Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The Synod: fornication as a path to holiness

I've just read Bishop Schneider's excellent critique of the Synod's Final Relatio, paragraphs 84-86. Here I want to say something about paragraph 71, translated by Rorate Caeli.

71. The choice of civil marriage or, in several cases, simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance against the sacramental union, but from cultural situations or cultural contingents. In many circumstances, the decision to live together is a sign of a relationship that actually wants to navigate towards the prospect of stability. This will, which translates into a lasting bond, reliable and open to life can be considered a commitment on which to base a path to the sacrament of marriage, discovered to be God's plan for [the couple's] lives. The path of growth, which can lead to sacramental marriage, will be encouraged by the recognition of the distinguishing characteristics of a generous and lasting love: the desire to seek the good of others before their own; the experience of forgiveness requested and given; the aspiration to build a family that is not closed in on itself but open to the good of the ecclesial community and of the entire society. Along this route those signs of love that properly correspond to the reflection of God should be valorized into an authentic conjugal project.

I'm not going to go into who 'won' the Synod, what the Pope meant in his concluding remarks and post-Synod sermon, or the latest Sclafari interview. If we want public documents, whose wording has been pored over and voted on, this is quite enough. It is not a document with magisterial authority, but then none of the key moves in this game are about documents of magisterial authority.

Back in 1969, Catholics were told that the Traditional Mass had been forbidden, because of some slightly ambiguous but very emphatic language of Pope Paul VI in a public audience. That was the most the liberal fascists of that era were ever able to throw at Traditional Catholics to back up the claim that traddies were disobedient and schismatic. Of course, this kind of nonsense can the more easily be undone later on, as it was by Pope Benedict in 2007 when he said that it had never been forbidden after all. But it made very little difference for the intervening 38 years. 38 long, long, years...

So let us have a look at this paragraph, which will form what we might, in a secular context, call a mandate for something similar in a Papal Post Synodal Exhortation a bit further down the road, and heaven knows how many statements by bishops and journalists.

The preceding paragraph had been all about how couples didn't get married, often, because of financial considerations. Having had a go with that idea, the Synod fathers seem to have tired of it and now want to try another explanation: 'cultural contingents'.

The choice of civil marriage or, in several cases, simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance against the sacramental union, but from cultural situations or cultural contingents.

As a matter of fact the financial factors cited by cohabiting couples are themselves dependant upon 'cultural contingents', because it is obviously a 'cultural contingent' that couples think they can't get married until they have stable jobs and can afford a lavish wedding. So we can forget the special pleading of the previous paragraph, and get down to brass tacks with this idea.

With the very opening words, however, the Fathers of the Synod seem to have got into a muddle. The failure of couples to get married sooner, they tell us, is not 'resistance against sacramental union' - it is not because people reject marriage, but, instead, cultural contingents. But is it not the case, Reverend Fathers, that what you actually mean by a 'cultural contingent' is a view of marriage which lowers its importance to such a level there is no urgency about getting married, and that instead it is regarded as better to cohabit for a few years, or indeed forever? This cultural contingent, then, while not necessarily a total rejection of the state of marriage, is about the values of the couple, a set of values in which marriage is not understood or valued as it should be. The idea, then, of 'cultural contingents' as excusing, as opposed to merely describing, the de facto rejection of marriage, disintegrates. There is no contrast between a couple who reject marriage because of 'resistance against sacramental union' and a couple who fail to marry because of 'cultural contingents'. Their 'resistance against sacramental union', whether permanent or temporary, is a cultural contingent.

Notice that there is nothing in this paragraph addressed to or about couples who defy the cultural contingents which reject sacramental marriage. In their eagerness to see the culture as an excusing condition, as something which as it were removes moral responsibility from couples, the fact that many thousands of couples buck the trend and get married in church, is actually a little embarassing. Let's not talk about them.

Let us, instead, give the most optimisitic possible reading of de facto unions:

In many circumstances, the decision to live together is a sign of a relationship that actually wants to navigate towards the prospect of stability. 

