Yesterday we saw a theologian’s hopes for the synod: that the bishops might be open to the grace of seeing that same-gender marital commitments are sacramentally equal to heterosexual ones. Today, we will look at what one bishop’s hopes for the synod will be. I think you will find his thoughts to be filled with promise for a more just and loving church.
In September, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, published a reflection about the upcoming meeting entitled: Synod on the Family: Expectations of a Diocesan Bishop. I will try to summarize some of what I think are the high points of this essay, but I confess that I will barely scratch the surface of the richness of thought he expresses. At 22 pages, the essay is not overly long, but it is also packed with so many gems that it is hard do it justice in just one blog post. It is also eminently readable, so I highly encourage interested people to read the entire text, which can be found by clicking here.
Bishop Bonny’s reflections are based, in part, on responses that the Belgian bishops received from the laity, whom they consulted on these topics, as the Vatican had requested. Bonny, who will not himself be at the synod, remarked that the responses
“stem . . . from the primary stakeholders: people of today who are committed to work on their relationship, their marriage, their family in the light of the gospel and in connection with the Church.”
In addition to praising the laity, Bonny criticizes the hierarchy, who, he says, did not complete the work of the Second Vatican Council, particularly in the area of marriage and the family. Because of the furor following Humanae Vitae, the birth control encyclical, the idea of conscience “lost its rightful place in a healthy moral-theological reflection.” So it is no surprise, when a few sentences later, he asks himself “What do I expect from the upcoming Synod?”, his answer is direct:
That it will restore conscience to its rightful place in the teaching of the Church in line with Gaudium et Spes.” [Gaudium et Spes is the Vatican II document which described the primacy of conscience in ethical reflection.]
Bonny explains that the Church’s teaching on marriage cannot be reduced to a few general principles or narrow judgments. He observes that we can’t characterize the Church’s view on marriage
“by pointing to one period, one pope, one school of moral theology, one language group, one circle of friends, one ecclesial policy. Every component counts, but no single component can comprise or replace the whole. . . . In short: the teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage and family is to be found in a a broad tradition that has acquired new form and new content down through the centuries. This narrative is incomplete. Every new era confronts the Church with new questions and challenges.”
His greatest concern is with the fact of “how complex the reality of relationship formation, marriage and family life is today.” He offers several poignant examples of the many varied family configurations that exist in the contemporary world. He includes a same-gender couple as one of his examples”
“J and K are are a same-sex couple, married in a registry office. Their parents have never found their choice a simple one, but at home they’re just as welcome as the other children. J and K appreciate the attitude of their parents and family very much They have a problem with the attitude of the Church.”
His recognition of the many different family situations causes him to express another hope for the Synod:
“What are my hopes for the Synod? That it won’t be a Platonic Synod. That it won’t withdraw into the distant safety of doctrinal debate and general norms, but will pay heed to the concrete and complex reality of life.”
Indeed, in a later section of his essay, he observes that the ever-changing social contexts of marriage and family life require the Church to be more willing to develop its view on these topics:
“This ever changing context is not intended in itself to be anti-Christian or anti-Church. It is part and parcel of the historical circumstances in which both the Church and individual believers are expected to exercise their responsibility. It confronts the Church time and again with an important question: how can its teachings and life in its concreteness encounter and question one another in a productive tension? In almost all the responses to Rome’s questionnaire, I have read the expectation that the Church would also recognise what is good and valuable in other forms of partnership, forms other than traditional marriage. I consider such a hope to be justified.”
This spirit of dialogue is evident in the seventh section of the essay, entitled “The Proclamation of the Gospel. ” After criticizing church leaders for being too defensive against outside influences, he turns to Jesus as the model for welcome and conversation:
“Jesus opened his heart and his arms to people whoever they were and whatever their experience in life. There were no walls or boundaries around his mercy and compassion. . . . He entered into dialogue with unexpected dialogue partners and accepted invitations to dine with people of questionable character. He wasn’t particular or exclusive in his choice of friends or table companions, not even in his choice of apostles.These are the tracks on which Jesus placed Church. In its relationship with the world and the people who live in it, the Church should exhibit the same openness and compassion as its founder.”
In his conclusion, Bonny offers a hope that the Synod will institute continued conversation among hierarchy, laity, and many other experts:
“The Synod would be least beneficial in my opinion if it were to draw a few practical conclusions in haste. It would be better advised to initiate a differentiated process in which as many people as possible consider themselves interested parties: bishops, moral theologians, canonists, pastors, academics and politicians, and particularly the married couples and families who are at the focus of the Synod.”
Here’s just quick review of the topics I covered: praise for the expertise of the laity, promotion of the idea of conscience, the need for the Church to develop its teaching, recognition that family life is complex, recognition that committed relationships other than heterosexual marriage are holy, using Jesus’ ministry as a model for outreach to the marginalized. Few bishops tackle even one of those topics, let alone all of them. And the remainder of the document examines further ones: collegiality, how the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI squashed theological discussion, natural law, the sense of the faithful, to name a few.
I hope that enough Synod participants have read Bishop Bonny’s reflection, and that they are open to the wisdom it contains.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
The Tablet: Belgian bishop urges real dialogue at Synod