Sounding a Clear Trumpet on the Gospel of the Family

St. Paul says that if soldiers are being summoned to battle, it's key that they hear the call of a clear and unambiguous trumpet (1 Cor 14:8).

During the recently concluded Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization -- convened to try to defend and strengthen the family in the midst of a variety of conceptual, legal and moral assaults -- what seemed to be coming from the Vatican, however, was mainly cacophony, confusion, controversy and chaos.

Most of the commotion, both inside and outside the Synod, came from the astonishingly imprudent decision on the part of the Synod's general secretariat to publish its much-flawed interim report. This draft "relatio" created erroneous impressions of the bishops' actual deliberations, provoking false expectations among those hoping for revolutionary change in the approach to those who are divorced-and-remarried, in non-sacramental civil marriages, cohabitating, using contraception or involved in same-sex relationships -- and among others alarm that the Church was abandoning the deposit of faith on marriage, the Eucharist, Confession, sin and its consequences.

There's a reason why first drafts of papal encyclicals, presidential State of the Union addresses, or Supreme Court decisions aren't released to the general public: because they may change drastically between the first draft and the final version. In the case of the "relatio," that's exactly what happened as the majority of bishops pushed for massive revisions of a document they said did not represent the synod's consensus on some of the more culturally controversial issues.

In his powerful address at the end of the Synod, Pope Francis said that he would have been "worried and saddened" if there had not been such "animated" discussions. But such vigorous debates would have been much more effectively carried in the Synod chambers than filtered selectively through the media.

The upshot of the mayhem coming out of the Synod was to mangle the Church's trumpet: If bishops and cardinals are in open disagreement about Church teaching and practice with regard to today's hot button moral issues -- as the impression was given -- how can the faithful be expected to know the truth, live it and defend it with confidence?

The chaotic beginning to the two-year Synod process was not an effective expression of the missionary transformation of the Church that Pope Francis has been laboring to bring about. The draft "relatio" failed to implement five of Pope Francis' most clearly articulated principles of evangelization.

First, the Church must begin with preaching the "kerygma" rather than seem to be consumed about what Pope Francis calls the "secondary aspects of the faith." In the case of the family, the kerygma is that Jesus loves us, saves us, and is living beside us to enlighten, strengthen and free us, especially through his presence in a sacramental marriage. That message wasn't heard, however, because some Synod fathers were obsessed with pushing a new openness on issues of cohabitation, communion for those divorced-and-remarried, and same-sex relationships.

Second, the Church is meant to be a field hospital in battle seeking to heal the most pressing and life-threatening wounds. Many of the deepest wounds in families, marriages and individuals today have come from the damage wrought by the sexual revolution with its countless casualties of broken hearts, broken marriages, broken families, and wounded souls. Instead of addressing the causes of these lesions, however, the interim report sought to find positive elements in them with what Pope Francis seemed to be describing in his concluding address as a "deceptive mercy [that] binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them, that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots."

Third, the Church needs to take on the smell of the sheep. The Synod did a good job in reaching out to the lost sheep who don't practice the faith with regard to sexual morality. But it wasn't nearly as effective in considering the genuine needs of sheep in the fold like abandoned spouses who have remained faithful to their marital promises, homosexuals who want help in living chastely, divorced-and-remarried Catholics who faithfully abstain from receiving Holy Communion out of reverence for Christ and his teachings, and all those families battling against cultural wolves to conform to the sexual revolution rather than to Revelation.

Fourth, the Church must imitate Jesus' method in Emmaus entering into peoples' conversations as they head into darkness away from Jerusalem. We must respond, as Jesus did, with the light of faith, with the law and the prophets, and with hearts on fire that could warm their hearts and lead them eventually back to Jerusalem and the faith it symbolizes. The draft entered into modern situations, but without much light of Scripture or of the Holy Spirit's guiding the Church through centuries, and without the merciful warmth Jesus himself showed in not condemning the adulterous woman but also calling her to go and sin no more (Jn 8:11).

Lastly, the Church must take risks and be willing to make a dirty mess to bring the Gospel to the peripheries. But that work implies also taking the bold pastoral risk of challenging people to make the return journey, accompanying them from disorder to order, from darkness to light, from wounds to health, and from sin to sanctity.

The final report of the Synod, followed by Pope Francis' concluding address, sought to bring peace and lucidity back after a disturbing and confusing fortnight that, rather than facilitating the work of evangelization, seemed initially to treat the teachings of the Gospel on moral and family life as if they weren't part of the good news. The year that awaits the resumption of the Synod is an occasion to tune the Church's trumpet so that it resonate loudly, clearly, urgently, emphatically and beautifully.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.