There is something truly pathetic about this statement, which the Synod Fathers like so much that they repeat it, in different words, three more times. They desperately want to believe that cohabiting couples are just waiting for the right moment to marry in church. I'm afraid they aren't. As a matter of sociological trends, there is no reason to assume, in the second decade of the 21st century, that a co-habiting couple has any aspiration to put on formal clothes and have a big party with their boring relations - which is all the word 'wedding' means to most of them. Oh, but 'in many circumstances' it may be heading for wedding cake and embarrassing speeches from the Best Man - I suppose this is true if the Synod Fathers can think of three or more instances. If that is what it comes down to, I feel sorry for them.

But even this they fail to express in a straightforward or indeed coherent way. It is the 'relationship', they tell us, that 'wants to navigate towards the prospect of stability'. Not the man and the woman involved, no - the relationship itself. The attribution of intentions to the relationship is peculiar, to say the least - there are precedents for attributing intentions to actions, but this takes things a step further. What is the point of talking in this strange way? Easy: the Synod Fathers don't want to confront the fact that it is frequently only one party to the relationship who would like things to go in this direction. It sounds a lot more positive to say the relationship in some mysterious way 'wants' to move towards marriage than to say that, for example, the girl wants to get married and hopes that by setting up house with a commitment-shy young man she can work on him to that end.

Allow me to ask a brutal question. When a man is dragged to the altar by hysterical threats of a break-up, or by an unexpected pregnancy - unexpected by him, at least: are these cases of a relationship 'navigating towards the prospect of stability'? Is this among the things the Synod Fathers have in mind?

Notice the extreme caution of the statement they make, however. It is not that the couple wants to get married - the Synod Fathers recognise that that would be too strong a claim. Instead, they propose that 'in many cases' the relationship 'wants' to 'navigate' - a charming metaphor, to be sure - whither? Not to marriage, not even to 'stability', but to the 'prospect' of stability. What in heaven's name is that? You are in your ship, and you navigate, not to the Islands of the Blessed, but to a 'prospect' of them: you can see them in the distance, perhaps with the help of a powerful telescope. And then what? Presumably, having satisfied your curiosity, you go home.

What comes next?

This will, which translates into a lasting bond, reliable and open to life can be considered a commitment on which to base a path to the sacrament of marriage, discovered to be God's plan for [the couple's] lives.

There may be cases of cohabitation which could be described as 'a lasting bond, reliable and open to life': you can't exclude such a possibility. As a generalisation, however, intended to guide a pastoral response to the phenomenon of couples not marrying in church, this statement can only be described as delusional. Reverend Fathers, are you not aware that the vast majority of marriages are not 'open to life'? That in many developed nations a third or even half of marriages end in divorce? And that, on both counts, non-marital unions are far worse, far less likely to be open to life, far more likely to end in a break-up? One can only wonder, at this point, if the Synod secretariat had put something psychedelic into the refreshments.

But this sentence is not just over-optimistic on the sociological facts. There is something extremely strange going on with the theology as well. Talking of a pseudo-marital relationship, we are told that it 'can be considered', presumably by sympathetic pastors, as a 'commitment on which to base a path to the sacrament of marriage'. Again, we have contorted, embarrassed, language, and the Synod Fathers are right to be embarrassed. Not the relationship, the 'committment' of the relationship, isn't a path, no, it 'can be considered' a path, to the sacrament. And what sort of path is it?

It is a pathway of sin, the kind of regular, habitual, conscious, and serious sin which ensures that the parties are in a permanent state of mortal sin, that they are incapable of entertaining sanctifying grace, that they are not in friendship with God, that their prayers can have no merit, that they can have no supernatural virtues, and that they can receive no grace from any of the sacraments: unless, of course, they leave this path, by repentance. If you are on a path of sin, I am sorry, Reverend Fathers, we know where that leads. It does not lead to a sacramental union and living happily ever after. It leads to hell. Only by turning off this path can the couple put themselves right with God and receive the graces of sacramental marriage.

And that, of course, is what sometimes happens. Many Catholics, over many centuries, have forsaken the sins of their youths, made a sincere repentance, received sacramental absolution, married, and embarked on a new life. They have done this because they were conscious that their previous lives were sinful. This possibility does not vindicate the Synod Fathers' mode of expression; it shows the rashness of it. It is only because the Church does not use this contorted language of sin a pathway to holiness that these sinners have understood the need to be reconciled with God.

