The Catholic Synod on the family ends this week with many unanswered questions on how the church is going to meet the challenges facing families today. In what is regarded as the manifesto of his papacy, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis called on Christian faithful to 'embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church's journey in years to come." The Pope's vision is reflected in his address to delegates at the opening of this second Synod on October 5. He noted that the goal of the Synod was 'to read the reality of present times with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.' He also pointed out that the Church is not a museum which Christians are called to guard or save, but rather that the Church is a living force and witness in history to the love of God as salt and light. Pope Francis, therefore, called on the delegates to enter into dialogue with one another in a spirit of humility, courage, and openness to the Holy Spirit through fidelity to the faith, the Gospel, and the will of God. Many Catholics are hoping that guided by the vision of Pope Francis and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, this Synod will open new vistas for the church's pastoral care to the family and lead to renewal and positive changes in the church.
Pope Francis is calling on Catholics to think outside the box. This is because it is so easy to reaffirm what we have always professed; to profess what we have always believed, and to defend what we have always lived. It is too easy also to live off the fruits of the teaching, spiritual and moral traditions as well as doctrinal formulations developed by Christians who lived thousands of years before us. It doesn't take much effort or sacrifice to repeat or regurgitate one article or another of the Catechism or to quote the texts of the Bible or proof-text our arguments using the writings of other theologians or scholars before us. Doing this does not require any discernment but a good memory or a Google search!
The most difficult theological and pastoral task facing the Catholic Church today is to step into where we have never gone before. What is very challenging in the world today is for the Church to engage in uncharted territories and to be open to new moments of revelation dictated by the movement of the spirit in history. Discerning the voice of God and the will of God for Christian families in the world of today requires more than a reaffirmation of our pastoral practices. It demands a deeper immersion into the biblical, theological, historical and cultural foundations of our sacraments especially the sacraments of marriage, Eucharist and Reconciliation. This is with a view to holding on to what is essential and changing what is accidental and conditioned by Western cultural traditions and worldview. The goal is to seek the faithful path which leads the church and the faithful to realizing the intention of the Lord Jesus in instituting these doors to God.
This was what the most important Catholic scholar of all times Thomas Aquinas did in the Middle Ages. Even though Thomas Aquinas and the whole scholastic system which is attributed to him is often blamed for the emergence of the rigid and classicist philosophy and theology of Catholicism from the 19th-20th centuries, Aquinas, however, was a revolutionary thinker and a cultural innovator. He realized that the answers that the church gave to the new and emerging problems of his day were no longer satisfactory. Renowned medieval scholar William Thomas Jones argues that "Thomas' major problem, and that of all thinking men of his day, was to find a way of incorporating the new interests and the new knowledge to which they gave rise into the religious orientation that of course still dominated the Western mind." He recognized the dynamic nature of divine revelation and the mutual relationship between theology of revelation and history. In response to this new challenge, Thomas Aquinas easily assimilated the classical worldview represented in 'the pagan philosophy' of Aristotle in the development of Christian theology and 'to reconcile the classical view of the world and man with the Christian view." So revolutionary was his thought that his contemporary, St Bonaventure wrote that Aquinas was distorting the Christian teaching with pagan philosophies and adding water into wine. Aquinas replied to St Bonaventure that he was only turning water into wine as Jesus did in Cana! How can we turn water into wine in the midst of the cultural frenzy and excitement of our times?
The call to think outside the box is the call of the prophets. If this Synod ends without some important transformative propositions to meet the challenges facing families one will wonder why so much time, energy and money was spent on convoking the Synod in the first place. Thinking outside the box will require creativity and courage, and some form of experimentation and some measured stepping into the unknown with the help of the Holy Spirit. The times seem appropriate for the emergence of new prophets in World Catholicism who will lift our gaze beyond the imprisoning certainties about the things we do not know. These new messengers of God will help the Church embrace change in what is accidental, while holding on to what is essential about marriage and family life. But it will require finding right balance between tradition and innovation, creativity and fidelity. This can only happen if the church is freed from the pride of an ecclesial mindset which seeks to provide definitive answers to indefinite questions and mysteries which define what it means to be human in an infinitely boundless cosmos. The Catholic challenge today is for a new Catholic imagination and creative appropriation of the treasures of the Church to meet the challenges of the times.
I believe that Pope Francis is such a prophet. He is showing that it is possible for Catholicism to find within her bosom a new way of being church, and new pathways for 'the art of accompaniment' in identifying totally with those on the margins, the sinners, and outcasts of the church following the examples of Jesus Christ. Catholics should not be afraid that any changes in practice will lead to the collapse of the bonds of doctrinal and dogmatic unity which have served the Church for many centuries. There is a gradation of truth in Catholicism. In this light, it is important to distinguish between what we believe and affirm (the origin, meaning, symbols, and effects of the sacraments of marriage and Eucharist for example) from how we live what we believe and affirm (the conditions for receiving the sacraments, annulment process etc). Pope Francis is calling for changes in how we live what we believe and affirm rather than changes in what we believe and affirm as the Living Tradition.Those who fail to make this distinction and who confuse variable pastoral practices and culturally conditioned theological developments of doctrines and sacramental practices with revealed truths are the ones who are criticizing Pope Francis or charging him and those who are following his road map for changes in the church as liberals.