The Synod's Right Turn
On the night before assembling a Synod of bishops on the family in Rome earlier this month, Pope Francis prayed for "a sincere, open and fraternal exchange of views, that it might lead us to take pastoral responsibility for the questions that this changing time brings with it."
If the media frenzy surrounding a recent report of what the bishops have discussed thus far is any indication, the pope got what he prayed for -- and then some.
Cardinals clashed some time before the Synod even began, and haven't let up. An official summary of the debate held behind closed doors released earlier this week suggests that a profound change in tone might be afoot in Rome. One veteran of Vatican reporting called it a "pastoral earthquake."
But there is something conveniently missing from too many of the media reports.
Yes, the document reports that some Synodal Fathers called for a "new sensitivity" and deliberated the "possibility of recognizing positive elements" of "imperfect" unions, such as remarried and cohabitating couples. And there is that section where the bishops admit there are same-sex relationships "in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners."
And this "revolutionary change" in language, as Fr. James Martin declared in a post for America, did cause some in the traditional wing of the Catholic Church to recoil. Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa said that the report is "not a true message" and that it stakes out "a position that is virtually irredeemable."
But one direction bishops seem to be going might not be completely hopeless. Synodal Fathers appear to know precisely what's to blame for the decline of marriage in the West.
The bishops warn that "the number of divorces is growing and it is not rare to encounter cases in which decisions are taken solely on the basis of economic factors." Prelates also see that, amid skyrocketing debt, "the decline in population," brought about by contraception and abortion, "risks leading to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future."
As for religious liberty, the bishops remind governments it is not "acceptable that pressure be brought to bear on pastors or that international bodies make financial aid dependent on the introduction of regulations inspired by gender ideology."
The "most difficult test for families," bishops conclude, is "a general sensation of impotence in relation to the socio-economic situation that often ends up crushing them." The churchmen finger "heavy taxation" as one culprit "that certainly does not encourage young people to marriage."
The bishops might be onto something when they seem to say bigger governments mean smaller families. Many European countries don't have a Jeffersonian "wall" dividing church and state -- so much so that tithing is the law in Germany. Every registered member of a church or synagogue in the Deutschland (and elsewhere in Europe) must pay a steep tax to finance church expenses including minister salaries and church-run social services. Cue the precipitous exodus from the pews.
Working women in the United States are likewise discouraged from marrying because of the so-called "marriage penalty" in the tax code. If a spouse earns the same or more than the other, the couple would pay significantly more to Uncle Sam if they filed jointly. Married couples who together make over $60,040 a year are also ineligible for ObamaCare subsidies. Whereas, if they simply cohabitated, they would then qualify for government health insurance. Marriage becomes a "luxury," the bishops say, because instead of incentivizing couples to tie the knot, Washington taxes them.
Alas, after this week's uproar, the Vatican maintained that this mid-term report is only a "working document," and it should be clear that no doctrinal changes are being proposed. No report or statement has teaching authority until it is issued by the pope, which won't come until next year, after even more bishops get together and debate again.
But a consensus about the harmful effects of government intrusion on the family is much-needed grace for a Church whose liberty is under attack at home and abroad.