Suppose a priest were to use the Synod's way of thinking and talking to encourage unmarried couples to pluck up the courage to tie the knot in church. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this strategy were successful? No, it would be a disaster. Because those couples would not be repenting of their sinful past lives; they would marry in a state of mortal sin, heaping an objective act of sacrilege onto their sins of fornication, and receive no graces from the sacrament. In modern conditions, a marital union without the graces of the sacrament of marriage is not a good prospect. Indeed, it is not too extravagant a speculation to suppose that the reason why the Catholic divorce rate is indistinguishable from that of the general population has a lot to do with couples not receiving the graces of the sacrament because of unrepented mortal sin. You don't, after all, repent of the pathway to the sacrament, do you?

It is matter of sociological observation that marriage following a period of cohabitation is more likely to end in divorce.

If you still need convincing, consider this. The Synod Fathers want us to believe that the fornication of a committed, long-term relationship is a pathway to marriage. As a matter of chronology, one can see what they have in mind. Let us take a larger view. Before the fornication of a long-term relationship, we generally see, chronologically, the promiscuity of 'playing the field'. Yes, that is how most people find their long-term sexual partners. So that is part of the pathway to holy matrimony too. And before that, there is generally a period of using pornography and solitary vice, at least for young men. Yes, that is how most men first engage in genital sexuality. So that is also part of the pathway, presumably. At the other end of the process, come to that, it will be equally valid to observe that marriage in church is itself, 'in many circumstances', a pathway to separation, divorce, and, particularly under the new rules, annulment and remarriage.

Is this the teaching of the Church? That a career of impurity, in which the conscience is deadened, emotional sympathy blunted, and sexuality objectified, is a preparation for the holy state of marriage which should be acknowledged and 'accompanied'?

No. The teaching of the Church is the teaching of Christ. It is a call to repentance.

The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel. 
Quoniam impletum est tempus, et appropinquavit regnum Dei: poenitemini, et credite Evangelio. (Mark 1:15)

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. In the old days if a man wanted sex the girl would insist on marriage first because she feared pregnancy. Nowadays the girl thinks contraception will always work and the man gets his sex but does not have to bother about marriage. Contraception does not work and the girl gets left holding the baby. Has no one noticed that in the arguments about benefits it is nearly always a single mother who is put forward as an example of the effect of loss of benefits? This document was written by Pope Francis's commission running the Synod clearly in cloud cuckoo land.

  2. A magnificent analysis. Thank you. Paragraphs 84-86 have received all the attention, but this is pretty bad as well.

    One of the most troubling things about all this is how pleased the 'goodie' bishops seem to be with this pusillanimous document. I suppose the PR god will have his homage, regardless of the truth of the matter.

  3. Some one ought to translate your essay in to as many languages as possible, it's that important.

  4. In one basic respect, the echoes of the era of Vatican II are unmistakable: Church prelates desperate to read the state of broader western society in as optimistic a fashion as possible.

    Yet the sociological facts on the ground are far grimmer than they were in the 1960's. And so, therefore, are all the more labored the rhetorical and logical leaps, to say nothing of the theology, of Synod Fathers ca. 2014-15.

  5. Excellent! Thank you, congratulations, and God bless!

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. A very good analysis. The synod was marred by divisions, poor direction and a desire by some to accommodate the Church to the world at any price.

  8. Thank you, Joe. This is a true and necessary analysis. These are sifting times to wich the only answers are goodness, truth and beauty in the face of evil, falsehood and the simply grotesque: pray, fast and give alms.

  9. Such a gift to be able to write with clarity, sifting through all the recent obfuscation and double-speak, to provide your readers with a counterweight that is the beauty of the true teaching of the Catholic faith. Thank you & God bless you.

