, more static world, which is why in this area there’s a growing gap between the Church and a culture which finds our notions of instant sacramentality and indissolubility perplexing.
In one sense of course marriage is a state. But we need now to think, speak and act in the area of marriage in a way more attuned to a sense of process. This is what happened with Vatican II’s understanding of the Church. The Council spoke of the Church more dynamically as a pilgrim people rather than statically as a perfect society. This was more than just words. It led the Church to think differently of itself and to act differently.
This shift at the Council – indeed the Council as a whole – has been described by people like John O’Malley as a language event, by which is meant something much more than cosmetic. In the Bible, words create worlds; so too it was with Vatican II. The language-event signalled a change in value system while leaving the doctrinal core intact.
We need something similar now in the area of marriage and the family. That will mean overcoming false antagonisms in the search for new convergences. A recent book addressing the questions related to #Synod2015 was thought by one critic to represent “the triumph of sociology over theology, history over metaphysics, the subjective over the objective and, fundamentally, becoming over being”. The categories are well identified here, but the implied sense of antagonism between them is mistaken. It’s surely not a matter of choosing between sociology and theology, history and metaphysics, subjective and objective, becoming and being, but of finding a point of convergence between them. In doing that, we may also find a point of convergence between mercy and truth, culture and Church, which #Synod2015 is seeking to do. And we may even be helped, unconsciously, by meeting in the city of Rome.