  10. I would just add that, a Parish Priest may often have their first contact with a Catholic couple when they decide to get married, and approach him to make arrangements. Lost in the documents spiel, is some concrete advice. It may certainly be that, despite cohabiting, they are on the right path insomuch as wanting to make their union sacramental, and to do this within a church. I would suggest that this opportunity should not be missed, and that they should be closely counselled and drawn closer to the life of the Church, its Sacraments, etc. And ultimately Confession and continence before the wedding takes place. Disencouragement should not be the immediate answer, but a period of discernment. This would be equally important for parents with a child out of wedlock, wanting to make the first step towards regularising their situation.

    Thanks for your analysis; the language is indeed baffling and open to any interpretation.

  11. Cohabitation is not marriage preparation. It is divorce preparation.

  12. "It is matter of sociological observation that marriage following a period of cohabitation is more likely to end in divorce."

    The article linked in this paragraph states the opposite. You may have linked to the wrong site.

  13. "It is matter of sociological observation that marriage following a period of cohabitation is more likely to end in divorce."

    The article linked in this paragraph states the opposite. You may have linked to the wrong site.

    1. No, it confirms the link, but says the correlation is weaker now than in earlier decades.

  14. Hmmm. As a mum who raised six children and sent them to Catholic schools, Colleges and Churches I can honestly say the root of the problem has to be in Catholic Education's department. My eldest son, (35 at time) accompanied me to Faith of Our Fathers a couple of years ago. There was a young man hosting and he had been asked to talk about his experience of Catholic education. My son turned to me throughout his testimony to say that it was his experience too.
    I remember going into the secondary school to protest against worrying R.E. and to request solid Catholic material. It was very painful to have to do that. One priest new in our parish told me of a 'Battle Axe' who lived in my area. He hadn't realized that was ME! The R.E. teacher complained you see. My eldest daughter lost all her faith by studying Theology at the Sixth Form. But. Thank God the others have not. and I'm pretty sure that my showing how much it mattered to me made a difference. Also, having a great dad who was well read and fervent for his faith. He formed 'Catholic Traditionalist' in the late seventies, having his literature on tables at F.o.O.F's Conferences alongside Rod Pead and Daphne McLoud. The realization was children were NOT taught the right things in the right way in this age where it was needed more than ever. The said school and college have lost almost all Catholic sensibilities since my children's days there.
    A nun turned up last Lenten week of school to give the children 'forgiveness of their sins' by them writing sins down and she burned them. If children grow up with full knowledge of their faith they would not be so in Co-habiting, Divorce situations. None of my six children have any ex school friends practicing, which is a shocking indictment of the abnegation of duty.of our Education Department. I know for a fact that many of our schools are teaching children that same sex relations are ok. That the Bishop in my Diocese disobeys church teachings and definite rules of what is not allowed to be presented. 98% of schoolchildren leave the church when they finish their education. SHAMEFUL!

  15. disintigrate --> disintegrate

  16. Are you confusing the difference between doctrinal and pastoral? I don't know how many times I have read the synod was not convened to consider doctrinal, but rather pastoral considerations regarding marriage and the family. I understand the necessary correlation between pastoral practice and how doctrine is subsequently perceived, however, I am thinking here of St. Alphonsus Liguori's admonition to priests to be "lions in the pulpit" (preach divine revelation, dogma, and doctrine), and "lambs in the confessional" (be understanding of and merciful towards human frailty; always keeping in mind the call to strive for holiness). Considering the questionnaire which was sent out to all dioceses around the world, and the cultural considerations of individual dioceses (western vs. eastern; northern vs. southern hemisphere, etc.), and the reality, at least in the west, that the second largest group of Christians behind Catholics, is lapsed Catholics (demographically larger than Methodists and Baptists, Pentecostals / charismatics, etcetera), it seems to me the synod is attempting to meet people right where they are at, and call them farther along the road to holiness (a pastoral consideration), NOT make reassuring doctrinal statements of perennial truths to those fastidiously concerned with doctrinal purity. Those statements already exist in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the documents of the Magisterium of the Church (e. g. Casti Conubii, Familiars Consortia, etc). And by the way, 'Familiaris Consortio' leaves this very possibility, cohabitation to canonical marriage, for those who are granted a declaration of nullity from a diocesan tribunal in paragraph nos. 81-84. In many cases, this doctrinal hand wringing is a bit overdone.